Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Farne Islands: Part 1 (02/06/2014)

My recent trip to Northumberland included 2 days out on the Farne Islands with Billy Shiel's Boat Trips. They are the only company that do the full day trip landing on Staple Island and Inner Farne for approx 2 hours each. They also take you around the islands checking out the Grey Seals, conditions permitting. Don't forget to take into account the cost of getting on the islands when budgeting. The boat trip does not include this, they do tell you though. National Trust members get on the islands for free.

I pre-booked my trips but you can also take your chance and just turn up on the day. If the weather is not very favourable then you stand a good chance of getting a place, but there is also a chance that the trip may be cancelled. When the Terns are on eggs the rangers sometimes close Inner Farne to allow the birds to remain on the nests. As most will know when you go onto Inner Farne the Terns get up off their nests and attack visitors which leaves their eggs open to the elements. If it rains all day then there is a reasonable chance that the rangers will close Inner Farne to prevent the eggs getting cols while the Terns are off attacking visitors!

Heading out past Inner Farne
Despite a poor forecast the first day out didn't turn out too bad, mainly overcast with the odd light shower. The boat was pretty full but I managed to get a seat along the side near the back, hopefully allowing for good photo opportunities. It doesn't really matter what side of the boat you are on as the skipper does his best to give everyone good views of the birds and seals around the islands. I went with my 100-400mm zoom lens for the day, you will almost certainly want a long lens on the boat but a shorter option is useful on the islands as you will be able to get extremely close to some of the inhabitants!

Guillemots on Inner Farne

Kittiwake having a bath

Shag out fishing

The first landing is Staple Island. You will be walking over rocks which become very slippery when wet so make sure you have good grip on your boots. There are great opportunities for photographing Puffins and Shags here. Guillemots, Kittiwakes and a few Fulmars along with the marauding Gulls were also good subjects but I focussed on the Puffins and the Shags. In fact I couldn't believe my luck when the first bird I saw, having got off the boat and paid my dues, was this Puffin.

Puffin with Sand Eels

The light wasn't ideal but I quite like the way it lights up the beak from behind. I was hoping for this type of shot when I booked the trip but to get it within a few minutes of stepping ashore was fantastic.

Quite a bit of Staple Island is open to roam as you please but the nesting areas are roped off so I spent a bit of time have a look around to see what was around and where I might get some good shots. There were plenty of Shags close to the edge of the roped off area making for some nice close ups. I love the green eye and way the feathers look like scales. These birds have a real prehistoric look to them but they are so confiding when you are up close to them.

Shag (Portrait)

Shag (Portrait)

Shag at rest ("still keeping an eye on you")
There are several Gull species around the islands with Kittiwakes the most numerous, nesting on the small cliffs alongside the Guillemots, Razorbills and Shags. The Black-headed gulls are probably the second most numerous followed by Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls. Then there are a few Great Black-backed Gulls. All of the these species seem to rely on robbing the other birds of the food they bring back or stealing eggs and chicks left unguarded.

Lesser Black-backed Gull stalking the Puffin nesting grounds.

Lesser Black-backed Gull patrols the Puffin nesting grounds.
On Staple Island there are mostly LBB and Herring Gulls with the BH Gulls mostly congregating on Inner Farne. I watched them robbing Puffins of their Sand Eels as they arrived back at the nest burrows. The Puffins tried their best to drop right in their holes to avoid being robbed but any small mistake resulted in a desperate run to get to the burrow, sometimes any burrow, to avoid the attentions of the Gulls.

I spent a lot of time on Staple Island trying to capture Puffins in flight, especially those bringing in Sand Eels. I got a few shots but wasn't particularly happy with the results. Here are a selection of images.

Had to crop most of those to some extent which was a bit disappointing given how close some of them came. I'll just have to go back and have another go.

Just before we left Staple island I found this chap which book ended the stop nicely.

Atlantic Puffin with Sand Eels
We had a quick cruise around the Grey Seal colony before moving on to Inner Farne in the afternoon.

Grey Seal resting on the rocks
Then it was on to Inner Farne, most famous for its Arctic Terns attacking visitors as they pass through the nesting areas on the island. Inner Farne is much more restricted in where you can walk with basically just a roped off path around the island. It doesn't take long to walk around the island so I suggest you do that to check out where the best photo opportunities are. This means you will also move quickly through the Terns causing them less disturbance. It often gets clogged up with people here anyway as everyone tries to photograph the Terns so not a bad thing to move on quickly and come back to it later on. The best areas for me were the cliffs up by the lighthouse and, of course, the Terns back at the start.

Arctic Tern (mono)

Arctic Tern coming in to attack

Arctic Tern on a fence post

Ground nesting Arctic Tern

Arctic Tern nesting on a dry stone wall

Arctic Tern on lichen covered rocks
Look out for the times when all of the Terns get up to see off an intruder. In this case a Great Black-backed Gull arrived in the middle of the colony and the call to arms went up! It's quite a spectacle

It was quite busy on the cliffs as well!

Puffins congregate on the rocks before heading out to sea.

Puffin portrait
The Black-headed Gulls nest on Inner Farne and are much more numerous here, harassing the Puffins as they come back in to feed their young.

Black-headed Gull waits by the Puffin burrows.

The LBB and Herring Gulls are ever present waiting for an opportunity to steal some fish.

Lesser Black-backed Gull keeps an eye out for the Puffin food delivery service!
At the cliffs adjacent to the lighthouse there are good photo opportunities with the Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Guillemots and Shags.

