A Day with the Seabirds on The Farne Islands

One of the things I love most about the wildlife photography I do is being out in the countryside, generally on my own at one with the nature surrounding me.  This is a welcome antidote to life in Glasgow and a chance to forget about day to day worries and clear my mind of pretty much everything other than the beautiful sights and sounds that surround me.

A day on the Farne Islands is nothing like this!  There are so many people.  It’s quite different from spending time with the seabirds on Lunga, and if I’m honest, having visited Lunga a few weeks prior to the Farnes I took a while to adjust (I wrote a Lunga blog). On Lunga I pretty much stayed in one spot observing and photographing the puffins, much of the time with no one else anywhere nearby as everyone else (all 11 of them!) from my boat trip had headed further up the island.  On the two Farne Islands, where ever I went it was hard to even put my bag down without the fear of someone tripping over it!  Personally I think fewer people should be permitted onto the islands each day, even with visits to both Inner Farne and Staple Island being limited to either morning or afternoon, it must be stressful for the birds nesting there.

We had to wait 30 minutes before our boat off the island could dock as there were so many others coming and going!

The boat trips are plentiful (to accommodate all the people!) and the islands are owned by the English National Trust.  Therefore as well as the cost of the boat there’s also a landing fee payable to the Trust, unless of course you’re a member which makes it much cheaper.

Now I’ve got that out of the way…  there is a lot to observe and enjoy on the islands.  They are both tiny, and much of the area is cordoned off (again unlike Lunga which is free to wander where ever you please).  First stop was Staple Island.  This island is quite rocky and is home not only to puffins but also a large guillemot population at the top end. I’d come away from Lunga with plenty of images of puffins interacting, fighting and sitting in scenic spots so there was  no need to do that again.  I therefore spent a fair amount of time here photographing both the guillemots and the puffins flying towards me with varying degrees of success!

Puffins fly fast, from the distance they remind me of bees – little oval bodies with small wings flapping rapidly.  Photographing them in flight, especially when flying towards you isn’t particularly difficult once you get your eye in.  I was using my crop frame D7200 with the Nikkor 300m f4 prime lens (so focal distance was 450mm) as fast a shutter speed as I could manage (upto 1/2000), low iso as it was bright and an aperture of f5.6.  I hadn’t brought my tripod so all photographs were hand-held (I would have liked to bring the tripod but I had enough to carry as it was).   The advantage of a prime lens (other than the sharpness) is that I don’t have to worry about zooming in and out and can therefore concentrate on taking the photograph.  However it does mean that I have to spot a bird when it’s fairly far away, focus and track.  I always end of with too many images as it flies closer, so lots to delete!


I also took time to photograph the guillemot colony…


The shags with their stunning iridescent feathers…



The fulmars with their lovely smiley faces…


My favourite, gull, the kittiwake…


…and chuckle at the antics of a couple of seagulls…


My intention was to concentrate on the flying birds on Staple Island and on Inner Farne to turn my attention towards puffins being mobbed by black-headed gulls as they landed with bills of sand eels.  However, I found myself in the right place at the right time on Staple Island when a puffin descended towards its burrow only to find a large gull awaiting its arrival.  I photographed the whole event – the puffin made it into the burrow only to be pulled out by its tail and then shaken until it dropped the sand eels.  I really felt for the puffin!  These photographs made the national press which was great too!


After a couple of hours on Staple Island I squeezed back on the boat and sailed to Inner Farne.  The middle part of this island is cordoned off, and it’s here that many of the puffins have their burrows.  It’s great for photographs of the puffins being mobbed by the black-headed gulls.   Many of the puffins judge the descent directly into their burrows perfectly, thereby avoiding the gulls but some get it wrong and suffer the consequences.  It must be terrifying to be chased by a group of these gulls.


The gulls miss a few though…


There were some eider duck chicks


and razorbills – another of my favourite seabirds.


And, of course the beautiful but protective arctic terns swooping down to attack visitors to the island as we headed up from the boat.  These birds nest on and beside the path because it provides protection from predators, however they then defend their eggs & chicks vigorously.  I was ever so slightly disapproving of fathers who made their poor (probably terrified) children stop so that they could be photographed with the terns stabbing at their heads.  These images are of sandwich terns, also found on the island.


