Taken Flight (Farne Islands)

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)._pw_8564

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.

_pw_8602My 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._pw_8618



The Gathering Part I


On the first day of a new football season it seems appropriate to quote the great French philosopher Eric Cantona who famously said

when the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.

As a means of diverting press attention from the community service order he’d been given for assaulting a fan it was brilliant.

Just a few hundred yards along the road from me there are two groups of very different individuals, and I’ll write about the first today and their contrasting neighbours tomorrow.

Choosing Cantona’s quote isn’t entirely random for cars are pulling up at the roadside to witness this:

Now these gulls aren’t attracted by sardines; like any other freshly ploughed field there are worms and bugs aplenty for them to feast upon, so the gathering of the birds is not really remarkable.  It is a bird that is the centre of attention however, for those at the roadside are “twitchers”, bird watchers who will travel with their magnifying lenses in search of a sighting of a rare species.

Among them was Peter, who had cleverly set up his tripod so that he could observe from the comfort of his car.  He was from Wallsend some 15 miles away and had heard that there was an unexpected visitor in this field last night.  The bird hadn’t been spotted again as yet this afternoon, but Peter and his colleagues lived in hope.  The same bird had been a visitor to our coastline last summer.

Peter agreed to being photographed, but couldn’t keep his eyes off the field before us, a true enthusiast.BTW – the cause of all the excitement was a Bonaparte’s Gull.  Just so you know.




Columba livia

Mankind began domesticating animals twelve thousand years ago.  Many mammals were bred for food and milk, and dogs became a trusted guardian and hunting companion.  The first bird to be domesticated was the pigeon; there are records of this taking place 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets.

A History of the World in 100 Objects
A History of the World in 100 Objects (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like so many of the other animals the birds were kept for food initially; the young birds generally grow to a good size before they fledge, making them an attractive option for breeders.  At this stage they were no different to any other food source, but pigeons became so much more.

In the North of England (and many other parts of the world) there is a tradition of pigeon racing, a culture of breeding and raising pigeons that produced two objectives – race winners and show pigeons.

The first of these is based on the birds uncanny homing ability, they are able to return home over distances of 1000km even from locations that they have never been to before.  One bird has been recorded “homing” from 1200 miles away.  It is this ability that gave pigeons a new and more important role; from the late 19th Century until WWII the birds were used to carry messages in war-time – leading to occasions where some birds have even been awarded medals!

To pigeon fanciers they are “the thoroughbreds of the air”, but there is a downside.  So many domesticated birds returned to the wild that our cities are now home to flocks of feral pigeons with a less attractive brand – “rats with wings”.  The mess they leave can certainly be a problem ( Genesis asked “Who put fifty tons of shit on the Foreign Office roof?” on their ep Spot the Pigeon ), but they have a less justified reputation as carriers of disease.

The pest control companies have a vested interest in telling us how dirty and dangerous the birds are, although an attempt to pass the deadly h5n1 bird flu virus by dosing pigeons with a 1000 times normal strength concentration failed to infect them.

Some cities use raptors to control the populations, but today I encountered something I wasn’t expecting.  A gull eating a pigeon!  My wife was queasy watching this (she’d rather see a gull eating its natural diet of Gregg’s pasty!) but I thought why not – they’re certainly tasty!  I don’t think it will catch on as pest control though since gull populations are as popular as pigeons.

Trafalgar Square was once famous for the large numbers of pigeons there (encouraged by the sale of corn to tourists) though this has declined since Ken Livingstone banned feeding.  Photographs of Nelson atop his column with a pigeon on his head are a London icon.

In Newcastle I’ve shot similar pictures of Grey’s monument (sculpted by the same artist as Nelson), but the open area at the foot of column isn’t populated by pigeons so it becomes a popular rendezvous spot or simply somewhere to take the weight of your feet, which is where I met Paulo today.  Originally from Portugal, he holidayed here 10 years ago, met a girl and the rest is history.  He works at Grainger Market that I mentioned recently, and in his words “has everything I need here”.  Nice.

He clearly has overcome the homing instinct.

This shot of Paulo is one of my favourites of the year so far and I’ve processed it in a slightly different way – let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Trip Trap, Trip Trap, Trip Trap

I spend a lot of time under the Tyne Bridge on the Newcastle Quayside.

It’s a place with lots of passing traffic, so great for meeting likely photographic subjects, and it naturally has great views of local landmarks like The Sage, The Baltic, The Millennium Bridge as well as the cluster of bridges more traditionally associated with this spot.

In all the times I’ve been there, including scouring those places that are off the beaten track in search of an interesting location (like those that I shot with Daria), I’ve never seen a troll.  They’re supposed to live under bridges aren’t they so why is there never a trace of the creatures.  Yes I know they’re primarily Scandinavian, but we had plenty of Viking raids along our coastline so surely a troll or two could have joined them somehow.

Of course if you know much about Norse folklore, you’ll know that trolls don’t necessarily live under bridges – you’re more likely to find them in the mountains or in caves, however one story has implanted the bridge image in our psyche – “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.”

What you will find under the bridge, and on ledges of surrounding buildings are kittiwakes, a small seabird of the gull family named after its unique call.  The birds come here to nest each year and the colony on the Tyne have the most inland nesting site in the world, and they are nothing if not persistent.

Those who formerly nested in the Baltic flour mill were rehoused when the building was renovated as a contemporary art gallery.  Now those in Newcastle are receiving unwanted attention.  The installation of spikes on the window ledges of the Guildhall failed miserably when the birds smothered them in a layer of mud before building their nests.  The City Council have retaliated by deploying swathes of net that prevent the birds from reaching their goal.

The birds have returned this week and some have managed to circumvent the defences to find a site on the roof of the Guildhall, but what impact there will be on the colony as a whole remains to be seen.

The other creature commonly found in this location is the photographer, from groups of Asian students posing their raven haired girlfriends on quayside mooring pins with the sweeping curves of the glass roofed Sage in the background, to more serious snappers seeking a new angle on the bridges or the chance of a perfect reflection in the waters of Tyne.

Millennium bridge at dusk, looking west up the...
Millennium bridge at dusk, looking west up the river Tyne, between Newcastle and Gateshead in the UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I stopped today on the way back from a client portrait shoot I found both species in place; the birds screeching their three syllables for all to hear and below them I spotted Tracy and her trusty Canon.  She told me that she was still new-fangled with it, and so as she had a bit of time had come to the river to practice her technique; good for her.Brave of her to have that red and white stripe here though!