A wonderful trip to the Farne Islands

With the day dawning bright and breezy, Deb and I headed down to the harbour at Seahouses to Billy Shiel’s boat trip. Billy Shiel’s trips do a Day Trip… 2 hours on Staple Island and 2 hours on Inner Farne, with the boat going close to the islands and seals on the way. It is the perfect trip if you want to maximise your photographic opportunities and you want to get close encounters with a wide range of species.

We have both been to the Farnes before, but I have not been for about 5 years and my photography has improved considerably since then. I was looking forward to photographing lots of species and to try to get some good flight shots of puffins, in particular.

Leaving at 9.30am, we headed out on a choppy sea towards Staple Island, There are no facilities on this rocky outcrop and the weather can change quickly. We had come well equipped with warm clothes and waterproofs. The boat took us close to some of the seal colonies on the way in and we were able to get some good shots from the boat… rather difficult as it rocks around somewhat!

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As we got closer to Staple Island, I was just astounded at the sheer number of birds, both on the cliffs and in the sea and the air was fragrant with guano…… (Sea bird poo!) It is really a truly sensory experience…. the views are incredible, the air filled with constant calls and the pungent smell in the air.

When you land on Staple Island, you are not only blown away by the sheer numbers of birds, but their proximity to the paths, which are roped off to avoid too many conflicts with the residents! The birds are well used to humans so they provide quite incredible opportunities for photography. At some instances, they are literally the edge of the path and you have to keep an eye you don’t actually tread on them!

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The puffins have to be the main attraction and there were simply hundreds, many literally a metre fro the path. In fact, I sometimes had to move backwards to ensure I could focus on them with my 100-400mm lens. They covered the rock face behind us in the photo below….

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Here are some unprocessed images of some of the many puffins on the island….

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Puffins are not the only species around to photograph though…. lots of shags, who are one of the first to have their young. Most were on eggs, but some already had chicks.

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Then add to the mix, guilliimot (including some bridled guillimot with the white line around their eye), razorbill, fulmar, kittiwake and a selection of gulls and you will see why it is a photographer’s dream!

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The whole area of Staple Island is rock, with a small hillock of soils and rough grass where the puffins next and then little crevices where sea campion and other plants miraculously seem to be able to survive. Tucked in, within the many little crevices were Eider females, on eggs. They are so incredibly difficult to spot as their camouflage and the fact that they stay completely still, means that many would simply tread on them if the areas were not roped off or marked with a stick and a small flag. One such female was in a beautiful spot, tucked up in a bed of foliage, with lichen-clad rock behind her. I put my 10-20mm wide angle lens near her and the remote cable. This meant I could reach in and place the camera and then move away to fire the shot. Being so used to human proximity, she did not budge. There were a couple of leaves and bits I would have loved to clear for a better shot, but of course, did not want to disturb her, so left them. I took about 8 shots and this one was my favourite…. a wide angle lens can give you a whole different feel to a photo and it worked well for this beautiful mother-to-be.

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One of my aims, on this visit, had been to photograph the puffins in flight as well. My flight photography has been improving as I have practised on lots of different species and the Canon 7D MrkII is good at locking on to the subject and the expanded focus point can be useful to track moving subjects. That technique did not work so well in the Farnes as there were literally so many flying at once! I tried a variety of techniques and managed to get some shots I was pleased with. These are not processed yet, as I only have my laptop… so I should be able to tweak levels a bit and improve some of these once back at home.

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Amazingly quickly, our 2 hours was up and we headed back to the jetty to catch the boat onto Inner Farne. This island is very different (it has some basic facilities for a start!!) and the terns are what dominate the large, flat areas of ground and the sandy beach areas. The arctic terns choose to sit all along the paths (some right ON the path) and they are highly territorial, dive bombing you as you walk up the path… fine, as long as you have a hat on!

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Also nesting at the moment are the sandwich terns, but those were a little further away.

Once again, the eiders were  hidden in all sorts of positions.. some quite obvious, some completely hidden as the foliage grew up around their chosen nest site. This individual was right on the edge of the path and I used the wide angle lens again to get the island’s buildings in the background…

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Again, some may say that, in an ideal world, the grass in the foreground would  be better removed for the image, but firstly I like my images to show what the setting really was like and secondly, your subject should always come first and this beautiful Eider was happy for me to put my camera close to her, but I would not have wanted to start fiddling around.

These eiders totally captivated me! Surrounded by all sorts of seabirds, it was the eider I kept finding myself wanting to photograph. As I said, the females on eggs were dotted all over, but the males were out on the edges… sometimes on the rocky shoreline and sometimes on the edges of the colonies of noisy terns. I just love their colours and poise…

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I took lots of images and I daresay you swill see more over the coming days, as I process them.

Just as we were heading back toward the jetty, I spotted a female moving through the grass areas and above her hovered an ominous looking black-backed gull. Trailing behind this eider were 4 small ducklings… only a day or so old I would think. To a large gull, an eider duckling is an easy meal. We watched as this female protected her precious brood under her wings, raising her head to ward off the gull as he swopped low lover them in the open.

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Slowly, she made her way down to the rocks, where a few fresh water pools had formed. She successfully held the gull at bay and, on reaching the pool, the ducklings were less obvious and the gull lost interest. We spent a lovely time watching these tiny ducklings drinking and bathing. It was one of the highlights of my trip.

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Time had past all too quickly and it was time to board the ‘Glad Tidings’ and head back to Seahouses Harbour after a truly wonderful day! If you love birds and photography, I cannot think of a better place to spend a day if the weather is fair. Just come prepared as it can be sunny at Seahouses and a different picture several miles out on these exposed islands. The Farne Islands are a must for all wildlife enthusiasts!