It’s bird bonanza time on the Farne Islands as migrating birds flock onto the islands for the summer season. This makes the Farnes one of my top summer holiday trips.
For our feathered friends, this is more than a bird vacation. They are here for romance and – let’s be honest – to have holiday sex and make baby chicks!
The Farnes host one of the great wildlife spectacles anywhere in the world between May-August when it turns into one giant seabird colony.
Birds fly in daily during the early summer, partnering up, mating and making their nests. Later in the season, the chicks emerge and there’s a feeding frenzy.
Puffins fill the seas, skies and cliff tops, paddling across the waters and shuffling onto the land to make their nests.
Guillemots and Razorbills colonise the rocky crags whilst gulls and other seabirds fly in to get their share of the action. For nature lovers, this is birding heaven with thousands of birds everywhere you look.
Wild and remote islands
The Farne Islands are one of Europe’s most important seabird sanctuaries.
Setting off from Seahouses in a small boat, we were buzzing with excitement as we prepared to experience one of nature’s finest wildlife spectacles.
The Farnes comprise 15-28 islands, including several which are only visible at low tide. I love the evocative names of smaller islands like ‘Nameless’, Elbow, Fang and Blue Caps.
Together they are home to more than 20 different bird species, including Puffins, Eider Ducks, Guillemots, Razorbills, and four species of tern.
Inner Farne is the largest of the Farne Islands and during the Summer it becomes home to many thousands of nesting seabirds.
The noise is deafening with up to 150,000 birds crammed onto the islands at the height of the breeding season.
There’s also a large colony of about 3,000 grey seals which lounge around on the rocks – and can be spotted bobbing around in the waters around the islands.
The Farnes are made up of volcanic igneous rock on the eastern edge of a geological formation called the Whin Sill.
After the end of the Ice Age, you could have walked from these islands across to the mainland, but rising sea levels cut them off, making them a great refuge for wildlife.
The islands lie next to a dangerous stretch of coast on the north-east coast, battered by winds and lashed by storms so there’s little disturbance, except from occasional sightseeing boats.
Boat trips around the islands provide a full circuit and sail out as far as the distinctive red and white Longstone Lighthouse.
Grace Darling spent her youth living in two lighthouses on the Farnes – Brownsman and Longstone – where her father William was the keeper.
In September, 1838 Grace was looking from a window at Longstone when she saw the wreck of a ship which had been torn apart on a nearby rocky island called Big Harcar. The ill-fated SS Forfarshire, which was carrying 62 passengers and crew, had hit the rocks and was sinking.
The appalling weather conditions and storms made a rescue attempt difficult but Grace and her father took decisive action. They knew the seas were too rough for the lifeboat so the two of them decided to take out a rowing boat.
Grace Darling displayed enormous courage and determination in rowing the 30 foot long coble (a small open boat) to rescue survivors.
After she had taken five survivors back to the lighthouse, her father made a second trip to rescue the remaining passengers. Both Grace and her father were celebrated as heroes as news spread across Britain. Today the Farne Islands boat trips take you to see the lighthouse and the exact spot where their dramatic rescue took place.
Today the Farnes are best known for their fabulous wildlife. The birds come to the Farne Islands for the sex life, the chance to find a mate, partner up and reproduce. It’s part of nature’s annual cycle.
Sometimes I feel like I’m intruding into their world when I visit but the birds are so focused on mating that they don’t seem to mind that much.
I’m always astonished how close you can get to the birds – in some cases, inches away from their nests – as you can see in the photos above and below.
Just look at this lovely pair of courting kittiwakes, one of my favourite birds with their snow-white heads and pretty faces.
They’re smaller and more petite than larger members of the gull family like the herring gull and black-backed gulls. I love watching their courtship moves.
Take a boat trip from Seahouses to the Farnes and you’re guaranteed to see puffins flying overhead and swimming out at sea.
Thirty six thousand puffins can be seen on the Farnes during early summer when the birds make their nests in burrows on the island.
I love watching these birds as they start to raise their chicks or ”pufflings’. Although there are no chicks just yet (it’s a little early), I did see the birds getting ready for the breeding season.
The puffins spend most of the year out at sea so this is one of the few seasons that you’ll catch them close-up on land.
Another frequent visitor to the Farnes is the Arctic Tern, which travels all the way from the South Pole, stopping off in the Farne Islands to breed during the summer.
These birds live in large, densely packed colonies with other terns so this rocky island group is an ideal destination for them in the breeding season.
There are about 2,000 pairs of Arctic Terns on the largest of the Farne Islands, Inner Farne, which I visited this week. It’s an astonishing experience watching them pairing up and flying overhead.
But beware – some of the terns can become very aggressive towards anyone who encroaches on their territory when they have eggs on the ground.
As a result, the Farne Islands have been nicknamed ‘dive bomb alley’ during the height of the nesting season. Don’t forget to wear a hat or you’ll get pecked!
Black-headed gulls are also attracted to the Farnes where they can be found nesting, sometimes in extremely odd places.
I spotted this bird posing on its newly-built nest, just by the main island pathway on top of a stone wall.
One of the slightly overlooked birds on the Farnes is the shag, a gorgeous creature which has a bottle green colouring and bright emerald eyes plus a yellow chin-strap. From a distance it looks black, but look closer and its iridescent feathers are revealed. What a treat!
So which are my favourite Farne Island birds? Well, I must confess that I adore Puffins – and I’m not alone.
