The television presenter and comedian Jim Bowen is perhaps best known for hosting the show based around the game of darts called “Bullseye”. He had a number of catch phrases that he used in the programme including the one he saved for contestants who had gambled and lost everything:
“Look at what you could have won.”
Hardly consoling, though I feel a little like Bowen when I write a blog about the birdlife of the Farne Islands. The Farnes are a seabird haven that have recorded visits from some 290 species, though they are particularly notable for being a breeding ground for terns, guillemots and most famously of all… puffins. These feathered clowns are great fodder for the ornithological photographer, and with over 36000 breeding pairs they are easy to find as they nest in ground level burrows. You won’t find a single one in my photographs though which is why the Bowen quote comes to mind. Breeding season is over and the puffins have all left for another year. So too have 50,000 pairs of guillemots. (The burrows will now be tenanted by rabbits until the puffins return and chase the interlopers with sharp beaks and more aggression than you’d expect).
Now I’m no birder, so this wasn’t my motivation in taking the trip, but nevertheless I found myself photographing birds; the seal colonies seem to like the same habitats as shags and cormorants, and before I left the harbour I was surrounded by gulls, oyster catchers and turnstones. In my ignorance I was also surprised to see ducks at sea, imagining them to be freshwater fowl. These were pretty special ducks though; the largest to inhabit the UK, and well insulated as you can see. These are eider ducks, also known as cuddy ducks after the saint who lived in solitude on Inner Farne; St Cuthbert.
My fascination however was with the airborne division, or at least mainly airborne. Although they don’t nest here, these waters are popular hunting grounds for gannets. These larger birds are masterpieces of evolutionary design which enables them to dive from great heights and then pursue their prey when submerged; the six foot wing span folds back to turn them into an elongated dart, their bills have no external nostrils, their faces and chests have built in airbags to absorb the impact of their high dives, and their eyes are set forward to provide excellent binocular vision for judging distance. Useful adaptations when you’re hitting the water at up to 100 kph.
That of course posed problems for me – trying to spot a bird that was about to dive and that was close enough to make a worthwhile image was tricky enough, but then capturing its point of entry with clarity when on a bobbing vessel proved too great a challenge. Luckily their yellow heads and elongated blue-grey bills make them a worthwhile subject even when just in flight.