Posted by: mynaturaldiary | June 6, 2008

Farne Islands Summer 2008

A trip to the Farne Islands takes planning; bed and breakfast accommodation must be found and time off work booked if the trip can take place mid-week. Thus, in the depths of winter, a visit during the Whitsun half term was organized. Of course, doing it this way you take a punt with the British weather. But that’s a safe bet, isn’t it?

As time rolled forward to the week of the trip, the size of the gamble we’d made became apparent; sodden rain and strong winds lashed Britain, so only Poseidon knows what’s happening at sea. Finally the appointed day arrives and the trip to Northumberland happens. We arrive at Seahouses, to find that no Farne Isle visits that week have taken place, because the seas were too rough for day trippers.

I offer silent penitential prayers to Poseidon and the Zephyrs in the hope that calmer weather is due the next day, and duly the Tempest subsides…

We walk to the harbour and book our trip to the Inner Farne, sailing in the afternoon with Billy Shiel Boat Trips which works out fine, although we are warned we might not be able to disembark onto the Isle ‘Because there’s a bit of a swell’, said in the finest Northumbrian dialect.

The wise should take with them food & drink (no supplies on the island) and a stout hat (for reasons later!) plus all the extra clothing, binoculars/cameras etc.

Once on the boat, we are surrounded by male eider ducks.

Eider ducks (Somateria mollissima)

Then sailing free of the harbour wall, the comments about ‘a bit of a swell’ become apparent. It’s a short 3km journey across the North Sea to the Farnes, about 20 minutes duration.

Seabirds radiate out from the Isles in search of food, so as you approach the Isles the flux of birds begins to increase, and Cormorants (the bigger ones with white fronts) skim the surface, followed later by Shags (the smaller ones dark all over). Then finally, Guillemots and Puffins shoot overhead, some laden with fish for their young.

We arrive at Staple Island, but no landings are allowed, but we get a fine view of the sea cliffs and their residents.

Guillemots (Uria aalge) and Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla)

Shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) and Puffins (Fractercula artica)

The Kittiwakes perch precariously on vertiginous drops, oblivious of the danger.

Kittiwakes (Rissa tridatyla)

The hard Dolerite of the cliffs stands out, and this forms the eastern flank of the Great Whin Sill, a formation of igneous rocks that stretches across northern England through Northumberland, Durham and back to the source of the Tees, near High Force.

The boat moves along the islands, and we encounter grey seals, in the water and on the shore.

Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus)

Finally we arrive at Inner Farne, which is covered by Arctic Terns. We disembark, pay the National Trust fee (steeper than the path up to the island) and are immediately attacked by Terns, both on the head and by more liquid ways… They nest exactly where the path goes, and always seek to defend their territory.

Arctic Terns (Sterna Macrvra)

The walk across the top of the island is colourful (pecks and guano) , but once past the Terns nesting ground you’re left alone. I almost missed this delightful nesting Eider duck, given her camouflage.

Eider duck

Along the top are rabbit burrows adopted by Puffins, who arrive, deliver their fish and then depart, all in a quiet undemonstrative way.

Puffin and his burrow

The Puffin numbers seem small, but this may be linked to storms last year which were known to hit the Farne colonies hard, and to other trends in fish stocks

Finally, we encounter the sea cliffs from the land side, with a Guillemot colony, interspersed with Shags and Kittiwakes.

Guillemots and Shags

Guillemots, Shags and Kittiwakes

I’m deeply impressed by this last bird, and as I approach to within 1m, it surveys me with its unfathomable, implacable, sea green eyes.

Nesting Shag - Inner Farne may 2008

A nesting Shag

A visiting Pied Wagtail seeks to sneak a piece of chocolate, but it’s unlucky. Before reaching the small visitor centre, the Terns vent their fury again for interrupting their peace. This gives an impression of being mobbed. As the bird attacks, it pecks your head, wheels away and attacks, again and again. It’s got all day for this game. Have you?

In the visitor centre, the following notes are offered to visitors, describing some of the more common birds and fauna on the Isles.

There are 3 types of Terns on the Island; see

for more assurance on how to tell the difference. I only saw Arctic Terns for sure!

As a final farewell, the Arctic Tern colony by the jetty explodes into the air as we depart, showering everyone in noise and an occasional spot of guano, which hits one of our party, greeted with self deprecating laughter. ‘Well shot, sir’.

All in all, an amazing day, and well worth the gamble.


  1. Like your blog! We made it on to both islands on Friday 30 May – doing the full day trip with Billy Shiels

    Having taken over 800 photos between us we now want to go back and take some more!

    Best wishes

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