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The Great Seabird Break - The Farne Islands and the North East Coast.,
29th May - 2nd June 2002, Graham Mee
Ever since watching a Bill Oddie programme on the Farne Islands, I have had an ambition to take a trip to these islands during the main breeding season to witness first hand this amazing spectacle. At the beginning of the year it became apparent that I was going to allowed leave at the end of May to make this possible. Having studied my road map to find the best route, I was quickly dismayed to find that I was on page eight following the A1 from Southend and still hadn't reached the area! I then decided to take a different approach and consulted the Go Airways website. I had soon booked a flight on-line for £34.00 return to Edinburgh! To take advantage of these incredibly low fares the flight had to be taken at 06:30 in the morning but, as this would give us an extra two days, this was more than acceptable. I also booked our hire car from Edinburgh to take advantage of the discount offered if booked at the same time as the flight.
Wednesday 29th May 2002 - Around
Our alarm went off at 3am, we were at Stansted at 5.15, on our flight at 06.30 and in the hire car and on the A720 Edinburgh ring road at 08.00 heading for Aberlady Bay where a female King Eider had been seen. Unfortunately the tide was so far out that you couldn't even see any water and so the King Eider was somewhere out at sea. We did however have our first views of Common Eider, a very nice pair of summer plumage Whimbrel and a lot of Jackdaw. What struck me as amusing coming from Essex, was that an Avocet had been seen here the day before and caused a major 'twitch' by the Scottish birdwatchers. In fact, over the next few days we were talking to a lot of local birdwatchers and the first question was always "have you seen the Avocet!"
Our next destination on the A198 was the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick, approaching the town we could see Bass Rock in the distance and it looked like it had suffered a very heavy snow fall as the whole rock appeared white. Parking the car along the harbour and getting the scope on the rock produced an awe inspiring site, thousands upon thousands of Gannet on the rock and in the air, this really has to be seen to be believed. Inside the Scottish Seabird Centre we were informed that there were up to 74,000 Gannets on the rock and the Centre provides cameras trained on various areas of the rock that you can control, pan and zoom in on these magnificent birds. Bass Rock is one of the largest Gannet breeding sites in the world, no wonder David Attenborough described it as "one of the twelve wildlife wonders of the world". We also had our first views of Guillemot, Shag, Razorbill, Sandwich Terns and Puffin and even more Eider.
After a very pleasant three hours at the Centre we headed out on the A1 coming off on to the A1107 marked Coastal trail to St Abbs Head. Here we were to find Guillemot and Razorbill in there thousands a few Puffin and a nice male Wheatear in a burrow amongst the rocks. We were fortunate to meet one of the wardens who told us that, although they don't encourage it, we could take the private road to the lighthouse itself. An interesting hour was spent watching the birds from here with the scope. It was now 16.00 and we set out back on to the A1, through Berwick on Tweed, to find our bed and breakfast (also booked on the internet).
Our bed and breakfast was at a small village about 10 miles from Berwick at a place called Ford on the B6353 and called the Old Post Office. We eventually found the wonderful house tucked away in amongst the trees and were taken to our very pleasant room. Opening the window of our room I spotted some bird feeders just across the way and within five minutes has seen a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, a Common Buzzard overhead and two Coal Tits, I knew that I was going to like this particular B&B very much indeed! I kept a species list for the duration of our stay and had made 22 by the time we left (see below).
Having settled ourselves in the B&B we decided to find a local pub for an evening meal and headed out on the A697 to Wooler. Before heading for the pub we took a short drive through Earle in to the Harthope Burn valley to Langleeford. A wonderful and scenic valley that I was sure must hold a Dipper but on this occasion we could not find one but we resolved to return.
The drive so far had made us aware of a huge number of other birds, if anyone in Essex has been wondering where all our Swallows, House Martins and Pied Wagtails have got to, I can tell you that they are in Northumberland in their thousands and seem to be doing very well indeed! There was not a moment of the drive from Aberlady bay where at least one (or many) of these species was not in view.
Thursday 30th May 2002 - Castles
After a superb breakfast we decided to explore Holy Island and Lindisfarne, a short drive from where we were staying. We did all the usual tourist things and then headed out to the Castle. The Castle was the best bit for me not because of its shear splendour or its historic associations but because of the large number of Fulmars that were nesting on its cliff walls. These birds allowed you to get very close to them and walking around the castle you had to constantly duck to avoid them! A short spell of seawatching with a local birder soon produced a Manx Shearwater, Rock Pipit, Arctic Tern and Sandwich Tern as well as a young Grey Seal being fed by its mother on a sandbank. Also in their hundreds were, yes, you've guessed it, Eider.
After escaping Holy Island before the sea cut us off we headed off south on the A1 to visit Bamburgh Castle. Although I have to admit that the Castle is one of the most impressive historic buildings that I have seen, we didn't go in as we found that the entrance fee of £4.50 each was rather excessive. Instead some time spent wandering the grounds gave us a Sedge warbler and lots of those certain ducks again!
The sight of the Cheviots in the background during the morning had made me long for steep hills and valleys so we set off from Bamburgh and cut across on the B6348, down the A697 to Ingram and the start of the Northumberland National Park. From Ingram we followed the valley road through to Linhope. Following the river, the most obvious difference in this valley was the amount of Sand Martin hawking the river. Before we left this fantastic place we had found a gorgeous male Dipper, a Grey Wagtail, Wheatear and Whinchat.
