Puffins are back for the summer!
It’s a great season to watch these birds in their full glory along the north east coast of England as they start to raise their chicks or ”pufflings’.
Thirty thousand puffins live on Coquet Island, a tiny rocky isle, a mile from the harbour town of Amble on the Northumberland coast.
It’s one of the bird’s favourite summer breeding grounds so you’re guaranteed to see the brightly coloured puffins everywhere you look – on land, at sea and whizzing through the air.
A boat trip to Coquet Island is the best way to get close to these awesome birds with their bright orange beaks and striking black and white plumage.
So Tammy ventured forth on a cruise – slightly wary because boats aren’t her sort of thing when the going gets rough.
Sunshine beamed down as we set off from home but by the time we reached Amble, a hard rain started to fall, the sky turned black and the mist rolled in over the harbour front.
Worse still, Tammy was starting to feel queasy about clambering aboard a small boat and rolling up and down on the bouncy waves!
We set off from the harbour looking gloomy and worried we wouldn’t see any birds in the mist and sea fret.
But as we approached Coquet Island, the weather started to lift, and we were rewarded with brilliant views of the puffins and dozens of sea birds.
This year’s birds are a little later than normal due to the bad weather in late spring.
After a few tough months when dead puffins were seen being washed up in their hundreds on sea shores, it was great to see these amazing birds thriving again.
Although numbers were down, the birds were busy getting ready to raise their chicks, flying back and forth with sand eels in their beaks.
At one point we were surrounded by a black and white ‘sea’ of puffins – or ‘a raft’ to use the proper collective term. The boat trip passengers whooped with pure joy!
Although you can’t land on Coquet Island, the action on and around its shores is one of summer’s great spectacles.
At one point, I wasn’t sure where to look because there were flocks of birds everywhere I turned.
As the boat slowed down and we reached for our binoculars, hundreds of Guillemots, Terns, Eider Ducks, Kittiwakes and Gulls were flying above us or swimming in the water.
A favourite sighting was a female Eider duck with her five fluffy brown chicks, bobbing along in the water, something I’d never seen before.
The Eider chicks enter the water within 48 hours of hatching so they have to learn to hold their own very quickly. This batch looked to be doing well with mum showing them the ropes.
Coquet Island is also home to a large colony of Roseate Terns, one of Britain’s rarest nesting seabirds.
In fact the RSPB reckons that the island holds 90% of the UK’s Roseate Tern summer population.
I’m pretty sure that I saw my first pair of Roseates on the water but wasn’t quick enough to capture the special moment on camera.
Several thousand nesting Sandwich, Arctic and Common Terns also breed on the island – and it’s easy to see them flying overhead from the boat as they zoom in with food for their chicks.
To the east of the island there’s a large colony of Grey Seals which can be seen year-round on the rocky shore and bobbing up and down in the water.
They’re curious creatures so expect to see them playing ‘hide and seek’ close to the boat as they check out the strange visitors.
I was puzzled to know why this tiny island is such a ‘hot spot’ for wildlife.
Apparently, its vegetation is mainly Yorkshire fog grass and nettles which provide protection for the nesting sea birds and their chicks.
It’s also a great place for seals to lumber around – it’s close to food and they’re relatively safe from predators especially when they have pups.
The puffins love it too. The birds make their nests in the network of disused rabbit warrens and burrows which criss-cross the island.
Look out for the Puffins flying with sand eels in their beaks as their short, stubby wings propel them at great speed back and forth to and from their nests.
Coquet Island isn’t simply an important wildlife sanctuary – it has an intriguing history.
Look out for the lighthouse which will be your first view of the island from the boat cruise.
The current lighthouse was built in 1841 on the site of an earlier 15th Century beacon, also designed to protect ships from the dangerous rocks.
Father of early Christianity St Cuthbert made a voyage to Coquet Island in 684 AD and spent time in solitary worship here.
The island’s remote location must have made it a good place for contemplation, with only nature for company.
Cuthbert is known to have enjoyed feeding the island’s Eider ducks which are nicknamed ‘cuddy ducks’ after the famous bishop.
We were feeling pretty cold and wet by the end of the trip as our small boat turned back into Amble harbour.
Chugging back through the harbour wall there were dozens of birds including Gulls and Cormorants as well as male Eiders competing for the attention of female ducks.
There were also great views of small fishing boats tied up on the sides of the harbour on the way back to the landing stage.
There were a few amusing moments as we bounced off the harbour wall as the boat’s captain tried to manoeuvre us into the tiny dock.
Back on dry land we found huge numbers of gulls vying to get the best scraps from the excellent local fish and chip shop on the quayside!
Fortunately we grabbed the best catch of the day and gobbled it down inside our camper van away from the prying beaks of the gulls. Pure bliss!
Amble Puffin Festival
Our trip to Coquet Island was the highlight of a visit to the surreal Amble Puffin Festival which aims to “celebrate everything Puffin”.
There’s even a festival mascot called ‘Muffin the Puffin’ which can be found adorning the streets and shop fronts of this small but likeable harbour town.
The festival boasted some very strange events from ‘chainsaw sculpting’ to ‘tribal dancing’ and a ‘blacksmith demonstration’.
What this had to do with puffins was beyond me but it did add an eccentric touch!
The Co-op funeral parlour was hosting a puffin-themed funerary exhibition which sounded intriguing but we decided to skip it in favour of the fishermen’s gansey display down the road.
I’d never seen an exhibition of ganseys before (a Geordie word for woolly jumper) but this one was small and perfectly-formed.
It was basically one window of jumpers in a games shop at the back of the high street. Who knows why this puzzling display was in a gaming shop!
It did, however, bring a smile to my face as did the many puffin-related displays around the town.
Top marks to the festival organisers for coming up with these off-the-wall ideas.
Then there was the local music festival on the harbour front with bands playing on the side of a parked lorry… surreal and not very rock ‘n’ roll.
There was something charming and ‘hand-knitted’ about the festival but it will have to improve its events substantially next year to attract tourists from further afield.
We’ll back to the Puffin Festival in 2014 to check out what’s changed… but the boat trips were the star attraction of this year’s event.
Tammy’s top tips
Amble and Coquet Island are located 40 minutes drive from Newcastle upon Tyne on the Northumberland coast off – just off the A1 road.
It isn’t possible to land on Coquet Island because of potential disturbance to the nesting birds but cruises run around the island from Amble harbour. Details of sailing times are available from Amble Tourist Information Centre on 01665 712313.
Wrap up warm. It can be chilly on the boat trips so wear outdoor gear and bring a hat.
Don’t forget to take binoculars and a camera (with a zoom lens) for unforgettable views of the birds and seals.
The best time to see puffins and terns at Coquet Island is between May and early August when the birds are nesting on the island.
Amble has an attractive marina whilst there are great bird watching opportunities up the road on the way to Warkworth along the water channels.
Nearby Warkworth also has an excellent ruined castle and charming village with cafes and pubs.
The Amble Puffin Festival runs for two weeks in late May with a variety of events.
If you enjoy boat trips and bird watching, why not visit the Farne Islands further up the coast where you’ll see more puffins. Cruises run from Seahouses harbour.