Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Puffin - A Farnes Favourite

Credit and Copyright Nigel Roddis,

The Puffin is one of the country's favourite birds and there are few better places to see them up close than on the Farne Islands. The ever popular bird is a firm favourite with our visitors, offering endless great photo opportunities in the height of the breeding season. But how much do you know about our colourful friend?

The Puffin is unmistakable; once seen, never forgotten. With its beautiful markings, strikingly coloured bill and almost comic gait it is a bird that has endeared itself to millions. Though often known as a Sea Parrot, locally in Northumberland, the bird is known as a "Tommy Noddy". It is a member of the Auk family, alongside Gullemots and Razorbills - also present on the islands. Males and females look almost identical with the male often being slightly larger. With over half of the UK population at just a handful of sites, The National Trust's care and management of the Farne Islands is critical to their ongoing breeding success. They are an Amber listed bird species highlighting the risk their populations are potentially under. (Rare birds are nationally categorised under a Red, Amber, Green system of designation, according to their level of conservation concern). In 2014 we recorded 39,962 pairs of Puffins on the Farnes, level with the previous year. Puffins live longer than you might think, many in excess of twenty years. Some Puffins around the country have been recorded at ages of over thirty years old.

Credit and Copyright Nigel Roddis,

Each year, the Puffins return to the Farnes to breed. This is generally between April and late July with the peak breeding season being in May and June. For the remainder of the year, the birds fly out to sea, overwintering on the water, only returning to land each year for a short window to breed and raise their young. It is while out on the water, that they shed their brightly coloured bills, in favour of a dull grey winter bill colouring. But, as spring approaches, the vibrant colours return and, by the time they settle on land again, the bill is clear again for all to see. It is on, and in, the water though that Puffins, like many seabirds, gain their agility. On land they might appear awkward or clumsy, but on their home territory, the water, their evolutionary development shines. Underwater, while steering with their feet, the Puffin's wings become flippers, propelling them to depths at great speed in their quest for the next meal.

In the following clip, filmed off the Farnes in 2014, photographer Jack Perks captures a rare insight into what is happening beneath the waves around the islands. In peak season, beneath the surface of the North Sea, tens of thousands of birds are active in their search for food, particularly sandeels, a key staple of the seabirds' diet. The health of the sea around the islands and the marine environment is crucial to the well being of the bird colonies. Their success is reliant upon a healthy sea providing a rich and plentiful diet.

Copyright and Credit Jack Perks,

Every five years our Ranger team will undertake a full census of the Puffins, counting their numbers to help monitor growth or decline on the colony. This information is fed into national data sets that help monitor the country's wider population.

Credit and Copyright Nigel Roddis, 

The Puffin nests in rabbit-like burrows. These are clearly visible as you walk around Inner Farne or Staple Island. The peaty ground is burrowed out to create a chambered hollow below ground in which a single egg will be laid. 

Early in the season, as the Puffins return to the islands, they make a start cleaning their burrows of any accumulated materials, making a fresh abode for the months ahead. It is in here, that a single "Puffling" will hatch and grow. Incubation is normally around forty days, the chick developing over a period of a further  forty days or so. The Puffling won't leave the nest until it is ready, awaiting the moment it will see the world for the very first time as it emerges with its parents for an often clumsy waddle down to the water's edge, and its first introduction to the water, its future home. 

A Puffin preparing its nest below ground. Copyright The National Trust

The next few weeks are the ideal time to visit the islands and see the Puffins' story unfolding. Visiting information is available by clicking the Farne Islands link, at the top of the page. Just by visiting, you help support the vital work our team undertake on the Farne Islands to protect one of the country's most important seabird colonies. And don't forget, if you get any great pictures on your trip, you can share them with us on Twitter at @NTFarneIslands and @Northumb_Coast 

Special thanks to Nigel Roddis for image permissions (, and Jack Perks ( for the underwater clip. 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

The Breeding Season is Upon Us

The remote offshore location of the Farne Islands provide a home to over 87,000 pairs of seabirds, and passerines, with 24 nesting species. The islands are famed for their Puffins and Arctic Terns but many more species live alongside the main attractions making the Farnes one of the most significant seabird reserves in the country. Though some species live on the islands all year round, most are migratory, flying in for the summer months to breed and raise their young. Some birds return year on year, flying huge distances from the Antarctic and Africa to raise a new brood.

