Tag Archives: Farne Islands

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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Seahouses Seabirds

Seahouses, on the Northumberland coast, has proved a fertile hunting ground for birdlife in the past and my most recent visit in August was no exception. It has a  sheltered harbour which plays host to numerous gulls, ducks and other seabirds and to the north are miles of beaches interspersed with rocky outcrops and some great rockpools which keep the kids (and me, of course) entertained for hours. I accidentally slipped into a bed of seaweed whilst leaping around between rockpools, my foot disappeared up to the knee making a glutinous squelching sound as it went, and when I pulled it out it was a rather fetching greenish brown and the stench was worse than the inside of a packet of dry roasted peanuts! But that aside, the wildlife was spectacular.

I’d never seen goosander before (Mergus merganser) then I spotted this trio of females standing at the edge of the water in the harbour. I think they are handsome birds, they nest in holes in trees and have a hooked and serrated beak which is designed to catch and hold onto their main prey item which is fish, thus they are also referred to as ‘sawtooths’.


Three female goosander (Dansk: stor skallesluger) relaxing on the shoreline in Seahouses harbour

Shags frequently patrol the harbour diving for fish, they were plentiful both in the sea and perched on rocks and seawalls. They were the only seabird other than gulls that I saw on the Farne Islands, but more of that in a subsequent post.

The shag (Dansk: topskarv) could only really be confused with a cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), but the shag is alot smaller with a wingspan of 95-110cm compared to the  120-150cm wingspan of the cormorant, and it doesn’t have the white patch behind the lower mandible. The prominent yellow patch on the shag above indicates this is a  juvenile. On the water cormorants swim with a straight neck and their beak pointing up in the air and will leap up into a dive, and in flight they have a longer neck with a pronounced kink in it.

Cormorants are now regularly resident inland. About 20 years ago I was walking along the Woodford Valley to the north of Salisbury and was somewhat taken aback by the sight of a cormorant in a tree. I’d never seen that before and I think it was around this time they were starting to encroach inland. They’re now a fairly common site around our inland waterways, there are several which overwinter on a lake here in Histon – the first one arrived here about a week ago – and there is a flock of a few tens of bachelor males resident at Wicken Fen nature reserve a few miles from here. I think anglers take a rather jaundiced view of their fondness for fish, but I regard them as a welcome addition to our local fauna.

Another common site in the waters around the Northumberland coast was the eider (Somateria mollissima, Dansk: ederfugl):


Juvenile eider trying to dislodge a foreign body from its wing.

This youngster could be confused with an adult female but it lacks the white beak tip and white edges to the covert feathers. The pale stripe over the eye suggests it’s a male. I first saw a male eider in full breeding rig when I was at Skagen on the northern tip of Denmark and they are magnificent birds:


Male eider on the right, distinctive in his white breeding plumage with black cap, flanks and tail, and malachite green nape. Alas he didn’t come any closer!

At the end of the summer male eiders malt, during which time they can’t fly. Because they can’t fly the malting plumage needs to provide camouflage and is known as ‘eclipse‘ plumage. They can become almost black during this period.


From the distribution of the white patches I think this one is a second year male undergoing his malt

And this is him emerging from the water with another juvenile in the foreground

Eider nest close to the water where the female sits tight. They feed on crustaceans and molluscs, predominantly mussels, which they open with their powerful beaks. They overwinter all around the UK coast but are only resident in the north and Scotland.


One of my favourite birds – the oystercatcher

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade) can be found all around the coast of the UK, at least all the parts that I’ve visited, and I think they’re splendid. That awesome flame-red beak is vertically flattened and blunt and is adeptly used for opening cockles and other shellfish, digging for worms and probing between rocks for insects.


The redshank – I think this bird is exquisite, the colours are beautiful and the shape is perfect, nature at its aesthetic best!

The redshank (Tringa totanus) is a resident breeder and migrant visitor which feeds on worms, crustaceans and molluscs. It’s Danish name is ‘rødben‘ which translates literally as ‘redshank’ and it is also known as ‘the sentinel of the marshes’ from being the first species to take to the air when flushed whilst making an awful lot of noise.

All the photographs here in this post were taken in Seahouses, so hopefully it’s easy to see what a great place it is for wildlife, and birds in particular.

Hook nosed sea pig

Radio silence has been a tad prolonged this time, so apologies for that. I wasn’t able to get out and about last weekend so I’ve delved into the archive to write about the grey seal. The Latin name for this one of our native seal species – the other being the common seal (Phoca vitulaina) – is Halichoerus grypa – or ‘hook nosed sea pig. Which is a wonderfully descriptive piece of taxonomic nomenclature! It is the only seal to be classified in the Halichoerus genus.

Grey seal relaxing in the Menai Strait between
Anglesey and
North Wales

The grey seal is almost twice the size of the common seal and is immediately distinguishable by the long ‘hooked nose’ compared to the stubby rounded snout of the common seal. Males are around 2.1m in length and females 1.8m, weighing approximately 230kg and 150kg respectively, the female is therefore much smaller than the male.

Distribution of the grey seal is across the northern Atlantic Ocean with breeding colonies in northern Europe and North America. They are fish eaters feeding predominantly on cod and sand eels but are opportunists and will take a range of fish caught at depths down to 70m including molluscs and crustaceans and they fast during the breeding season.


Grey seal watching me watching it off the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Around two thirds of their time is spent at sea, but they will haul themselves onto rocks, usually on uninhabited islands but also on some isolated mainland sites between tides and also come ashore to breed. This occurs at various times around the UK and while the females are nursing pups the males will also come ashore to mate. At this time the males may get into territorial battles with other males resulting in scarring to their necks. The pups which are white, suckle milk that is 60% fat for approximately 3 weeks during which time they will gain 2kg per day that is mostly sequestered as a subcutaneous layer of blubber providing essential insulation when the young go to sea.

Grey seals were the first mammals to be protected by legislation – the Grey Seal Protection Act of 1914 – and since 1960 the UK population has increased to 120,000 individuals, around half the world population. They are affected by ‘seal plague’ – phocine distemper virus – although of individuals known to have succumbed to the disease only 10% were grey seals.

These delightful animals can be seen all around the UK coastline from the south west, Wales, Scotland and the east coast of England and due to the increase in numbers they have attracted the inevitable hatred of fishermen who claim that they are responsible for declining fish stocks, and they have also been implicated in damaging the nets of offshore fish farms and passing on parasites. The link with parasites is a complex one and further studies are required to establish the link between seals and transmission of parasites, or not.