This cute-looking, small bird is one of the UK’s favourites – affectionately known as ‘the Sea Parrot’. The bird’s most distinctive feature is its beak with a rainbow of yellow, red and blue colours.
The Puffin’s Latin name is ‘Fratercula Arctica’ which means ‘little brother of the Arctic’ – this provides some clues as to the bird’s hardy nature and ability to cope in tough climates.
This is a long-lived bird which can survive for up to 30 years. They return every year to make their nests on the Farnes – and you get great views of them on Inner Farne.
Listen out for the strange noise they can make. Although they are mainly silent, puffins can be heard making a growling noise which took me by surprise a couple of times on my recent trip.
Look out for the birds as they fly out to sea to find their favourite food – the sand eel – which they catch by diving underwater using their feet.
It’s amazing how many fish these birds can catch without losing them.
The puffins use their serrated beaks and tongues to hold their catch. On average they can catch about 10 eels but the record is said to be an astonishing 62!
Another of my favourite birds on the Farnes is the Arctic Tern, a maritime bird which visits the British Isles in summer from the icy wastes of Antarctica.
This small bird is white and light grey with a black cap and a brightly coloured red beak and legs. The Arctic Tern only weighs around 110 grammes, but it can pack the punch of a heavyweight boxer if it pecks you.
The bird’s long tail and acrobatic, graceful flight has led to it being nicknamed ‘the swallow of the sea’.
The Arctic Tern is easily differentiated from a Sandwich Tern which has a black bill, a tuft on the back of its head and a shorter tail. In contrast the Common Tern has a paler underbelly, a shorter tail and longer legs. The Arctic Tern’s long tail streamers make it stand out from other terns.
The bird has been described as “the ultimate long distance migrant” with summer migrants to the Farne Islands travelling 6,000 miles every year from the Antarctic.
Listen for a high-pitched repetitive ‘gwik’ sound which distinguishes this bird from other terns.
The Farnes Islands are arguably the most spectacular location for this bird in Great Britain.
Seal watching is easy when you take a boat around the Farnes. There’s a 99.9% chance that you’ll see these mammals lumbering around on the rocks, sometimes with their pups.
The Common and Grey Seals can be identified by their muzzles. Common Seals have short muzzles and V-shaped nostrils while greys have a longer muzzle and parallel nostrils.
On land these animals appear awkward and clumsy, but underwater they’re wonderful swimmers.
The Grey Seals usually dive underwater for about 10 minutes but they can remain submerged for up to 30 minutes.
Before diving they hyperventilate to saturate their blood with oxygen, and expel most of the air from lungs before going in water. This makes them less buoyant and reduces risk of decompression sickness, a condition caused by absorbed nitrogen bubbles expanding in the blood stream.
During the breeding season look out for the white seal pups which stand out from the camouflaged grey adults. Their colour is probably a hangover from when they were born on ice and snow.
I love the Farnes. They are one of my favourite wild places.
A boat trip around Inner Farne takes you close to the beating heart of nature in all of its glory.
If I had to name my top seven wildlife wonders of the world, these islands would be one of my leading contenders.
Just don’t forget to keep a safe distance from the animals and take a hat if you don’t want to get pecked by angry birds!
Tammy’s Travel Guide – the Farne Islands
The Farne Islands lie just off the Northumberland coast between the fishing village of Seahouses and Bamburgh.
The best way of getting to them is to take a boat trip. I travelled on Billy Shiels’ Boat Tours, one of the best in the business.
The Inner Farne tour lasts approximately two and a half hours including an hour spent on the island. The trip also includes sailing round all the other islands including Longstone and Inner Farne and visiting the Grey Seal colonies at several vantage points with full commentary en route.
There are boat trips every day from Seahouses harbour, weather permitting, but bear in mind that there are no landings in rough weather. Check the forecast before you set off and book your place ahead of time.
National Trust members land free on the Island but for non-members there is a charge payable to the rangers on landing. There is a walkway round the island suitable for disabled visitors and the National Trust have an Information Centre and public toilets on the island, although the latter involved a bucket on my trip!
Billy Shiels Boat Tours also runs an excellent trip to Staple Island. This is particularly recommended for keen birders during the breeding season (May 1- July 31).
The Farnes aren’t just about birds. Don’t miss the islands’ plant life.
The unusual vegetation includes the oddly-named scurvy grass and the scarce fiddleneck, an invader from California, introduced by the lighthouse keepers many years ago, and now growing wild.
The Islands are also rich in their religious associations. St Cuthbert came to live on the island for peace and solitude around AD 678, and there’s a small chapel honouring his memory which you can visit on Inner Farne.
Don’t forget your camera and binoculars. Although a telephoto lens is incredibly useful, especially when on the boat, you can take remarkably good pictures with a regular camera once you’re on the islands.
This is because the pathway on Inner Farne runs next to the bird nesting area. Although the birds’ nesting areas are roped off, you can get within inches of the birds to grab that vital close-up.
Here’s my Canadian friend Monique from Montreal shooting some video on her stills camera.
Wrap up warm. It can be surprisingly cold and breezy on the water, even on a sunny day.
Wear layers so you can unpeel them when you’re back on dry land. Take gloves and wear warm socks as it’s often your feet and hands that get coldest.
Get a hat. This is essential when the terns are sitting on the eggs or feeding their young during midsummer. The terns get skittish and are renowned for dive-bombing and pecking visitors who get a little too close.
My Canadian colleague Pierre demonstrates ‘the English gentleman’ look with full warm weather kit, a hat and button-up collar. I’d also recommend an outdoor jacket with a hood for very wild days!