Jane and I had been a little disappointed only to get one puffin subject willing enough to show himself close up on the Isle of May last month, so we hatched a plan to visit the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland. Another friend Lindsay and I had hoped to meet up there to watch seals pupping back in 2010, but with one thing and another it didn't happen, although that plan hasn't been altogether shelved.
This is the wrong month for seal pupping though, and with cautious glances at the weather forecast, we arranged to take Friday off, booked ahead for the 6-hour photographers' trip and made an early start down to Seahouses, arriving with about an hour to spare prior to the 9.30am sailing. As we wandered around the harbour, a large number of people also gathered, many in two photographer-led groups. There were so many people that two boats arrived to take us over firstly to Staple Island in the Outer Farne Islands, and then Inner Farne predictably enough in the Inner Farne Islands. It was hazy with the promise of sun, and perfectly warm.
Prior to the first landing, saw a few gannets fly past and had plenty of opportunity to see other seabirds on outcrops of rocks and in the water - cormorants, guillemots, puffins, razorbills, eider ducks, etc. We also passed rocks where grey seals were making the most of the low tide to bask; as the tide rises, some of the rocks are covered.
Landing on Staple Island, we were immediately surrounded by birds. The National Trust staff greeted us and we informed that just one puffin had been spotted carrying sand eels in its bill, meaning a puffling had hatched - early compared with the other chicks this year, but very late in general terms, thanks to the late spring. We were given 2 and a half hours in which to wander around which was just about the right timescale. Everyone was of like mind and tripods attached to people were soon wandering around, then congregating by the puffin burrows. In contrast to our solitary Isle of May puffin, there were countless hundreds of them here, although the guillemots must surely have been the most plentiful species. The sun came out and I debated whether to put on the polarizer filters, but in the event kept them off all day. Alas, having bought my tripod to use with the big 400mm and 28-300mm lenses, I didn't have the right screw fitting on the gimbal head, so all the shots are unpolarized and handheld.
Because it was dry, it was easy to walk around over the rocks which form the main plateau of Staple Island. The nests were roped off, although the human visitors could stand within close proximity of the birds who appear to be used to the added crowds. The aforementioned guillemots, razorbills and puffins were easy to spot; with them were shags, herring gulls, kittiwakes, a pair of rock pipits, fulmars and even a couple of pigeons. As the island is small, it didn't take long to wander round, although I ended up trying to capture puffins on the wing - their orange feet and pre-landing hover are so endearing. Easier said than done, but I did get one or two shots.
On then to Inner Farne, former home to both St Cuthbert and much later, Grace Darling. We had been warned to bring hats as this is where the Arctic terns nest, and they nest right beside the path. They were naturally very upset at being disturbed by so many visitors and repeatedly attacked everyone. My New Zealand "squashy" hat was ideal in this respect as although I had one or two aerial attacks from the feet, it easily protected me, and I was lucky to escape both splats and pecks on the arm, which many others seemed to receive. Having decided not to bring my leki poles in favour of the as-yet-unused tripod due to weight restrictions, I took the cue from another visitor and inverted it outside my rucksack which enabled me to extend one of the legs like a large antenna behind me. It worked perfectly! Apparently they are twice as aggressive when the chicks hatch, but I don't blame them.
In addition to the other birds we'd seen on Staple Island, here there were also common terns, sandwich terns, black-headed gulls, apparently a pair of roseate terns (unseen by me) and a swallow which I did see. It had a mate, but I only saw the one. Towards the end of the visit, someone had spotted a puffin in trouble by a little pond on which there were eider ducks and their chicks. The ranger caught it, whereupon it understandably bit its hand. He felt it might have been stung by all the nettles which had affected it, but it was time to go at this point, so we left it in capable hands.
On waiting at the harbour for the boats, two final visitors awaited us - a sleepy 3-4 year old male grey seal, and a ringed plover.
Time to leave those Arctic terns in peace.