The Farne Isles

An absolute must for me when I go to the northeast of England is a boat trip to the Farne Islands. The Farnes are a group of small low islands lying a couple of miles off the coast between Bamburgh and Seahouses.

The Farne Islands from the Northumberland coast

The islands were immortalised in 1838 by the heroic actions of Grace Darling, the 23 year old daughter of the Longstone lighthouse keeper. When a shipwreck was spotted during a North Sea storm on Big Harcar, a small rocky island nearby, Grace and her father crewed a 21 foot rowing boat to rescue the stranded passengers from the SS Forfarshire. Grace was 23 at the time of the rescue, which she survived only to be carried off by tuberculosis 3 years later. Which seems downright unfair to me.


The Longstone lighthouse from where the Darlings’ rescue mission was launched

The islands are currently owned by the National Trust and they are famous for enormous numbers of seabirds including guillemots (Uria aalge, Dansk: lomvie), razorbills (Alca torda, Dansk: alk), kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla, Dansk: ride), puffins (Fratercula arctica, Dansk: lunde), terns, cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo, Dansk: skarv), shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis, Dansk: topskarv) and assorted gulls. During the breeding season there are many tens of thousands of numerous species nesting there.


The shags on the Farnes were very relaxed and this one let me approach within 15 feet or so and didn’t seem remotely perturbed. Its yellow mandible and green eye are very distinctive. A few metres along the cliff top were this pair of downy youngsters :

…busy preening out the down and nurturing the nascent flight feathers. It’s remarkable how in such a short space of time nature provides these young fishermen with a full set of plumage capable of withstanding the rigours of these semi-aquatic hunters underwater feeding technique.

There were one or two turnstone patrolling the rocky shorelines of the islands but the vast majority of the seabirds were completely absent. However, one which did make numerous welcome appearances throughout the course of our trip was the gannet (Morus bassanus, Dansk: sule). They are our largest seabird and can be spotted from afar due to the titanium whiteness of their plumage and their black wingtips. They seemed to be simply passing through that day, all heading north, and none of them paused to dive for fish, which was a pity because it’s spectacular to watch. They were predominantly in family groups of 3-6 birds with adults and patchy darker coloured youngsters.


An adult gannet resplendent in its brilliant white plumage and pale yellow head


…and a family group of three being led by a dark coloured juvenile

The other creature for which the Farne Islands is renowned is the seal. Specifically the  Atlantic grey seal. All the islands I saw had large groups of them consisting of territory conscious bulls and numerous smaller females and calves. The bulls were highly vocal, rearing up into threatening postures to intimidate any others that unwisely ventured too close. No more physical aggression was required but from the face of the male below they are quite capable of a proper fight resulting in scar tissue. Although I imagine that is most likely to happen during the more serious business of a competition for the attentions of the ladies.


A big bull Atlantic grey seal basking in calm waters
The seal on the right is a female minding her calf on the left
And another female launching herself into the sea from the rocks
Several members of a bigger group basking in the sunshine

The rocks and the water was full of seals, most were simply basking in the sunshine, the females were minding the youngsters and the males were being generally grumpy. They would hang in the water peering at our boat and some of them were asleep in that position, standing on their tails with their heads poking out of the water. The waters looked crystal clear and it gave me a hankering to explore the islands in kayak and do some snorkelling. But that will have to wait until the next trip.

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