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offer some great opportunities for the bird photographer between May and July. Any photographer visiting from overseas during this period can be virtually guaranteed some wonderful sea bird images and should aim to include one of the numerous sites on their itinerary. I thought I would put together a brief guide to provide some background for visitors on a very special archipelago off North East England, the Farne Islands.
Getting there There are numerous boat day trips out to visit the Farne Islands from the small port of Seahouses. These include an all day photographic trip although the timings tends to be outside the best hours of light as they usually run from about 9.30am through to 4:30pm which gives about 2 hours on both Staple and Inner Farne Islands. This is normally combined and a small cruise around the low cliff edges of the various islands and to one of the grey seal colonies.
Sailing time out to the islands is around 30 minutes. Other arrangements are possible and it would be best to discuss any special requirements with the various boat operators which can be found with a quick Google search. During my visits I have always arrived mid-afternoon on the previous day and stayed overnight as there are a few birds worth photographing in and around Seahouses before you have even stepped on to a boat. Kit It pays to have a variety of lenses with you including some of shorter focal lengths as you will be having some very close seabird encounters. I usually take a 500mm, 70-200mm and 24-70mm. It is also worthwhile having a teleconvertor in the bag, although you probably will not be using it, and some extension tubes. The other main requirement is memory cards and plenty of them as you will be amazed how many photos you can take on trip out to the islands. There is no shelter on the islands so be prepared for the best the UK weather can throw at you in terms of sun, wind and rain. One potential problem can be fog and mist that can be present during early parts of the summer season due to the cold North Sea temperatures which does not make for great photography! On Inner Farne Island you have to walk through a colony of Arctic Terns so I would strongly advise on a sturdy hat to repel the repeated attacks which can draw blood for the unprotected. Also do not forget your food and drink as you will be out there all day.
Birds The main species that can be photographed are Seahouses Eider Duck, Ringed Plover, Rock Pipit, Kittiwake, various gulls, Fulmar and Sand Martin Staple Island Guillemot, Razorbill, Shag, Fulmar, Kittiwake Puffins, Lesser Black Back Gulls Inner Farne Island Puffins, Arctic Terns, Sandwich Terns, Kittiwake, Guillemot, Razorbill, Shag, Fulmar, Eider A trip later in the ‘season’ (in July) will provide the opportunity to photograph young birds. The only drawback of a visit at this time is that there an unlikely to be any drake eider in Seahouses harbour and those that are present will be eclipse plumage. Tactics and tips Seahouses Seahouses is an amazing place to photograph Eider in the harbour. Within the harbour walls which there is a small sandy beach and seaweed covered rocky peninsula which tend to be the most productive areas. A visit in May or June will still find the drakes in good plumage. There are often a small group of the drab brown ducklings around at this time as well. The Eider are very accustomed to visitors and will readily come to bread allowing very close encounters and will even feed out of your hands. So I would strongly suggest buying a loak or two of bread before heading to the harbour. Rock Pipit and Ringed Plover can also be found on the beach, amongst the roosting Eider.
If you follow the coast path south away from the harbour you find yourself up on low cliff where there are further chances to photograph Rock Pipit, nesting Kittiwake and Fulmar in flight. Sand Martins can also be found nesting in the cliff and will provide a good challenge to even the most seasoned Bird in flight photographer.
Boat journey You will pass a good number of birds on the journey out to the islands. These will either be flying past the boat, on the water or taking off from the sea as the boat approaches. This tends to be mainly guillemots and puffins. The boat will also pause briefly around low bird covered island cliffs and by the grey seal colony. Both can provide some interesting photographs. Taking photographs from the boat can be awkward as they are often crowded. I would suggest trying to get a seat on the sides of the boat and mounting your longest lens on the camera before boarding as you will find this most useful while at sea.
Staple Island You will find it a little overwhelming when you land on the first island by the sheer numbers of birds, so take a deep breath. I usually try and concentrate on a particular species. There are some great opportunities for photography just up from the landing area on Staple Island for nesting Fulmar, Shag and Puffin. If you are interested in puffin flight photos then the best tactic is to look for their ‘flight lines‘, as they will follow regular routes returning from the sea and position yourself near one. They fly in fast but in fairly straight lines so can be tracked in from distance for best results.
You are restricted to marked paths and small open areas on Staple Islands but of course the birds don’t know that and will nest right next to the access routes. If you follow the path off to the right then there is great opportunities for puffin, shag, kittiwake and a large area densely packed with guillemots with marauding gulls looking for unguarded young overhead. Small groups of puffins and razorbill can be found along the cliff edge in close proximity to the path.
Inner Farne Island As you land on Inner Farne Island you will be bombarded by Arctic Terns for the first 200m of path up on to the island. They will sit on the posts demarking the path and if your eyes meet with a bird then it will launch itself with squawking attack from close range. This is an experience you are unlikely to forget. The terns will repeatedly dive bomb your head and it is not uncommon to have one of the beautiful birds sat on the essential hat. Many visitors hurry through this area as it can be quite unnerving but it can produce some great images with a wide angle lens.
This is also not an area to wear your best clothing! If you are arriving in the late season, please watch your step as there will a lot of tiny terns wandering out on to the path. There is a lichen cover dry stone wall to your right in this area which provides a good setting for portraits of perched birds.
The path splits towards the end of the Arctic Tern colony to form a circular route around the island via the lighthouse at the far end. I usually take the path going straight ahead and to the left there is usually a large colony of Sandwich Terns. These will require a long lens but some good flight images can be had of birds returning with sandeels and going in to land back at the colony. As you follow the path up to the lighthouse, large numbers of puffins will usually be flying across the path. The next area to stop is the cliff to the left of the light house and here you are guaranteed to be within almost touching distance of nesting shag, razorbill and kittiwake.
The area around to the right of the lighthouse is a great area for puffin flight photos as they will usually be coming in to land at the cliff edge at reasonably close range. Large numbers of puffins in flight, on the ground and popping in and out of nesting burrows will be found all around the remaining footpath as it returns back towards the Arctic Tern colony and landing stage.
You will be amazed how quickly the 1.5 to 2 hour landing on each island passes. On Inner Farne Island I often find myself so absorbed that I have only reached the Sandwich Tern colony with only 30 minutes remaining!
To sum up, a visit to Seahouses and the Farnes Islands is a wonderful seabird experience for the bird photographer where very close encounters and some great photo opportunities are guaranteed. I can say this with such confidence that I would eat my tern chewed and guano splattered hat if you don’t come away with memory cards packed with images and wonderful memories.