Tuesday, 29 March 2016

A Fresh Perspective!

It's been a busy few weeks on the islands as birds and rangers alike settle in for the new season. In this post, new Assistant Ranger Tom Hendry tells us what it was like coming to the islands for the first time as a Farne Islands ranger, and also what he and the team have been seeing over the past week.

The team hard at work on the new boardwalk ©Tom Hendry

"Heading out into the North Sea from Seahouses harbour, I was excited to reach Inner Farne; the tiny windswept isle that I would call home for the next six months. I’m very familiar with the Farnes, having visited many times since I was young. The prospect of working ‘out there’ on the easterly-most isle in a cluster of over 25 was nothing short of thrilling. Buffeted by fierce currents, submerged reefs and hidden rocks; I would be joining a team of Assistant Rangers for the 2016 season on behalf of the National Trust. Despite us being a mile off the Coast, we would hardly be alone, for its no secret that the islands are a paradise for birds.
This was clear on approaching the islands, as thousands of Puffins were rafting in the sea waiting for us. Having wintered in the Atlantic, puffins are true seabirds, and many of these birds still have dark smudges on their otherwise white faces. The ‘clown-make up’ metaphor is rightly used for puffins, and in late March it appears that the birds are still applying face-paint in anticipation of the new breeding season. However beautiful and flamboyant puffins appear in summer, it’s still a treat to observe them in this subdued, non-breeding plumage… a sight usually reserved for lonely winters spent on high seas, away from the prying eyes of humans.

Here one day, gone the next. Puffins on Inner Farne ©Tom Hendry

Inquisitive eyes were spying on us as we docked at the jetty, as several Grey Seal heads bobbed up and down in the bay. There is genuine curiosity and intelligence at work here and it’s a strange yet delightful feeling to be ‘watched’ by another creature for a change. The rangers had arrived.…
Seabirds Setting up Home
Thousands of seabirds had already landed on Inner Farne, with more coming in all the time. The Shags are surely entrenching themselves on the cliffs, and can be seen gathering clumps of vegetation and sticks to build their nests. These green-tinged and cool-crested birds are already pairing up, and can regularly be seen preening one another. The early birds are already on eggs and we expect to find more and more every day. The handsome and gentle faced Kittiwakes are also building nests, and can be seen courting on the cliffs. Their distinctive call and clean markings make them everyone’s favourite gull. The Fulmars are also back… these little round winged albatrosses are also engaging in courtship.

Shag sitting tight ©Tom Hendry

The aforementioned Puffins descended on Inner Farne in their hundreds, and proceeded to check out their burrows (and kick the rabbits out!) and partake in a little spring cleaning. After a couple of days, they left to resume rafting and feeding out at sea. They knew storm Katie was on the way and didn’t want to stick around. Needless to say, we all await the true return of the ‘Little brothers’ with great excitement. The chocolate-brown Guillemots and the jet black Razorbills also made a brief return to the cliffs to perform courtship, but much like the puffins, many soon departed to continue rafting and feeding in the North Sea. It’s great to see all of these beloved seabirds again, but its early days yet, and it feels like birds and rangers alike are just settling in.

Pathways and Flyways
Common but not forgotten. Fieldfare on Inner Farne ©Tom Hendry

On reaching Inner Farne in late March, I was a little shocked to see how stunted and brown the vegetation was. I usually visit in summer, when the island is much greener and as lush as an outcrop in the North Sea can be, so I was pretty surprised to see Wrens darting about. However impressive the landscape on Inner Farne is, at this time of year it is quite barren with few obvious hiding places. The wrens seem to possess an ability to appear and vanish at will… emerging from a gap in the boardwalk only to hide between dry blades of grass in the time it takes to raise your binoculars.  10+ Wrens were present on Inner Farne this past week, and they were joined by a host of other passerines which fluttered life into this not so barren isle. 
Migration is an exciting time for nature lovers. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of experiencing it on a small island, where birds seemingly drop out the sky. Surprises are everywhere. 24th March was a particularly good day, which begun when my colleague discovered a Woodcock inside the visitor information centre (I found a Goldcrest in there a couple of days after). The first Chiffchaff of the year was also present on this day, as was a very handsome male Wheatear, which lingered for a few days. Seeing the first of these familiar spring arrivals is always great, but the added presence of Fieldfare and Redwing; wintering visitors returning to Scandinavia, gave such sightings a surreal touch where seasons merge, along with flyways.

A stonking male Wheatear on Inner Farne ©Tom Hendry

Other migrants this week have included Common Snipe, Blackbirds, Song Thrush, Robin and White Wagtail. A strong Southerly wind has left several of these species sheltering in the lighthouse garden and behind walls. Raptor sightings have included Peregrine and Merlin, and sessions of seawatching have produced Common Scoter, Red-throated Diver, and impressively, two flocks of 44 and 19 Whooper Swans that flew North, the later rafting on the water. Despite all these spring arrivals (and departures), one bird family was missing last week, one which gives the Farnes so much of its charm; the terns. I’m pleased to say that on 27th March, the first Sandwich tern was spotted out at sea, flying towards Bamburgh. In the evening roost the following day there were no less than 14, surely an Easter treat everyone can appreciate!"

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