Each year one of the key tasks for the Rangers on the islands is to survey the thousands of breeding birds. The information gathered each year adds to a knowledge base of seabird population health, movement and well-being within the bird and scientific community.

Why do we monitor bird populations?
Watchers / wardens / rangers have monitored the bird life on the islands since the 1880's, but it was only in 1970 that systematic recording really started. Management of the site relies upon accurate information - are the measures we put in place for nesting birds having the desired effect? Is there a plentiful food supply? What part does the weather play in breeding success? What we do know is that bird numbers have increased from 27,000 pairs in 1970 to the 87,000 pairs we see today.

How do we do it?

Counting ever changing colonies of seabirds is not easy. They don't stay still for long. The cliff-nesters, such as Kittiwakes and Guillemot, require an early morning start, a relatively flat sea, and a number of Rangers in their Zodiac inflatable boat. All the cliff-nesters are counted ten times, over ten mornings, from both the boat and the land, and the figures averaged out. Some species which have a prolonged nesting season, such as Eiders, are mapped, while Terns are counted in one day - the Rangers judge the optimal time for this.

Numbered, painted stones you will see around the islands marking monitored nests

The team follow a standard methodology which is used at all seabird colonies in Britain. This means that when comparing figures, for information, between colonies, we can be confident that everyone has counted in the same way.

Our data is shared with other bodies for example, the BTO, RSPB and critically, The Joint Nature Conservancy Council. The JNCC collates all seabird records, from every colony in Britain, and presents an annual "snapshot" of the health of our seabirds. From this report it is easy to judge the real importance of the Farnes in the national, and international, picture.

How will this coming year compare to last year?

Last year the mild summer weather combined with good food availability led to an excellent breeding season on the Farne Islands. The majority of seabirds showed welcome population increases with some species bouncing back from recent poor seasons. Some of the most notable highlights included:

Shag up 37% to 795 pairs (from 582)
Kittiwake up 21% to 4,175 pairs (from 3,442)
Eider up 16% to 639 pairs (from 552)
Sandwich Tern up 16% to 959 pairs (from 824)
Arctic Tern up 15% to 2,212 pairs (from 1,921)
Guillemot up 4% to Farnes record of 51,883 individuals (increase of 1,835)

The year also gave a welcome boost for the Shag population following heavy mortality during the winter of 2012-13 which halved the Farnes breeding population the following year. There was also welcome news for Kittiwakes as the population increased by 21% and good numbers of young fledged; a positive step forward following recent poor breeding seasons.

As has been the case in recent years, it was also another good year for the islands' breeding auks with Guillemots at record levels, Puffins producing huge numbers of fledglings and the Razorbill population maintaining itself. Other birds to show increases included both the Arctic and Sandwich Terns, whilst Eiders (also known as Cuddy Ducks) made a welcome increase. Other highlights included the Farnes' first ever confirmed breeding of Shoveler whilst Northumberland's only breeding pair of Red-Breasted Mergansers nested again.

In general, it was an excellent breeding season. Strong population numbers, a plentiful food supply and the summer's settled weather contributed to high numbers of young fledging the islands. Encouragingly this success story was mirrored along other east coast seabird colonies; halting the well documented declines witnessed in recent years.

So how will this year compare?

We will have to wait and see. Birds are now nesting, Puffins are burrowing, Guillemots and Shags have started laying, and still more birds have yet to arrive. Our Ranger team are busy monitoring activity again, geared up as the main season approaches. We will post regular updates across the year on the blog and on our website

Our website also contains all the information you need to help plan a visit in the coming months to see the birds for yourself. Our Rangers are always on hand to chat about the work they are undertaking and update on latest sightings. We highly recommend a visit in May and June to see the breeding season at its peak. At this time it is always advisable to bring a hat! For the National Trust, a charity, every visit we get to the islands directly helps support the continuation of this vital conservation work.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Lindisfarne Castle - Fighting the Elements

Lindisfarne Castle is one of the North East's most iconic landmarks. The castle, once a former garrison and coast guard station, was converted into a holiday home by the founder of Country Life magazine, Edward Hudson, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Having acquired the property, Hudson, in collaboration with his friends, architect Edwin Lutyens and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, set out on an ambitious journey to turn a cold, drafty castle into Hudson's Northumberland summer retreat. As the castle welcomes visitors today, so too did Hudson, inviting friends, artists, writers and colleagues to share the beauty of Holy Island in high summer. JM Barrie, author of Peter Pan, and WW1 poet Siegfried Sassoon are just two of the guests known to have enjoyed Hudson's hospitality.

