Here is one of the main reasons for our return visit to this part of the country – a boat trip out to the Farne Islands, a bleak archipelago favoured by nesting seabirds. Penguin-like in their stark black and white livery, the sharp-beaked ones are guillemots while the paddle-billed individuals are razorbills; both are types of auk. You can also see a shag in the background and a herring gull front-left.
The Farnes’ most famous auk family member is the puffin though. These cute little seabirds nest is profusion on the islands, although they didn’t seem to be as numerous as the last time we visited in 2003. This is the Atlantic puffin, cutest of the three species worldwide.
One thing we don’t remember at all from last time is the presence of terns, especially arctic terns. These are also breeding in large numbers on the islands at this time, and they will defend their ground-bound nests with beak and claw. Blood ran from wounds on unprotected pate and fending hand, and savvy visitors were wearing hats – not just for protection from marauding terns, but also from the copious rain of bird crap falling from the skies. I was done by beak and bum, as fresh guano mixed with the blood seeping down my forehead.
The island we were on also contained common and sandwich terns, although the arctics formed far and away the largest, loudest and most aggressive population. Arctics and commons are very similar in appearance, the most reliable difference being the lipstick-red bill of the arctic against the black-tipped orange bill of the common, as shown here. Sandwich terns are black-billed and the black caps of their heads are ragged and feathery at the back, while not extending down the nape, making them much easier to distinguish; they actually belong to the crested tern family.
Both great and lesser black-backed gulls are found on the Farnes; there is quite a size difference, but it’s not easy to gauge unless the two are literally next to each other. The easiest photographic difference is that the great black-backed (bottom photo) has pink legs, while the lesser (top and middle) has yellow. Sadly, even that doesn’t show up in these two photos! The other notable difference is that the lesser actually has mid-to-dark grey back and wing plumage, whereas the great black-backed is much darker, almost real black.
Oh, and did I mention the Atlantic grey seals? Not sure what business Atlantic seals have on the North Sea coast, but they gather here in profusion. We have one pictured here on a seaweed-strewn bank, with Bamburgh Castle standing to attention in the background. Below that is a photo of a whole lolloping community of seals.