So, crowds aside, plus the fact the boat home was too full and I had to sit on an upturned box for the journey, it was a good day.  The wildlife is wonderful and, as I often say,  it was a privilege to spend time close to these beautiful birds.

I’ll leave you with a handful more puffin images…

If you’d like prints or greeting cards of any of these images then please do get in touch – karen@karenmillerphotography.co.uk or visit my website http://www.karenmillerphotography.co.uk


2017 Highlights (Jan-June)

I’m working on an episode of my americana radio show “The Miller Tells Her Tale”  featuring my favourites of the first six months of 2017 and it occurred to me I could do the same for photographic experiences.

I don’t get out an about as much as I’d like to – a full time job, two radio shows and a dog who doesn’t travel make it problematic to venture far from home except on holidays when I can pack the dog off to someone else to deal with.  However, I’ve been fortunate enough to go on 3 vacations so far this year (Scottish Highlands, Mull and East Lothian) and a few outings.

First highlight was without a doubt the 3 days I spent with mountain hares in the Scottish highlands in March.  You can read all about this on my mountain hare blog.  Spending time with these magnificent creatures was wonderful and I can’t wait to return in August.  The highland trip was also memorable for all the people I met, especially whilst hanging out in the RSPB Loch Garten carpark waiting, mostly fruitlessly, for crested tits to visit.  Wildlife photographers, for the most part, are a friendly bunch!


In April I travelled down to the Borders for a day with Laurie Campbell to photograph river otters.  Otters are undoubtedly my favourite animal, there’s something really special about them and there’s little better than watching a family fish and cavort.  It was a fantastic day – the warmest and sunniest of the year so far (not necessarily ideal for photography, but good for sitting and waiting) – great company and plenty of otters.  We were much more successful in finding them than I could ever have hoped for, beginning with an otter cub we stumbled upon at the river bank.  Good to visit some of the locations photographed in Laurie & Anna Levin‘s “Otters – A Return to the River” book.   The day was rounded off with a quick visit in almost darkness to a badger set where I could just make out a family – the first I’ve seen. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to spend more time with the badgers in the future.


I had a tip-off about a location in Glasgow where I could photograph fossorial water voles – these are water voles that don’t actually live on river banks, but instead reside in the east end of the city in undeveloped grassland and parks.  It was a surreal experience, visiting a city park and finding the voles.  They were adorable!  Once I got my eye in I spotted them everywhere popping in and out of their burrows munching on grass.  They have been very successful in this area, primarily because the reasons their numbers have declined so drastically on river banks are the american mink and the re-development of their habitat neither of which are such a major issue away from the rivers (and in fact the voles in areas being developed are being relocated).  Interestingly these voles were black not the normal brown.  I haven’t yet managed to locate any traditional water voles, but I’ll keep looking.


In late April I travelled to Mull for a week.  I failed miserably to take any decent photographs on the Mull Charters Sea Eagle trip as I spent so much time ensuring one of my cameras was set up correctly for my Dad to borrow that I forgot to sort mine out!  Rookie mistake…  I was also less successful at finding otters than I’d have liked, tides weren’t in my favour although I did spend time with one on my final dayOtter07.


However, I was able to spend four wonderful hours on Lunga with the puffins.  More on that experience on my Lunga blog.


My parents live in East Lothian, a great place for seabirds during the summer months.  I went to visit them for a week in late May, and had my most enjoyable time there yet.  Not only did I spend time photographing the kittiwakes in Dunbar Harbour…


the puffins and other seabirds on the Farne Islands…



and a brown hare near Fast Castle.


But I also finally went on the Scottish Seabird Centre Bass Rock landing trip to spend 3 hours surrounded by the magnificent gannets – fantastic experience.  Again, more on this on an earlier blog.



Aside from trips I’ve been published for the first time – four national newspapers and the mail online published images of a puffin being mobbed by a gull on The Farne Islands.


I’ve had photographs chosen for BBC Pictures of the Week and a BBC Springwatch gallery (neither had anything to do with me being a BBC employee!) and I won a Gold Wildlife Award in the June The Societies members competition for this image of a mountain hare from my March trip (the light for the first hour that day was wonderful).


So all in all, not a bad six months. I still have a lot to learn and experience so I’m looking forward to the second half of 2017. Already planned, ten days in the Scottish Highlands in August, an otter workshop in Mull with Andy Howard in November and hopefully my first proper beaver sightings in late July.  Stay posted for updates!