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 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
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 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!
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
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.