Nothing speaks louder than an evocative photograph that stirs the imagination, tugs at the heart strings and engages the mind. Mark Carwardine
When I first started photography seriously, having taken ‘snaps’ since I was a teenager, I was amazed at the sheer number of bird pictures there were in exhibitions and interclub club competitions. The small club I belong to locally, is not keen on wildlife pictures and some of the very experienced photographers there explained, on more than one occasion, that anyone could take a picture of a puffin as they fly straight at you! I have found it rather boring myself on occasions when sitting through acceptances to local exhibitions, when there are hundreds of similar bird pictures colloquially known as ‘birds on sticks’. Recently though, a picture of a bird just sitting on a twig, is not successful in a competition unless it is doing something interesting like eating, mating or building a nest! The large club I belong to however, has a number of professional and award winning wild life photographers. As we set off early from Seahouses, on what Ann rightfully considered to be the best weather day of the week, I was a bit torn between the fear of not being good enough to get a good shot and finding it all too simple and not challenging enough to keep me interested all day. I was however looking forward to seeing the puffins.
We clambered into three small open boats. The vast majority of our fellow sailors were photographers, some of whom were struggling to carry their £10,000 Nikon and Canon lenses. I had enough trouble with my trusty trolley, the two cameras and all my lenses. Having never been to the islands before I had no idea what to expect, even though my party tried to explain their previous experiences my imagination couldn’t absorb it. I was told to wear a hat as the terns often attack and that there were no toilet facilities until the afternoon on the second island. It was windy and the small boats rolled, dipped and surfaced, spraying water over some of us as we headed out. I have always had ‘sea’ legs and enjoy a boat ride and as I began to relax with the movement of the boat it wasn’t long before I could see land ahead.
An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language. Martin Buber
There are 15-20 Farne Islands depending on the water level at any one time. We circled the first small islands and I was delighted to see the seals so close with the added bonus that there were many brindled females, more than usual we were told. Taking a sharp picture from a small boat was not easy but anticipating the dips with firmly planted feet and leaning against the side of the small cabin helped. There is something so alluring about seals. Their huge eyes follow you and seem to stare right into your soul. They are truly beautiful and inquisitive creatures. We circled several of the small islands and I was amazed by the sheer number of birds, mainly guillemots that perched on every crag. It was truly a stunning site. There are 22 species of birds on the Farne Islands including razorbills, elder ducks, gulls, four species of terns and a staggering 70,000 puffins.
I already knew the history of the Longstone Lighthouse and the role of Grace Darling, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter who rescued survivors from the ill fated Forfarshire in 1838. I had been fascinated by her bravery as a child. The lighthouse stands pristine and very red, and it’s crisp lines stand in defiance and contrast to the rugged cliffs of the islands.
We got off the boat with some difficulty and with help from the small crew. Staple Island is very rocky and the steep concrete staircase, with only one handrail, is not easy to negotiate whilst carrying heavy equipment. I was not prepared for the sheer number of birds on the ground or in the air. They flew in at every angle. The puffins were particularly quick as black headed gulls waited for them to land so they could steal the fish they carried in their beaks. I climbed precariously over some very uneven ground, soon losing contact with my party altogether. I was in awe and for at least 20 minutes I didn’t take a single picture, I just stood and watched. I had never seen a ‘real’ puffin and I became mesmerised by them. They are smaller than I imagined and much, much, faster. They are also rather comical in the air as they almost skid in, often at an angle with bright orange legs dangling. There were thousands of burrows and they disappeared down them in a flash. Easy to take a good picture of a puffin then, not in my experience! I tried desperately to capture them flying in, but there were always other birds blocking light or parts of their wings. Trying to capture one with fish before it disappeared into a burrow was ridiculously difficult and I began to collect a lot of blurred photographs. I persevered and finally, in the last twenty minutes ,I managed to get a few reasonable photographs. I have fallen in love with these quirky little birds with orange and yellow beaks and for the first time understand why so many photographers want to include pictures of them in their portfolios.
Inner Farne is less rocky but by now the wind had increased and despite the sun it was cold as we clambered off the boat. As we walked along the footpath there was loud squawking and I could feel and see terns attacking. They swooped down and pecked heads, mine included. It doesn’t hurt but I was glad I had my hat on. I was worried that we were disturbing them as they sat on nests on the path and at the side. Ann explained that all the birds that nest next to the pathways are the most successful at raising young as the gulls do not like to venture too close and these nesting places are highly prized by the birds. There were tern chicks everywhere, they were so cute but I became mesmerised by the terns in the sky. Their plumage and graceful flight were so different from the little puffins. They swooped and dived, their feathers almost diaphanous in the light. It was like watching a ballet in the air. Capturing this beauty was another matter! I tried in vain at first but finally found a vantage point where I could capture them if I was quick.
I enjoyed every aspect of our trip to Northumberland but the day on the Farne Islands was a truly wonderful and awe inspiring experience that I will never forget. To see birds and seals in their natural habitat in such numbers was a privilege. I will definitely be going again!