Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Islands and Highlands 2 - The Farnes

Pulling into the harbour car park at Seahouses on the Northumberland coast proved a relief on two counts. First a chance to stretch my legs and get some fresh sea air after the long drive from South Wales via a 2.5 hour sleep in Rotherham on the way up. More important was the sight of good weather boding well for a run out to the Farne Isalnds. Buoyed by the Red Bull now flowing through my veins life was looking good.
This hadn't been the plan. I knew I wasn't going to get away early on the Friday night, so I'd decided to tootle my way up on Saturday, then out to the islands on Sunday and Monday. However Chris Grady had headed up on Thursday and relayed the news that the boatmen were wondering about the prospects of getting out over the weekend given the predicted winds. The forecast for Saturday looked ok, hence the overnight run, via Kay's folks.
Historically the Farnes are perhaps best known as the site of the lighthouse where Grace Darling rowed her boat to save some drowning sailors. There's still a lighthouse there, but now the islands seem to make the news because of the opportunities they offer for superb views of nesting seabirds.
Visits are controlled so that one island (Staple) is open in the morning and then Inner Farne in the afternoon, the aim being to minimise the disturbance to the birds. Boat trips include 'all day' trips to both islands, and these were the ones we went for - along with all the other birding paparazzi. If one of those boats went down the insurers would have to bump up the premiums to cover all those lenses.
Although the islands are busier now than when I last went some years ago they still offer a brilliant experience. You get off the boat on Staple straight into a puffin roost, whereas on Inner Farne it's the fun of being dive-bombed by arctic terns, whilst their youngsters scrabble around your feet.
You can get caught up in this and almost neglect the other birds - shags, guillemots, razorbills, sandwich terns, kittiwakes - but you shouldn't, despite the desire to just get that decent puffin flight shot (and no I didn't get it!). Many people missed the ringed plover nesting right next to the path near the jetty, walking straight past - too much to see to be able to look.
Day 2 saw the wind pick up as expected so we were diverted to a landbound day - more of that to come - but we did get out again on the Monday, albeit with a delayed landing on Staple, round the back door, and a heavier dose of cloud.
As I said in the first of these posts I won't laden the blog with dozens of pictures - you can look at the image galleries via the link on the right, but I've included a few more to whet your appetite.

Points of note:
- seabirds seem to have vividly coloured oral mucous membranes (ooh, err missus). Orange for razorbills, red for kittiwakes, yellow for puffins. Why?

- puffins can hold multiple fish like sandeels at the one time. you can see how the jaw hinge is wide to allow for this, but how do they catch them all?

- the puffins run the gauntlet of black-headed or lesser black backed gulls when they come in with their catch, being mobbed or even unceremoniously dumped upside down, but it was amazing how many kept most if not all their catch despite this. Sometimes they would just dive into the nearest burrow to appear cautiously a few minutes later, check the coast was clear and sprint to their own.

- Shags are pretty in close up. Their chicks are from your nightmares!

- terns are fun to watch but tricky to get lit well (must buy a flash) - and I do wish there was some microchip device that prevented the bling having to be used. It really spoils the line of those legs, and I can't yet bring myself to start trying to photoshop the rings out.
- watch where you sit on the boat when the weather is choppy. On our second trip out we were threequarters of the way out when a wave broke fully over a couple on the back corner of the boat. They only had light rain gear on and were pretty soggy. Heading from Staple to Inner Farne they stayed in the same spot - at least they were heading in the opposite direction. Sadly the sea is a fickle master, and incredibly the same thing happened to the same couple in the same spot. No-one else, just them. On the final leg, the trip back to Seahouses they shifted to the other side. You've guessed it. Another drenching, and I got a fit of the giggles. Like a kid. Couldn't stop. They didn't see, fortunately, but I just couldn't help it. Thank God the wind and spray meant my hood was up and my head tucked down. [In the unlikely event you're reading this I'm sorry, although I have to say you both took the drenchings surprisingly well. But seriously you must have pissed off Neptune in a big way some time in the past].
Last point aside - go there. It's great, even if you're not into photography. That's my say on the Farnes over. And I even resisted the temptation to mention the auks and Mordor.

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