UK: The Farne Islands

The office we’re looking for is a booth, just in front of the harbour wall. There are only a couple of people in front of us, we reach the front of the queue quickly and soon we are standing in another, longer queue of people, all holding different coloured tickets.

As we wait, the seagulls wheeling overhead, we watch boats coming into the dock, offloading or boarding passengers and heading off again. It’s a busy business taking tours to the Farne Islands during the season.

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The rocks were thronged with sea birds

This is something I’ve been looking forward to as soon as I found out our trip to Northumberland was conveniently scheduled during the nesting season, and, therefore, a chance to see puffins. There are few birds that can be topped by puffins.

As we approach with anticipation and the rocks loom out of the water. It soon becomes apparent that they are alive. Birds throng the rocky outcrops of the island, every horizontal space is filled with nesting birds. The noise from the colony fills the air. It’s tremendous. Birds are sitting, flying, coming in to land; with feet outstretched, skittering through the water, feeding their young, diving into the sea to catch food. Gulls baying in every direction. But not just gulls. Terns, guillemots and the iconic puffin all crowded for space. The smell was acrid and assaulted the nostrils – a little like a salty stable.

As we continue our journey round the outer Farnes we see cormorants hanging their wings out to dry, like harbingers of death, cloaked in black, they have to dry their plumage after each dive as they aren’t waterproof.

We also find some grey seals who simply turn to observe us, not startled by our approach, they watch us manoeuvre closer with their large liquid eyes. The sea lapping at the boat punctuated by the occasional loud splash of a seal diving into the sea. Others, away from land watch us from the water, like large water born dogs, waiting for us to do something other than stare back at them.

Once we have circled the outer Farne Islands we head to Inner Farne where we have an hour to explore. There’s not much to explore but there are seemingly endless birds which fascinate for the full hour.

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Artic Terns attacked as we walked up the boardwalk to the Island

On the wooden board walk onto the islands visitors are rudely greeted by Artic terns who, nesting very close to the walkway, protect their nests vigorously, dive bombing all visitors; aggressively encouraging us to move on hastily.

Having negotiated the terns we discover a black headed gull chick sitting quietly, waiting for it’s parents to return.

Further on and we find puffins and manage to get really quite close to a mixed colony, see nests with chicks or eggs in them and wildlife that appears completely unafraid.

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The puffins did not disappoint but came close to the path as we sat quietly

The puffins reward our patience and towards the end of our circuit of the islands we find a colony nesting near to the path. There are many burrows, sadly not all occupied as puffins at the Farne Islands are under threat due to ocean warming. They feed on food which thrives in colder waters such as herring and sand eels and the increasing temperatures of our oceans are threatening the food of these lovely birds.

Whilst I was glad of the calm crossing that day I think I would have braved a tossing sea for the experience. The closeness of the birds and their variety is something quite special.

We travelled with Billy Shiel’s Boat Trips on a cruise to Inner Farne which set sail from Seahouses on the Northumberland coast. Details can be found here: http://www.farne-islands.com/. We booked the day before via email and collected our tickets from the office just before sailing. There are other operators running tours to the Islands.

The Farne Islands are managed by The National Trust. More information can be found here: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/farne-islands/

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