….plus Razorbills, Guillemots, Terns, Seals, Cormorants, Black Headed Gulls, Shags, Eider ducks, Kittiwakes, and Grace Darling..
Astounding birdlife on a boat trip to Northumberland’s Farne Islands
With Wild Daddy’s job dragging us round the country we get to see lots of places we otherwise wouldn’t so our recent move to the North East meant only one thing, a chance to see Puffins!
What cool little bird dudes they are. One of the UK’s most exotic avians and such clumsy looking characters, I have longed to see them in the wild.
For our northern move we bought Caroline a Schleich Puffin for the 6-hour road trip then excitedly waited the five long months for puffin breeding season on the Farne Islands. We finally visited in mid-May when the islands were teeming with wildlife.
There are several different Farne Island trips including 1-hour landings on Inner Farne or Staple Island. I chose a 2.5 hour cruise with an hour on Inner Farne through Billy Shiels. Tickets are purchased at the harbourside kiosk and National Trust members are exempt from landing fees so remember your membership card.
Even before boarding Caroline spotted an Eider duck in the harbour, an auspicious start to our visit
Although the Farne Islands are only a couple of miles offshore, a strong swell can prevent landing; due to unseasonable winds it was a week before we were able to book our trip – I rang daily to check sailing conditions with the boat company who keep a constant check on the forecast.
It was an incredible experience. I was blown away by the sheer number of birds and their proximity to the UK mainland and at how close you get to the creatures themselves. I’ve seen the Farnes on Countryfile and other TV documentaries but it is hard to describe the impact of seeing it all in person.
The beauty of the birds at close quarters and their fearlessness with humans on Inner Farne is enchanting. The way the different species share the same habitat, the way they cram into every possible nesting space no matter how precarious. The noise of the birds. The smell on the islands, the constant activity. I was in awe for the whole visit, definitely my most memorable wild adventure so far (though not quite as emotional as whale watching).
It’s safe to say that you won’t be disappointed whenever you visit the Farnes. Nature is at her magical best on these uninhabited, windswept islands.
We were a little too early in the season to see young puffins but will undoubtedly return next year at fledgling time and also to do the Longstone lighthouse cruise, where Grace Darling’s incredible wild adventure occurred.
It was fascinating to note the differences when taking the same cruise three-months later; tern nest sites gone and the whole island knee-deep in wildflowers and foliage, most puffins gone, much quieter. There were more seals on the second trip and the rare experience of dolphins playing around our boat on the outbound sailing.
Both cruises were very child friendly with interesting commentary from the captain, who turned the boat at relevant sites so everyone got the best view. My first trip was with 2 adults and 3 under-7’s; the second with 2 adults and 3 under-6 ‘s all of whom loved the experience.
For safety reasons children can not stand on seats during sailings.
There is an information centre and mini National Trust shop on Inner Farne as well as the Chapel of St Cuthbert to visit and whilst there are no toilets on the boat, there are some on the island.
On the August cruise, the captain allowed children to pilot the boat en route home, possibly as we were the last cruise of the day – many smiling faces onboard that afternoon.
Tips for your visit
- Time of year – Puffins breed on the Farne Islands annually from April to late July with peak breeding in May and June and babies to be seen from June to July
- Choose your cruise; sea-only or island-landing? If applicable check disabled facilities for the relevant island if landing
- Check weather beforehand in case landing is prevented
- Be flexible – if boats can’t land be prepared to do a sea-only tour or postpone
- Arrive early – parking can be busy in main season
- Remember National Trust card for free landing
- Dress appropriately – take waterproofs and warm layers in a small backpack. Even in summer the islands are windy and sea spray can be strong in a swell
- Leave the dog at home – dogs may sail but not land and the captain won’t appreciate being moored with a howling hound while you’re ashore. Harbourside adverts offer pet sitters for the duration of most trips
- Take a camera – don’t forget spare film/memory card, batteries. Binoculars are useful but not essential as you get so close to the birds anyway
- Take snacks or a packed meal for longer cruises or if taking children
- Wear a hat – the terns can be quite aggressive once their young hatch and will dive bomb perceived enemies with great abandon!
- Look down – many eiders and terns nest very close to the path
- Take lots of photos
- Stop, look and listen – take the time to just be. Sit and listen, watch the movement, soak up the smells and sounds. You can’t capture the feeling on camera.
Kids education zone
What is a puffin?
an auk (seabird) of northern and Arctic waters which nests in holes, with a large head and a massive brightly coloured triangular bill.
- Puffins spend most of their lives at sea, only coming to land to breed
- My favourite fact ever; a baby Puffin is called a Puffling!
- With a wing beat of 400 per minute they can fly up to 55 mph
- They dig burrows making a small nest at the back lined with grass, seaweed and feathers
- Puffins beaks are actually black, only turning colour during the short breeding season
- They can hold up to 10 sand eels in their beak at once
- They are also known as Sea Parrots or Clowns of the Sea
- They grow about 30cm long and live up to 20 years
- Puffins can dive to depths of 60m in search of fish
Follow Kids of the Wild
Learn about other animals and wildlife on our wildlife & nature pages.
You can also find out why whale watching makes me cry, and what to do if you find an injured seal at the coast.