The castle's setting on the headland of Holy Island is second to none, but the setting, high on a whinstone outcrop, has brought its problems over time. The elements have bombarded the castle and today it suffers from extensive water ingress though roofs, windows and walls. To prevent future ongoing deterioration, the National Trust is about to undertake a major project over the next few years to understand the buildings problems more fully, and take actions to try and reduce the sustained water damage experienced in past years, in the future. In the last eighteen months we have been undertaking the necessary surveys and information gathering required to find effective solutions to the problems and ensure the long-term sustainability of this important place. 

One member of the project team is National Trust conservator, John Wynn-Griffiths. 

“As you walk around the Castle areas of peeling paint and damp staining are noticeable.” says John. “These are very long established problems at the Castle; the Country Life photos taken soon after Lutyens’ work was completed, show damp stains to the plaster work. So we’re not dealing with new problems. But certainly over the years lots of attempts to treat them have made things worse. Added to this many of the windows, with their wide Lutyens designed lead work, leak in bad weather. To deal with these issues and find a way of improving things in the Castle we’re investigating how we can stop the windows leaking and allow the walls to breathe and dry out.

"To help us find the solutions we're calling on some of the Trust's specialist conservation advisors. They will come together at the castle and spend a couple of days looking at the challenges and discussing possible ways ahead. With their help we'll devise trials to test what will work and survive the rigours of a Northumbrian winter, especially in this exposed and storm lashed location.

“In lots of ways the Castle offers us many unique challenges, and because of this, off the shelf solutions simply don’t work. This includes the heating and, as the Trust’s adviser on environmental control said, “We need to come up with a bespoke system that suits the building”. We’ll also, as part of the project, be investigating the historic heating system, although as this only seems to have been put into a few rooms when installed, it won’t be the solution.

Regular updates on the castle project will be posted in future articles and on our website.

To find out more about Edward Hudson and the castle’s story, visit

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Shag Research On The Farnes

Alongside the regular monitoring work that our team of rangers undertake on the Farne Islands, various scientific research projects are also undertaken each year on the islands.  Currently, Liz Morgan, a student at University of Leeds is carrying out her PhD studies looking at the foraging behaviour of the islands’ seabirds.

“Seabirds can be key indicators of the health of our seas and as such it is vital to study and monitor their populations both locally and nationally.” says Liz. “I am studying seabird foraging ecology and am lucky enough to spend my summer months living and working out on the Farne Islands. I am interested in the levels of consistency seabirds’ show in how and where they find food.  Understanding what drives consistency and flexibility in birds’ behaviour will help us improve conservation management decisions and better understand how species/populations may respond to changes in their environment.

Pic2- Photo ©Pete Steward “You can get extremely close to birds on the Farnes which makes studying them a whole lot easier!”

“My research is focused on one species in particular, the European Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis). Shags feed on or close to the seabed, making several short-range trips per day in order to catch their prey. This makes them an ideal subject for our study as we can gather data on multiple trips from the same individuals. By fitting birds with bio-telemetry devices we are able to find out where the birds are going (GPS) and how deep they are diving (Time-Depth Recorders). Using this information we can then examine if certain individuals show repeatability in foraging behaviours i.e. do they have preferences in their feeding locations and/or tactics?

Pic1- photo credit: Liz Morgan. GPS and depth recorders are attached to the underside of the bird’s tail. The tags weigh less than 3% of bird’s body weight and are removed after 4-5 days so we can download the data.

