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


Highland based nature photographer and guide specialising primarily in Scottish wildlife but available to cover live music and events.

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