Although we rarely do any birds anymore, we remain fascinated by the Auk family, especially the Puffins.
Since our son Rodrigo and his wife live in England, we decided to visit the rookery islands while spending time with the kids. There are a lot of cottages available for rent in Seahouses, base for the birding trip boats.
Seahouses is a small coastal town in Northumberland, pretty harbour and fairly busy with birders, photographers and beach lovers. A few decent restaurants, nice bakery, supermarket with great prices and fresh food and charming tea houses here and there. There are local fishing boats, so fish will be fresh and abundant.
The Farne Islands are a group of islands off the coast of Northumberland, England. There are between 15 and 20 islands depending on the state of the tide. They are scattered about 1½–4¾ miles (2.5–7.5 km) from the mainland, divided into two groups, the Inner Group and the Outer Group. The main islands in the Inner Group are Inner Farne, Knoxes Reef and the East and West Wideopens (all joined together on very low tides) and (somewhat separated) the Megstone; the main islands in the Outer Group are Staple Island, the Brownsman, North and South Wamses, Big Harcar and the Longstone. The two groups are separated by Staple Sound. The highest point, on Inner Farne, is 62 feet (19 metres) above mean sea level. (source: Wikipedia)
There are a few boats that offer half-day and full day birding trips. The most popular being Billy Shiel, with a fleet of over half a dozen boats. There is also Serenity and maybe a couple more. They offer pelagic and landing trips, as well as sunset and other short trips. All of these are weather dependant, and even if you sail, you may have to come back in a hurry because of an unexpected storm, as it happened to us on Thursday June 25th, with some friends. We made the morning safely (Staple) and two minutes after landing in inner Farne, we had to re-board and got totally soaked while waiting for the queue to disembark in the small harbour. Sense of humor and friendship saved the day!
I confess my inability to carry a long telephoto lens and tripod any longer. As the years and health issues pile up, carrying so much weight around defeats the purpose of enjoyment, and quite frankly, we have been enjoying the freedom and mobility you get from smaller gear. Unless you are going to a place where the wildlife is very spooky and very far, with today’s ISO capabilities and resolution, you can do a killing anyway. I personally work better with less gear, so I can concentrate in making the best out of the situation without deciding what to use.
In our long experience with brands, right now we ended up with Sony gear, after using Canon, Nikon and Leica. Not knocking anything, but it seems Sony works well for us at this time.
Since we do mainly travel and macro, the mirrorless bodies are perfect. Since we were coming to do birds, our main (and only) camera was the Sony A77ii, with the battery grip, which was perfect for us, plus the G lens 70-400, f/4-5.6
Sony AF system is very advanced. The Flexible point/lock on creates a box that follows subject, although Puffins are really too fast for this sometimes. Alfred used mostly the Flexible spot center, while I used the wide, equivalentto Canon’s ring of fire.
The camera body has a 1.4X and 2X built in crop factor, that needs to be used in jpg. We had tried the crops in Blue Cypress with very bad light from the pontoon boat and were happy with the 1.4X bur not the 2X. On land, with the support of the knee, the 2X was perfect. The main reason for using the crops is that as you reduce the canvas size, the focus points become active in your entire image, which is convenient for action, if you can handle that focal length. (The smaller the frame, the more difficult it is to find the subject).
ISO wise, I kept to ISO 800, easily cleanable is light is flat, and perfect in good light. Alfred ventured to 1600 without any trouble. I would not push the DSLR further than that, although very comfortable suing the mirroless at much higher settings.
Alfred spent most of his time doing flight. I did a bit of everything, since I like behavior a lot and it was so easy with the funny birds so close to us.
The pictures presented here were done with ISO values from 400 to 1600, on manual mode, center weight metering, close focus most of the time, even flight. Aperture settings from f/5.6 to f/14, depending on the DOF/background needed and shutter speed depending on the light, sometimes under or sometimes over 0, depending on the light conditions. We had one day inner Farne, when the sun came out full blast, and the hours of visiting are middle of the summer day, so the contrast and shadows were too frustrating. I put off my bird gear and started playing with Infrared and Lensbaby images.
On this trip we had made arrangements to meet with Geoffrey Baker, who was so absolutely nice and helpful when we visited Skomer 3 years ago, and to meet John Deakin and Karen MacDonald, long time on-line friends. We also met Paul Masterton, and it was great to spend time with them and Geoff treated us to coffee and scones and one of the tea houses when back soaking wet . Thank you again, pal!!! You rock.
The Farne islands are protected by the National Trust, and there is a nominal landing fee every time you visit. The breeding islands have biologist present at all time, and they keep count of every burrow in use and other important facts. Unless you are doing something against wildlife, you will not even know they are there. If you need information, they will give it you gracefully and with enthusiasm. I never saw anyone misbehave in the whole week.
If you want more information in the area, which has a lot of history, please visit the National Trust website.
Time to visit are the summer months, with June peaking for amount of birds, end of June/July for feeding behavior. You can land in inner Farne up to October (depending on the birds you are interested in) and no trips in the winter.
Weather is very erratic. You definitely need rain gear for yourself and your gear. Sun screen in necessary on rare days and hat is vital in inner Farne because of the Arctic Terns attacks. (Really!)
If you get seasick, take precautions because seas could be rough. There are toilets in the islands but no food or water, so be prepared.
Inner Farne ia larger than Staple, with the second being better for Puffins.
Wind is more important than light if you want landing shots. The first couple of days the wind direction was wrong and they were landing with their backs to us and we could only get them sideways at best. The last three days were fine, the Sunday being the best. It was morning, so East wind, very strong, had them suspended in the air. Especially 10 minutes before we left 😦
If you take the “All day birding trip”, you will visit Stapes in the morning, and Inner Farne in the afternoon. Most people use the boat ride to eat. You will stay around two hours on each island and will be shown around the gray Seals and other rookeries, like the Pinnacles. Noise and scent will be intense at these, especially when you visit the Kittiwakes.
Equipment wise, some people carry a lot, some people use the tablet’s cameras. They are very close to the paths (you HAVE to stay in the paths as not to step in the burrows) but some photographers like to use tripods and long lenses.
Looking at it now, two trips under the belt, the ideal would be a stool with a monopod and a telephoto zoom.
If you take the morning or afternoon (half-day trip), you will stay on land aprox one hour, but will get a lot less tired.
Mornings are to Staple and afternoon to Inner. Staple is more difficult to land on because the steps could get wet and slippery at the minimum of rain or moist, and if you land, you need to be extra cautious not to take a fall or twist your ankle on the rocks before you get to the wooden path. The less you take with you, the less you have to worry about. Must: rain gear.
We will be making another post about Guillemots and other Auks.
Photos by Alfred and Fabiola Forns. All rights reserved, do not use without permission, please.