Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Farne Islands: Part I

Last Friday and Saturday I went on a birding trip to Northumberland. Most of Friday was spent either travelling up there from London or on various sites along the way trying to spot as many bird species as we could. A lot of species were seen at Rutland Water in the tiny county of Rutland, famous for its breeding ospreys. Whilst I was there I saw a few new species of bird I'd never encountered before, including the gorgeous yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), which I had previously only heard, and tree sparrows (Passer montanus), far less common than their once ubiquitous cousin, the house sparrow (P. domesticus). When in Northumberland itself, we decided to stop at various streams and brooks to look for grey wagtails (Motacilla cinerea) and dippers (Cinclus cinclus). We did see a few individuals of both species, and I managed to get a couple of poor shots of the dipper.

White-throated dipper
Cinclus cinclus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Cinclidae; Passeriformes; Aves; Chordata
River Breamish, Northumberland, May 2011

After a comfy night's rest in our bunkhouse near the town of Seahouses, we set off for the harbour in that town for a boat tour of the Farne Islands. These islands, as you are about to see, offer almost unbelievable views of various species of breeding seabirds. The tour took us to Staple Island, then briefly around some of the smaller islands, and finally to Inner Farne Island, before going back to the mainland, lasting six hours with two hours on each island.

The first thing that strikes you as you approach Staple Island is the masses of guillemots, puffins, shags, and kittiwakes that you see. There are simply thousands of birds on the rocks, in the air, and on the sea.

European shag
Phalacrocorax aristotelis (Linnaeus, 1761)
Phalacrocoracidae; Pelecaniformes; Aves; Chordata
Staple Island, Farne Islands, Northumberland, May 2011

The shags are congregated close to the landing point so they are the first of the birds to offer fantastic views. With their dinosaur-like heads, glossy green-black plumage, shaggy quiffs, and emerald-green eyes, they are perfect objects for photographic study.

European shags
Details as above

In the above photo, one shag is providing nesting material for the other in the form of seaweed, which is abundant around the islands. They will also use grass to create their nests.

European shag
Details as above

Although it appears that this shag has caught an eel or a snake, it is carrying the steadfast of the sea kelp (Laminaria sp.) that this seaweed had attached itself to the rocks with. Shags differ from their close relative, the great cormorant (P. carbo) by lacking any white on the plumage. Cormorant colonies are also present on some of the Farne Islands, but none were seen on Staple or Inner Farne.

Northern fulmar
Fulmarus glacialis (Linnaeus, 1761)
Procellariidae; Procellariiformes; Aves; Chordata
Staple Island, Farne Islands, Northumberland, May 2011

Fulmars look quite a lot like gulls to the untrained eye, but differ mainly in their shape whilst flying and features of the head. Fulmars are petrels and are related to albatrosses. As such, the 'tube-noses' as they are called, can be recognised by the namesake nostrils which are used to excrete excess salt from their bodies. Fulmars are also known for vomiting a stale broth containing parts of their last meal when threatened. Thankfully, this is as close as I got to any fulmar.

Atlantic puffin
Fratercula arctica (Linnaeus, 1758)
Alcidae; Charadriiformes; Aves; Chordata
Staple Island, Farne Islands, Northumberland, May 2011

The main attraction for many, including myself, to visit the Farne Islands, is not shags nor fulmars, but puffins. Puffins need no introduction to most, as they are familiar to the majority of people (at least in the UK), and hold a place in many people's hearts. The puffins did not disappoint; they were the only bird to show incredibly well both on Staple and Inner Farne Islands.

Rock pipit
Anthus petrosus (Montagu, 1798)
Motacillidae; Passeriformes; Aves; Chordata
Staple Island, Farne Islands, Northumberland, May 2011

Rock pipits are small birds in the same family as wagtails. They are common on rocky shores around the UK and other parts of western Europe.

Common guillemots
Uria aalge (Pontoppidan, 1763)
Alcidae; Charadriiformes; Aves; Chordata
Staple Island, Farne Islands, Northumberland, May 2011

Guillemots, known as murres in the US, seemed to be by far the most numerous of all the birds on Staple Island. There were thousands perched on a single cliff. They are closely related to puffins, but have a more penguin-like shape, except when flying of course. Guillemots are known for crowding together en masse on cliff faces; they are able to do this because they do not make nests which take up room. Instead, they lay a single pear-shaped egg on the bare cliff. Simple physics dictates that a long egg will roll around in a circle without ever falling off the cliff, unlike a round one.

Alca torda Linnaeus, 1758
Alcidae; Charadriiformes; Aves; Chordata
Staple Island, Farne Islands, Northumberland, May 2011

The razorbill was not as numerous as either of the other auks (puffin and guillemot) on the Farnes, but it still afforded great views. Reminiscent both of penguins and its close extinct cousin, the great auk (Pinguinus impennis), the razorbill is so called because of the similarity of its bill to the old fashioned razor.

Black-legged kittiwake
Rissa tridactyla (Linnaeus, 1758)
Laridae; Charadriiformes; Aves; Chordata
Staple Island, Farne Islands, Northumberland, May 2011

Kittiwakes are small gulls that are quite numerous on the Farnes as well as in other parts of the northern British Isles and coastal North America. In any of these places though, the kittiwake chooses only the most inaccessible cliffs on which to build its nest, providing excellent protection for their eggs and chicks.

Female eider
Somateria mollissima (Linnaeus, 1758)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
Staple Island, Farne Islands, Northumberland, May 2011

Whilst walking around on the dolerite cliffs of Staple Island, I nearly stepped on a female eider sitting on her nest. Thankfully, I saw her before I almost extinguished her life. I was soon to see many more ducks in a similar position, including this individual. She was the most confiding duck I have ever seen, even more so than domestic mallards. I was afraid to touch her, although I could have done so very easily, for fear of stressing her out, but my trip buddies were stroking her like a pet cat. I can tell you, the eider very easily deserves its reputation for having the softest feathers around; no wonder they were used to stuff pillows and duvets.

Grey seal cow (above); and cows and bulls (below)
Halichoerus grypus (Fabricius, 1791)
Phocidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Farne Islands, Northumberland, May 2011

Lying on almost every rocky shore on the Farnes were colonies of grey seals. The bulls (around twice the size of the cows) can be easily distinguished from the cows in the above photo.

In the following post, I get bombarded by Arctic terns and get even closer to some puffins, all on Inner Farne Island, and you will hear about the case of the missing robin.


Trish said...

I am exceedingly jealous. Thanks for the wonderful pictures!

That Pastor D said...

Great review Mo, thanks for coming...