Britain’s seabird colonies represent a spectacle like no other: bustling, raucous municipalities where a multitude of species congregate to form a single, far larger, living being. An avian city, cramped and lively, which moves and reacts as one when presented with danger, or opportunity – similar in many ways to the concrete jungles so many of us call home.
Break down the riving mass of feathers and dagger-like bills, however, and one begins to see the individual characters, traits and virtues of the species present. Each occupying a niche somewhat different from the previous, which allows all to live, breed, fight and survive in close proximity, side by side. Our seabird colonies are marvellous things and, truth be told, I love each and every aspect of them: the hustle and bustle, the minidramas unfolding each minute, the deafening sound, and even the smell. Fishy, pungent even; though far from unpleasant.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of once again visiting the Farne Islands. The sight of the bleached cliffs, painted brown by an undulating carpet of breeding Guillemots, inducing a familiar adrenaline rush upon approach to the jetty of Staple Island. The same giddy feeling that accompanies each visit without fail promising no end of drama and delights. I was not disappointed – the first portion of our visit filled to the brim with angelic Kittiwakes, marauding Great Black-backed Gulls and, of course, shags. Some of which now find themselves tending scaly, featherless young. Themselves reminiscent of something from Spielberg’s Jurassic movies – prehistoric and reptilian – and a far-cry from the emerald-eyed beauty of the adult birds.
As ever, it was the islands more abundant residents – the auks – which held the most allure. There is something to be said about Razorbills, of course, though the squabbling ranks of Guillemots amassed atop the peaks of their Whin sill stacks are mesmerising. Especially when ranks close as a predator descends: birds ceasing their petty, territorial squabbles as countless piercing bills turn upwards in mutual defence. The colony transforming momentarily from a loose assemblage of bickering neighbours into a coherent wall of spears that only breaks when the shadow above passes. An avian testudo, doubtless unwelcoming to the hungry gulls above.
Away from the cliff-tops, Puffins reigned supreme. The burrows of countless clowns nestled amid a blanket of blooming Sea Campion as the adult birds, their bills laden with the catch of the day, braved a course of thieves to make it home. Zipping overhead like glamorous torpedos, determined not to part with their hard-earned and life-giving haul.
No trip to the islands would be complete absent a somewhat stereotypical shot of an adult Puffin triumphant with its bill-full of shimmering sandseels, and thankfully, many were seen. An indicator as to the presence of growing chicks concealed amid the gloom of their burrows. Let us hope that, given the recent, altogether disheartening news regarding the Farnes Puffin populations, this year is one of success.
Departing the islands, a whirlwind boat tour ensued. I am not quite sure how many such ventures I have undertaken over the years past since I first visited; though I never tire of them. The sight of plump Grey Seals hauled out on unyielding shores, the sight of Grace Darlings famous lighthouse rising like an oversized candy cane from the rock, and the airborne antics of Gannets and swallow-tailed Arctic Terns, never boring, nor repetitive.
Back on dry land, the harbour at Seahouses, as ever, hosted a good number of Cuddy Ducks – Eiders, for those not familiar with the ins and outs of Northumbrian folklore. Females only on this occasion, cryptic yet beautiful in their mottled brown and black garb, interspersed with a handful of downy young. The victors, by all accounts – those who have successfully completed the voyage from the species breeding grounds on the islands and now, following their nocturnal escape, find themselves in the (relative) safety of the port. Given the size of Eider broods and the poultry number of young present, however, it is safe to assume not all made it. Such is life.