Kittiwake hovers on the updraught by the cliff face.

Kittiwake leaving it's nest.
A pair of Razorbills
So that was it for the first trip out to the islands and it was back on the boat and back to the harbour in Seahouses to start sorting through the hundreds of images. What a great day out.

By the way make sure you take time to have a chat to the rangers. They have amazing knowledge of the islands and know exactly what is going on with all of the birds. What a great job they are doing out there.

Information and links:

William Shiel (@thefarneislands)
Boat Trips to the Farne Islands from Seahouses harbour. Sailings available all year round.
Seahouses, Northumberland.

@NTsteely Farne Islands Blog:

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Box End Park WeBS: 15/06/2014

Good numbers of Mallards in the park this morning with a lot of shabby looking males now they are starting their post breeding moult. A few new broods of ducklings on show. The Black Swan seems to have taken a liking to the park and remains on the list for the second month running.

Good numbers of Coots this year with what looks like 6 pairs and at least 3 nests. 2 of the nests a 1 and 2 chicks respectively although there may be more on the nest with 1 as that is quite well hidden on the island.

Common Terns seems to be relatively quiet this year. I could only manage a count of 6 this morning. I am unable to locate any nests due to the vegetation on the island but hopefully they are there.

Of the 3 pairs of Mute Swans 2 have cygnets. One pair have at least 4 but were obscured by the vegetation on the island where they snoozed. The other pair have 3 cygnets.

Here are the counts:

Black Swan 1  
Black-headed Gull 4  
Common Tern 6
Coot 12
Cormorant 3  
Grey Heron 1  
Kingfisher 1  
Mallard 80
Mandarin Duck 1  
Moorhen 3  
Mute Swan 6
Oystercatcher 3  
Pied/White Wagtail  2
Skylark 3

Total number of species: 13 Individuals: 123

Other birds of note were:

Reed Bunting (at least 3 singing males)
Common Whitethroat
Green Woodpecker
Willow Warbler
Sedge Warbler
Reed Warbler
Stock Dove 

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Pow Hill Country Park

Another stop, on the way up to Northumberland, was Pow Hill Country Park. I had a tip off that there were Red Squirrels there. We didn't find any although we were there around midday and I suspect early morning or evening might be a better time for them. We may have missed out on our intended target but it is a really nice area, rich in varied bird life and I would definitely spend a lot of time there if I lived in the area.

Not sure where the Red Squirrels are supposed to be but I wonder if the picnic area, on the left as you drive into the car park and hidden from view, might be the best place in hindsight as people are likely to feed them there.

A wander around the conifer woodland looking for the Squirrels turned up a variety of birds including Goldcrest and Coal Tits and many others. Curlew was heard nearby on the adjacent moors and along the edge of the reservoir I had Snipe, Lapwing and Common Sandpiper.

Definitely worth a look if you are in the area.

Common Sandpiper

Pied Wagtail (Looking a bit worse for wear)

 There were no facilities in the Pow Hill CP car park but back up the road at the Derwent Reservoir entrance there is a fishing shop with some snacks and drinks for sale and public toilets.

Pow Hill Country Park

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Visit to RSPB Bempton Cliffs

I paid a couple of visits to the RSPB Bempton Cliffs reserve last week with the primary aim to see and photograph Gannets. The first visit was late afternoon/early evening and the second one was in the evening. The visitor centre was either about to close or closed for both of these visits but a gate remains open down the side of the visitor centre for access to the cliffs.

This was my first visit to the reserve and on the first day I concentrated on the north half of the cliffs, but late in the day discovered a good group of Gannets high on the edge of the cliffs, just a few feet from the path. On the second visit I concentrated on this area where, with a bit of a breeze, Gannets were gliding past just a few feet away. I managed a reasonable selection of shots ranging from flight to behavioural.

Gannet with nest material

A pair billing as part of their pair bonding display.

Preening, keeping those flight feathers in tip top condition.

Preening on the nest.

Rows of Gannets on nests and a single chick on show.

Immature Gannet glides past

Adult Gannet glides past

An immature bird comes into land

Immature Gannet glides past

Gannets line up looking for a landing site

A squabble breaks out between neighbours

Gannet searching for a spot to land
 I found this pair and got a sequence of shots showing some lovely behaviour.

The second bird joined the first and they started billing as part of their pair bonding display.
Then they had a cuddle!

And finally they started sky pointing before one of the birds departed. 
I also found a Fulmar which was quickly joined by another. At first I thought they were arguing over that bit of the cliff but in the end it looked like they were a pair.
Fulmar on the cliff

An argument over cliff real estate.....

...or a pair greeting each other
As well as the iconic sea bird species it was pleasing to see so many Tree Sparrows around the reserve and I managed to grab a few shots of these lovely birds including one with a caterpillar, obviously feeding young.

Tree Sparrow
Tree Sparrow
This Meadow Pipit perched up on the flower heads in the meadow behind the visitor centre.
Meadow Pipit
Jackdaws were all over the place stalking the cliffs and car park for potential food. Anything from unguarded eggs and chicks to unguarded sandwiches!
Jackdaw stalking the cliffs
This little chap was a bit of a star performer during the first visit. Unfortunately I was a bit under gunned on the lens front so just a couple of record shots of this Grasshopper Warbler reeling in the meadow.
Grasshopper Warbler
Grasshopper Warbler