If you were reading last time, you will know that I had just seen my one-hundred and fiftieth bird species of the year during a trip to Northumberland. When I started out, I really didn’t know what to expect from the challenge. I certainly didn’t know that much about birds and was sceptical about my chances of being able to identify much of what I saw. One-hundred and fifty seemed like an impossibility, but now I’m finally there, I am keen to find out just how far past it I can go…
So far, it has been a really interesting seven months of wielding binoculars, wading knee-deep in mud, gawping in awe as a Barn Owl ghosted past me in the gloaming and getting nicely frustrated at the challenge of trying to tell a third-winter Herring Gull from a Lesser Black-Backed Gull. I have learned a lot and seen some amazing things.
The experience has been an eye-opener as to just how magnificent the natural world is. Its splendour. Its ingenuity. Its variety. If you don’t already, I can’t encourage you all enough to go out and see the wonders of wildlife that run, fly and crawl in your local woodland or even in your back garden. If you stop and take a moment to look, you will be amazed at the marvels all around. Sadly, it might not always be there.
Before I start weeping or burst into a rendition of Earth Song, I’ll move on…
When I started this year of randomly chasing birds around, I hadn’t heard of the Farne Islands. When somebody first mentioned that I should pay them a visit to see one of the UK’s largest seabird colonies, I instinctively said that going to Scotland was quite a trek. They agreed with my comment, but obviously decided not to call me a geographically-ignorant moron through good manners. I thank them for that because after a bit of research, I discovered that the Islands aren’t in the furthest reaches of northern Scotland, but off the coast of Northumberland. Google Maps has suggested that I was wrong by about 450 miles – It’s a wonder I make it home after a day at work.
My research also revealed that the archipelago of fifteen or so islands is home to twenty-two different species of nesting birds. Looking down the list, I could count (although not with any conviction after my issue with two 108s on my Bird Board last time) seven of which I had never seen before.
And this is why I found myself boarding a small boat at Seahouses harbour to go on a trip… First to Staple Island and then to Inner Farne. This was probably the most committed birdy thing I had done so far this year – Had a trip of 350-plus miles and the booking of a boat trip entitled ‘All Day Birdwatch’ with the sub-heading ‘particularly suitable for the enthusiastic ornithologist’, proved my transformation into dedicated bird-mad crazy twitcher?
Probably not… I’ve just always wanted to see Puffins.
As the boat pulled-up to the jetty at Staple Island, I was almost overwhelmed by a pervasive pungent pong of poisson-perfumed poo (and an almighty attack of alliteration) and definitely overwhelmed by the sheer number of birds that were crammed onto the rocky outcrop nearly as far as the eye could see. It was such a staggering sight that I became giddy (although this may have been due to me being stood on a boat). Even at first glance, I could tell I was going to love this place.
A National Trust ranger came to greet the vessel-load of tourists, the skipper of the boat remarked that the fishy-pooey smell was due to our welcomer not showering for a week. It was probably a comment he repeated daily for the benefit of his passengers and was the sole reason the ranger, perhaps, was desperately trying to train the seabirds on the island to attack smart-arses on command.
The island was absolutely breath-taking. There were nesting seabirds pretty much everywhere… and so unbelievably close… and so many I had never seen before… and there were so many… I almost didn’t know where to look and almost forgot how to breathe! My imaginary bird-list notepad took an absolute battering. Guillemots. Razorbills. Puffins. Shags. Fulmars. All new for the year and just all new full-stop.
If you like birds: go to the Farne Islands during breeding season. If you’re not all that fussed with birds, but have a passing interest in nature: go to the Farne Islands during breeding season. If you’re not all that fussed with birds, or nature, but have a pulse: go to the Farne Islands during breeding season. I promise you that it will blow your mind right off of its moorings… and then some.
The second stop was Inner Farne: home to, amongst others, four-thousand or so breeding Arctic Terns. When I had mentioned that I was visiting, pretty much everyone warned me that I needed to make sure I wore a hat, as the Terns were pretty belligerent to anyone coming close to their offspring. I’ve seen pictures of people with blood streaming down their foreheads after an encounter with an Arctic Tern in attack mode.
I haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’, but I imagine it would be something like a typical experience on Inner Farne. Synopsis: A disused mediaeval church on an island is surrounded by thousands of birds hell-bent on pecking the crap out of anyone unfortunate enough to stray close by. The victims face a struggle for survival until their boat returns to collect them two hours and fifteen minutes later. Bird-related horror ensues…
In spite of the threat of imminent blindness from the sharp-end of beaks (logically, the non-sharp end attached to the birds’ faces were never going to pose any danger to health), the two or so hours on Inner Farne was a phenomenal experience.
Without sounding too much like an advert for Visit Northumberland, I highly recommend a trip to the Farne Islands – Just mention my name and you’ll get a whopping 0% discount and a funny look.