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Gorgeous gannets, persecuted puffins and tern-ed heads

Arctic tern

Every wildlife watcher should pay a summer visit to Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire to view the UK’s biggest seabird, the northern gannet, followed quickly by a trip up the coast to the Northumbrian Farne Islands where the star attractions are nesting Arctic terns and Atlantic puffins.  You can do it all in two days so there is no excuse!

RSPB Bempton on a nice day, is wonderful.  If you’re lucky, you’ll catch sight of a peregrine falcon patrolling the cliff tops and a barn owl out hunting mid-morning to satisfy the hunger of its growing youngsters. But it’s the northern gannet that provides continuous entertainment with its eye-level fly-pasts, its sometimes clumsy landings and its aggressive behaviour towards its too-close for comfort neighbours.  Not only the biggest UK seabird with a wingspan of 1.8 metres but the gannet is, arguably, the most beautiful.  In breeding season the head and neck is painted buff yellow and the blue eye is a natural focus point for the camera lens.  

Northern gannet

You’ll also see Atlantic puffins, razorbills and guillemots here but don’t spend too much time on them because there are thousands waiting for you on the Farne Islands.  When you’ve had your fill of Bempton, head 150 miles north to the coast of Northumbria and the little village of Seahouses, breaking your journey for an overnight stay anywhere north of Newcastle.  In Seahouses harbour, you’ll find several boat companies itching to take you out to the Farne Islands to see Atlantic grey seals and a host of seabirds feeding in the North Sea and heading, back and forth, to and from their island nests.  

You’ll land on Inner Farne which is owned and cared for by the National Trust.  Here are thousands of nesting birds including shags, herring and black-backed gulls, Arctic terns, Atlantic puffins and black guillemots.  The photographer is spoilt for choice.  Medium and short telephoto lenses are the only requirements as the birds are so close to the footpaths. If you haven’t got a ‘proper’ camera, take your phone.  Nesting so close to the footpath presents its challenges, however.  The puffins go about their business apparently unconcerned by the presence of humans but the feisty Arctic terns defend their nests and immediate environment as if they were under siege.  All visitors are advised to wear a hat to guard against the sharp beaks of the terns as they will attack any head in their vicinity.  Just occasionally, one will take a break from its aggression and alight on a hat for a few moments.

Arctic tern

Meanwhile, the puffin pairs are each raising one chick, known as a ‘puffling’.  Adults fly out to sea in search of their staple diet, sand eels, but that’s the easy bit.  Getting their catch back into the nest is the difficult part.  Puffins nest in small burrows in the ground and there are thousands of them.  The only sure way that the young pufflings will see the product of their parent’s fishing trip is for the adult to fly straight into their own home.

Atlantic puffin

Any hesitation or even a near miss by the adult will attract the unwanted and aggressive attention of black-headed gulls who are lying in wait to steal the eels from their mouths.  It’s your classic ‘running the gauntlet’ and it’s never ending.  Stealing the young puffin’s meal is easier than finding their own.  This turmoil in the colony is, apparently, so common and accepted that other puffins go about their business without batting an eyelid.  And you are standing in the middle of it.

Your short stay on Inner Farne will end before you are ready.  It’s time to go but you don’t want to.  Just a little bit longer would be good.  It’s a fascinating, unique, in your face experience of wild animal behaviour which you will remember forever.  Visit ‘Baht’at’ and you may remember it for the wrong reasons…

Please note: As of the beginning of July 2022, Inner Farne has been closed to landing visitors due to the presence of bird flu. You should check the present status before visiting.

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