Friday 31st May 2002 - Millions
Friday, being the best forecast weather day, is the day that we had planned for the Farne Islands. Heading down to Seahouses with our packed lunches kindly supplied by Mrs Wait at our B&B, we had soon booked in at Billy Shields for the all day birdwatching cruise. The cost of the trip was £18 each and rather expensive but as a one-off, life time experience just had to be done. The trip first takes you to the outer islands for very close views of the 4,000 strong Grey Seal colony, on the way we were thrilled by the sight of a Harbour Porpoise breaking the water close to our boat. The boat took us in very close to the Pinnacle Rocks and it is very hard to describe the sight and sounds (and smells!) of so many thousands of birds, it was just breathtaking. We landed on Staple Island for a two hour stay and after having some very dodgy stumbling over the rocks were soon at the top on the grass. The sight of so many Puffins is something that will stay with us forever. Any visitor to the Island is enthralled by the Puffin numbers on land but you then realise when you start looking at the sea through binoculars that there are many, many more thousands on the water. I can well believe the wardens estimate of over 34,000 pairs. Staple Island is also good for Shag and you end up having to step over the birds as you walk around, they show absolutely no fear of man whatsoever. By the end of the two hours we had added Common sandpiper, Rock Pipit as well as the hundreds of Kittiwake and Razorbills to our list.
Back on to our boat, the Glad Tidings IV, we headed for a two hour stay on Inner Farne - this is where the fun really began! As soon as you step off the boat and start walking up the path to the Island you are attacked by Arctic Tern. We had been warned to take hats and both of us had baseball caps on, what we had not been warned about was that a baseball cap is no contest to an Arctic Tern bill. At the top of the path I turned to my girlfriend to exclaim my joy and was horrified to see blood pouring from under her hat - fortunately she was not badly hurt but the Terns were rapidly becoming one of her least favourite birds. I must admit the Terns that attacked me did hurt quite a lot, the sound they make with their bills and calls as they attack you is quite stunning and I certainly wouldn't want to be a small predator. At this point it became apparent that I was taking much more of their attacks than anyone else around me, I was rather miffed by this as the hat that I had chosen to wear was my RSPB cap!
Stepping over nesting Arctic Tern, Eider and Puffins we spent a wonderful two hours enthralled at the sights. Thanks to a couple of birders we were also soon able to locate the one pair of Roseate Tern that were on the island. Out of the whole trip, this was certainly the most spectacular and enjoyable (even for my girlfriend who has now 'sort of' forgiven the Tern that attacked her).
At the end of the trip we returned to Seahouses harbour where we had noticed some Eider in amongst the boats when we had set off. We had no sooner landed when these Eider came up the ramp and right up to us! I only associate common all-garden ducks with begging for bread but to see these large, beautiful, wild sea ducks doing the same was really something that quite surprised us. Perhaps it is because our only views of these birds in Southend is usually far out in the estuary.
Saturday 1st June 2002 - Going
for a 'Twitch'
On the Saturday we didn't have anything too definite planned and, as the lady running the B&B had a computer that she kindly let me use, so I logged on to BirdGuides to see what was about. There was a report of a Spoonbill at Tyninghame in the John Muir Country Park by Dunbar and, as my only view of Spoonbill to date had been very distant, I decided to head for these. We decided to go the long route to the area so that we could take in even more of the countryside. We headed up the A697 to Coldstream and took the B6365 across the Lammermuir Hills to Whiteadder Reservoir. On the way I stopped by a small bridge at Ellemford to answer the call of a whole pot of coffee drunk at breakfast that morning when Chrissy put me on to a Common Buzzard just over the hill. Having a quick look over the bridge we had the pleasant surprise of a female Goosander and five chicks on the water below, there were also many Yellowhammer around. it certainly makes you wonder just how much you miss driving at speed through our countryside.
We parked our car in the John Muir Country Park car park and had a very pleasing and picturesque walk around to the bay. It took quite some time but eventually I got the scope on a pair of Spoonbill and, once located, we were able to walk around a get very close views of them. The area that we watched them from also had a pair of Coal Tit nesting in the bank beneath our feet and we were also able to watch their comings and goings in close detail as they bought food in for their chicks.
As the weather was really nice by now we decided to head back down the A1 and to the first valley that we had visited when we arrived, taking the A6112 back to Coldstream and then the A697 to Wooler. Driving back down the Langleeford valley a Chaffinch shot out of the hedge beside me, through my open window and ended up on the back seat of the car. Much screeching of breaks occurred and panic fumbling as we tried to get the back door opened. This is the first time that I have ever had a bird in the car with me (feathered variety of course) but the Chaffinch was soon on its way and seemed none the worse for its experience. We were soon camped out complete with picnic beside the river half way along the valley where we spent a very lazy three hours here and were visited by a juvenile and an adult Dipper, Spotted Flycatchers and a stunning male Common Redstart.
Sunday 2nd June 2002 - The Journey
The weather in the morning was not too clever and I decided to head back in the direction of Edinburgh where our return flight was due to depart at 19.40 that evening. After a brief stop at Musselburgh where we didn't see the Surf Scoter that had been reported the day before we headed over the Firth of Forth to the Vane Farm RSPB Reserve. There was three reasons for this: 1) I hadn't been to one of our reserves the whole trip, 2) I didn't want to come to Scotland and not see an Osprey and 3) I wanted to add the rather nice Vane Farm lapwing polo shirt to my collection. The Osprey we saw on getting out of the car. Strangely enough the closest views that we have ever had of a Swallow sitting on a nest were at the entrance to the toilets here. A Swallow had built its nest just at head height in the entrance.
So ended a very, very enjoyable five days, although the number of different species that we saw was not that high the number of birds that we saw must have been in the millions! I would certainly recommend without hesitation to anyone that has an interest in birdwatching to visit the Farnes during the breeding season, this was without doubt the most wonderful, enthralling and breathtaking wildlife spectacle that we have ever witnessed.
(Bed and Breakfast)
Author: Graham Mee, Southend RSPB Members Group
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