The Farne Islands are a cluster of flat-topped rocks protruding just above the skin of the North Sea a few miles off the coast of Northumberland. So close to the surface of the waves are they that they barely make an impression against the horizon and some of the islets only get to feel the wind on their kelp-coated shores at low tide. Yet, they are just high enough to provide many thousands of seabirds with the narrow ledges they need to breed each year and the summertime spectacle of all these clouds of rushing bodies making raucous noises and pungent odours is one never forgotten.
My friend John and I made the long journey up the M1 on Saturday morning to make our second visit to these celebrated islands, as well as our first visit to Coquet Island – a small circle of rock a bit further south which is the main UK breeding site for Roseate Terns; a pretty but rare seabird that neither of us had ever seen before. Although landing on Coquet is prohibited, a boat tour from the town of Amble sails around the island and gets close enough to view the many terns, Puffins and Fulmars that nest there.
After about seven hours on the road we finally found ourselves standing on the quay at Seahouses, in unexpected warm sunshine, looking at some female Eiders floating about with their ducklings in the harbour. The boat trip is one of increasing excitement; the further from the coast we got the more birds began popping up on the sea around us and fluttering overhead – a couple of Guillemots bobbing on the swell started things off, then a passing Fulmar, then our first Puffins shooting by on whirring wings with glinting fish in their bright orange bills.
By the time we had reached the islands the surface of the sea was swarming with Guillemots and Puffins and the air was thick with terns, gulls and more auks. Dozing rotund Grey Seals soaked up the sun on beds of seaweed in amusing poses. The boat sidled up close to the guano splattered cliffs allowing great views of nesting Shags, Kittiwakes, Guillemots by the thousand and a few Razorbills. It’s all a bit overwhelming with your senses overloaded on all sides, it was hard to decide where to look and what to focus on with such a bewildering amount of birds.
It was good to get off the cramped boat and have a walk around the largest island – Inner Farne – which has a large colony of Arctic Terns. These swallows of the sea are at once stunningly beautiful, with blood-red bills and legs contrasting with a slender white and grey body, and impressive, with the knowledge that they migrate each year from pole to pole. They are also astonishingly tame, making their nests immediately next to or even on the paths, as well as extremely protective of their nests – John and I both had our heads enthusiastically attacked and these birds don’t pull their punches, as we can now testify.
A female Eider was sitting tight on her comfy nest right next to the path and we also came across a pair of Rock Pipits – the male trilling away and the female carrying a beak-full of food to their hidden nest. The birds seem to like nesting in discrete sections; with the Arctic Terns congregating around the old church & lighthouse, then the Puffins were in rabbit burrows on the north side and the Sandwich Terns were all together in the centre of the island. The auks, Shags and Kittiwakes were of course confined to the cliff ledges and we had unparalleled views of these charismatic species on their nests, most with eggs but some of the Shags had hideously ugly chicks.
After those few hours of retching at the smell of guano and gleefully looking at Razorbills only inches away we headed back to shore. As we drove through the quiet country lanes to our accommodation we suddenly passed over a beautiful slow-flowing river, the Coquet. We got out of the car and walked onto the bridge, it was idyllic, but best of all it was alive with birdlife. Two Grey Wagtails bobbed about, a female Goosander shepherded her six young away from us, a Dipper sat still on a rock, a Mallard with her large brood swam onto the rocky shore, a Grey Heron flew up into the overhanging trees and a Cormorant slipped underwater in search of fish. Lovely.
The next morning, after a night in a wonderfully simple, traditional drinking inn, we had a few hours before the boat trip to Coquet Island so we made a quick trip to some coastal nature reserves. Druridge Country Park was very pleasant and amongst the expected waterside species we were delighted to see several Tree Sparrows in the shrubs around the car park – a bird very hard to see down south these days. We wandered along the coast path to a large lagoon that forms East Chevington nature reserve; which held Sandwich, Common and Arctic Terns as well as lots of Sedge Warblers and Reed Buntings.
It was here that we had an exciting surprise as we walked back towards the car alongside a dense area of vegetation. A sound came to my ears which was something like the churr of a Nightjar but quieter, very high pitched and rapid, with a metallic hint to it. I knew instantly what it was yet I could hardly believe it, I dared not say what it was out loud in case I was wrong or it vanished for good; I just grabbed John’s arm, signaled him to listen and pointed in the direction of the sound. It was hard to hear because of the breeze, but John managed to get onto it and I could finally blurt out “Grasshopper Warbler!”. Even more amazingly, I managed to spot the singing male perched sort of in the open, mouth open and tail quivering as he sang his strange, hypnotic tune. This was the first ‘gropper’ I’ve seen in the UK and the best view I’ve ever had of this species, a real highlight of the trip.
The boat trip around Coquet Island was only an hour; but we still had excellent views of loads of seals bobbing in the sea around the boat and all the Puffins, Fulmars, Arctic and Sandwich Terns nesting on this small blob of rock in the North Sea. The best bit, and all too brief, was of course seeing my first ever Roseate Terns – with birds perched both on their nestboxes and on the rocky shore in clear view from the boat. These are one of the prettiest terns; with black bills that have a red base, short red legs, very pale grey upperwings, stunning white everywhere else with a delicate rose blush to the breast and extremely long tail streamers.
We decided to break up the long journey home with a stop in Yorkshire, having seen the RSPB’s St Aidan’s reserve, near Leeds, on Springwatch last week and we fancied trying to see the breeding Black-necked Grebes they have there. We got there at 4pm and it was still really hot and sunny, the reserve was impressively large, the open-cast mine that used to be here must have been enormous, so it’s really good to see it given over to nature. One of the first birds we saw was one of the Kestrels that are breeding in the gigantic digging machine that site on the edge of the site, a monument to the areas industrial past.
We headed straight for the reedbed, but a quick look into one of the large lakes on the way produced a gorgeous summer-plumaged Black Tern that had apparently been present all day – it actually flew low right over our heads and was one of the best views I’ve had of this scarce species. Almost immediately after the tern had flown off we heard a Bittern ‘booming’ from the reeds, a hard to describe sound that is incredibly low frequency and can be heard from a considerable distance away. Even better than that was briefly seeing one of these secretive herons as it flew up from the edge of a channel and into the centre of the reedbed, mobbed by gulls as it went – smashing!
Although the reserve was buzzing with breeding Black-headed Gulls, Common Terns, Pochards, Gadwall, Tufted Ducks, Great Crested Grebes and Reed Warblers amongst many other things – we didn’t see any Black-necked Grebes. This was probably down to bad timing, as they are likely deep in the reeds at the moment either sitting on eggs or with new chicks. Definitely a place that I would like to re-visit, as well as the nearby Fairburn Ings reserve which has breeding Spoonbills!
So, a crammed birding weekend with a few firsts and plenty of great memories of fantastic experiences, it was also quite nice to have a bit more of a poke about Northumberland than I’ve previously managed; what I saw looked great and a longer visit in the future would be very nice. If anyone cares, I am now up to 185 species for the year – only 35 species left to reach my goal of 220 for 2018, I say ‘only’ but at the moment that seems like an awful lot!