Ronno Tramper Photography

Farne Islands: birds, birds, birds

text and photography ©Ronno Tramper
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In the far north east of England, a few miles off the coast of Northumberland lie the Farne Islands. The islands have a history of saints with a reclusive life style and heroes rescuing the survivors of ship wrecks. Nowadays, however, they are famous for their sea bird and seal colonies. During the nesting season, at its height from mid-May till mid-July, these Islands are the home of hundreds of thousands of guillemots, razorbills, puffins, kittiwakes, shags and terns. In this short period they raise their chicks in large, noisy and smelly colonies. It is probably one of the best and most accessible places in Europe to photograph sea birds. Unlike 20 or 30 years ago, in 2009 this is no longer a remote place. In the breeding season you will be by no means the only photographer. It can be very crowded.
By the end of June boats are leaving for both Inner Farne and Staple Island several times a day from the little fishing harbour of Seahouses. In this time of the year fishing no longer is their main business. The boats are laden with tourists and photographers and several hours later they will return to the harbour with a large catch of filled memorycards and exposed film.

Inner Farne
Inner Farne is the largest of the islands and relatively flat and low with few cliffs. There are still buildings on the island that remind us of a period when monks lived their lives of seclusion here. At present Inner Farne is no longer inhabited, but for the occasional National Trust warden
guarding the birds. On its beaches and inland several tern species breed in large numbers. Arctic tern, common tern and sandwich tern are very common. Smaller numbers of puffins and eider ducks also nest here. The arctic terns tend to be very nervous and in effort to protect their young chicks they will certainly attack you. This is harmless, but remember to bring a hat to protect your head.

Staple Island
Staple Island is a little higher and has steep cliffs. This is the island of guillemots,
razorbills, shags, kittiwakes and puffins. Most tours will take you around the island before landing. This will give you a spectacular view of the cliffs and stacks and the dazzling number
of birds nesting on them. Once you are on the island itself you will find out that the birds nest here in such large numbers that you actually have to watch were you put your feet.

Holy Island and Bamburgh Castle
Another interesting subject for photographers in the immediate vicinity is Holy Island, famous for the Lindisfarne priory and the Castle (about 20 miles/30 km from Seahouses). It is
accessible by a road that is submerged at high tide. Take a good look at the time tables before you go. Bamburgh, very close to Seahouses, also has its own Castle.

Visiting the Islands
Although the Farne Island Group consist of several more islands, only Inner Farne and Staple Island can be visited during the breeding season. Visiting hours are restricted in order to
avoid too much disturbance of the birds (approx. 10.30 am till 1.30 pm for Staple Island and 1.30 pm till 5.00 pm for Inner Farne). Practically the only way to get there is to book a boat trip with one of two or three companies offering them. The companies all have small shacks with a ticket
window in the immediate vicinity of the harbour of Seahouses. They are hard to miss. Specially for photographers and bird watchers Billy Shiels offers a five hour trip that includes two hour visits of both islands. His company will also offer special tours on demand. The best time to go is the second half of June. Many birds have chicks in this period and the summer holidays have not started yet. The number of visitors between June 15 and the beginning of July will be relatively low.

The seas around the Farne Islands can be rough, even in June. Since you will want to have your camera and 80-200 (or 80-400) zoom lens available during the short boat trip, see to it that the lens surface is properly protected against seawater spray. A lens hood or a skylight
(neutral) filter is a necessity. A special problem are the bird droppings. My equipment was hit several times and it leaves nasty stains on the outer finish of the lens tube. If that is a problem to you, find some way to protect your lenses against it. However, remember that clumsy plastic covers will slow you down considerably. Photo opportunities during the boat trip are the grey seals and the sea birds breeding on the cliffs and stacks. You will get very close to them, so a handheld 80-200 zoom lens will do in
most cases. Even better would be a Nikon 80-400 VR (with vibration reduction) or a similar "internal stabilizer" lens of another brand. See to it that you get fast shutter speeds while shooting from the moving boat. Tripods are useless on the boat and there is not enough space to employ them anyway. Once you are on the island you can use a tripod of course. As far as lenses are concerned anything up to 600mm can be useful, but you can take 90% or more of your photos with lenses up to 300mm. And do not forget to take your standard zoom!

Travel tips
Seahouses and Bamburgh are about 40 miles/65 kilometers north of Newcastle in the far North East of England. From the European continent there is a daily overnight ferry service from the Dutch harbour of IJmuiden directly to Newcastle. It is probably the easiest way to get there.
If you take your own car the trip from Newcastle to Seahouses takes a little over an hour. If you want to make good photos and explore all the possibilities for bird photography you should spend at least 5 or 6 days in the area. The weather does not always allow landing on the islands. In a period of six days you wil have a reasonable chance of being able to land on the islands during two to four days. The price for an all day boat trip that gives you two hours per Island is about 25 to 30 pounds including the landing fees. Bamburgh and Seahouses have hotels and B&B accommodation. During the tourist season you will have to book accommodation in advance. The nearby village of Beadnell has a good campsite. In June booking in advance for the campsite is not necessary.