The Farnes are a great study location because there are multiple shag colonies on the islands that are easily accessible. In addition, the birds are quite used to a human presence, which undoubtedly makes catching them and retrieving our devices much easier. Last year’s field season (2014) was incredibly successful. We deployed devices on 33 birds over three islands, Inner Farne, Staple and Brownsman. Thanks to some dedicated help from National Trust and Newcastle University staff members, we successfully retrieved all of our devices. A 100% return rate, which is pretty unusual in seabird telemetry studies, especially for shags.

Pic3 - Example of the kind of data we can gather from fitting telemetry devices to birds. This shows the tracks of 5 Shags breeding on the islands in 2014.

Looking at last year’s tracking data it seems some individuals might be more repeatable than others. We also noticed some interesting patterns in where birds from the inner and outer groups of islands were foraging: birds from the inner islands tended to forage close to the Northumberland coastline and made relatively shallow dives to around 15-20 m in depth, whereas birds from the outer islands tended to make deeper dives, some up to 30-40m.

I will be investigating these patterns in repeatability and spatial segregation in more detail over the next couple of years. Meanwhile we are planning to gather more data in 2015 and 2016, ideally from the same birds we tagged last year, so we can look at year-year variability in foraging patterns. We are also hoping to see if members of the same pair are foraging in similar areas, and to look in more detail at the diets of birds nesting on the inner and outer islands. Hopefully we will have more results to report soon.

For more information and to follow the progress of my project this year you can find me on twitter @ElalmoLiz "

If you want to visit the Farnes to see Shags for yourself, click on the Farne Islands link in the left hand column for visiting information.

Liz's work is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, supervised by Prof. Keith Hamer and Dr Chris Hassall at Leeds University. Fieldwork on the Farne Islands is being carried out in collaboration with the National Trust and Dr Richard Bevan and Dr Chris Redfern at Newcastle University.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

An Update from the Farne Islands

The 2015 Farne Islands season is underway and it has been all go since the Rangers gathered on the 16th of March so here is a brief summary of what has happened so far. Firstly, some introductions.

This year you will see some familiar faces with three of last year’s Farnes Rangers; David Roche, Ed Tooth and Lana Blakely all returning. The National Trust also cares for a Tern conservation site at Long Nanny and last year’s Little Tern Rangers Wynona Legg and Nathan Wilkie have migrated north from Beadnell Bay. Izzy Morgan, another previous Little Tern Ranger, is excited to have returned to Northumberland while Dan Wynn has moved from one National Trust coast to another.
We have been busy preparing the islands for visitors for the last few weeks, including restoration work on sections of tired old boardwalk, strimming the areas the Terns use for nesting, scrubbing the jetties and generally giving the place a good old clean.
While the Rangers have been busy applying the finishing touches before they moved out to the islands, the birds have also been busy. Having spent the winter at sea, they are now returning to the islands for the summer. Puffins are spring cleaning their burrows, Guillemots, Razorbills and Kittiwakes are vying for the best ledges and Shags are building nests, with the early birds now on eggs. We have found the first of what will be many Mallard nests on the islands this year, and a pair of Eider were seen prospecting the central meadow for a good nest site. We have at least 215 Sandwich Terns around the islands now, including two that were sporting Darviks rings. It turns out both of these birds were ringed at the Ythan Estuary in Aberdeenshire, in 2010 and 2011. There has also been an Arctic tern and more remarkably a Little Tern; this is the earliest a Little Tern has been recorded by 8 days. Also attracting interest are a pair of Mediterranean Gulls that have been displaying in the Blacked-headed Gull Colony. We will keep you up-to-date with what would represent a first breeding record for the Farnes.

As far as migrating birds are concerned, it’s been a somewhat slow start. Our first trip to the islands produced a Stonechat, the first on the islands since October 2013 having become rare since a winter population crash in 2010. This was followed by a showy Red-necked Grebe swimming in the sheltered waters around Inner Farne. There was then a bit of a wait until the Farnes finally received its first Wheatear and a few days later a Chiffchaff. We have now recorded our first Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Swallow, Sand Martin and House Martin which have come with the sunshine this week.  This slow start was mirrored along the rest of the East coast as Westerly winds put a temporary halt to spring migration. As far as rare and scarce birds go, a first winter Glaucous Gull just off North Rocks on 15 April provided excitement for the team.
For breaking news follow us on twitter @NTFarneIslands - we hope to welcome you to the Farne Islands soon.