Tuesday 29 November 2011

The Angel of the North

First of the year...a nice Glaucous Gull flyby (Jamie Coleman)

A northern angel (Jamie Coleman)

Our new postman (Ciaran Hatsell)

Happy Birthday Bobby Pearson

Tuesday 29th November comments: Its been another windy day (the wind picked up to gale force by late afternoon) and with the combination of rain, it wasn't a pleasant day on the Farnes. However this place can even surprise me after all these years and a first-winter Glaucous Gull, five Little Auks, a juvenile Pomarine Skua and a late Black Redstart were real highlights at this late stage.

Speaking of late stage, we are starting to pack the islands down as we hope to leave for the winter this weekend, but the weather may have another say, with gales forecast for several more days yet. However if it continues to bring birds, we're not going to complain.

On a final note, top boatman Bobby Pearson celebrated another birthday (21 again) and although he may support the 'wrong' football team, we'll let him off - have a pint on us Bobby. Happy Birthday.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Storm continues...

Longstone at midnight..the storm rages (Graeme Duncan)

Today, an epic sea (Graeme Duncan)

Staple Island battered (Graeme Duncan)

Sunday 27th November comments: The storm continues and what a 24 hours. Following a very sleepless night (eventually got some shut-eye sometime after 4am) the storm continued to rage across the islands throughout the day and into another night. The cottage has gone unscathed, the boats and island equipment is fine but we still don't know the outcome for our Seals.

It appears many have scrambled clear up onto the islands, although inevitably we will have had some losses. Their plight was not helped by a storm surge late afternoon, where at least one colony, Northern Hares, was being washed over. It'll be a few days before we gain access to the colonies, and it may not be for the faint hearted. The trials and tribulations of the Farne Islands. Its never dull.

Bed time

Sunday 26th November comments: This is no ordinary blog post, but then again this is no ordinary place. The clock has just ticked past 01:39 during the early hours of Sunday morning and I'm wide awake, unable to sleep. I'm in Brownsman cottage, a building which has been here since the turn of the 19th Century and am I pleased they knew how to build things to last back then.

The wind is smashing the islands. It's not just a brisk wind, it's not even a gale, it's gone beyond that. This could be classified as 'severe storm force' and I suspect it is possibly now touching 70mph with nothing stopping it in its tracks. On the mainland, hills and woodlands, buildings and trees help reduce the force of the wind, but not out here, nothing.

Out here, its just brutal. We've living in a former lighthouse keepers cottage, standing on a cliff top, being battered, smashed and pounded from all directions. The main bedroom is built into the attic and we can hear every tile, as they are being almost ripped from their holdings. If I'll get any sleep tonight, I may be lucky and the cottage may be lucky if it escapes without any damage. This is one beast of a storm. I've experienced some big storms in my time out here, but this is up there with the best of them. Mother Nature is certainly dealing us a heavy blow tonight.

However forget my sleepless worries, the cottage will survive (maybe only just) and the islands boats are well tethered down, but our attention should focus elsewhere. This storm may not bring us problems but for one island resident, it could be really bad news. The bad news could be for our Grey Seals, as the pupping season is almost over and with the backing of big tides (currently over 5m in height out here - which is big), the pups could be in trouble. However we'll not know until dawn breaks. Fingers crossed this isn't bad. Oh boy.

Time for sleep...maybe.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Recent photos

Colour varies - second coat pup on Brownsman (John Walton)

Second coaters gather at veg cage (Ciaran Hatsell)

Staple Island Seal colony looking healthy

Ciaran marking a pup (John Walton)

Seal count on Staple Island (John Walton)

Head warden being interviewed by BBC Open Country

Barnacle Goose meets Bull seal (Ciaran Hatsell)

Monday 21 November 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, start your bidding!

This Tuesday (22 November) the National Trust are opening up bids for an auction to offer you the opportunity to buy a once in a lifetime experience at one of the Trust’s remarkable places. The Trust, who not only look after built heritage but some of the worlds most significant sites for nature conservation, have put together a number of amazing experiences in order to raise funds for their cause, and to offer people the chance to give their loved ones a really special gift this Christmas.

Simon Lee is a Property Manager for the National Trust and is heading up the initiative, he told us: “This is a chance for people to make somebody’s Christmas! We have some fantastic one-off experiences on offer including the chance to host your own Georgian dinner party at Seaton Delaval Hall. The Hall is an 18th century mansion house designed by Sir John Vanbrugh who also designed Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, so you could say this is a real chance to step back in time and have your own ‘Downton Abbey’ moment.”

The auction goes live on Tuesday 22 November and has something on offer for all tastes. From romantic gestures including a wedding ceremony at the ancestral home of George Washington or dinner at the top of the first lighthouse in the world to be lit by electricity, to wildlife experiences including a day with the deer warden at Fountains Abbey or an exclusive tour of the seabird and grey seal colonies of the Farne Islands.

The auction is raising funds for the Yorkshire and North East region of the National Trust – the UK’s largest conservation charity - an area rich in diverse landscapes from the Northumberland Coast to the Yorkshire Dales, and including some of the country’s most iconic landmarks including Hadrian’s’ Wall, Fountains Abbey and Lindisfarne Castle.

Friday 18 November 2011

Behind the scenes

Home for the final few months...Brownsman cottage

View from the kitchen window - a bull seal on the prowl

Post arrives... (Ciaran Hatsell)

Communal cooking for the team - Ciaran cooking

April and Graeme seawatching

The team at work - gravel collection for Tern 'terrace'

Inner Farne closed down for the winter

Friday 18th November comments: The Farnes is a wonderful place, with some spectacular wildlife and amazing sights. However one aspect I don't often cover on this blog, is island life behind the scenes. The team have been living out on the islands since mid-March and have seen and done it all. We've counted over 80,000 pairs of seabirds, welcomed 45,000 visitors and counted over 1,200 seal pups and where still going.

The island team is now down to five members for the final few months and during this time we'll live on Brownsman in the 19th century former lighthouse keepers cottage. The cottage was once home to the Darling family before they moved to the Longstone on the completion of the lighthouse in 1826. However the cottage is now 'home' to the wardens, complete with gas lighting (yes we still use gas mantles) and no running water. The 21st century is gradually catching up with us as we now have the addition of photovoltaic's but otherwise, life is fairly basic.

Brownsman is not for the faint hearted as once darkness falls after 4pm we rarely venture outside as Bull seals rampage across the island tops...a dangerous place to be if you can't see! Its strange to be sharing your back garden with Grey Seals, but we accept it as the 'norm' and just get on with daily life. Work can vary from day-to-day, as the weather dictates our movements but there is plenty to keep us occupied; painting and decorating appear to be the 'in-thing' at this moment.

Otherwise the team of five will continue to live and work out here until early December and then, like everything else on the islands, we'll leave for pastures new. However the season isn't over yet (not by any stretch) but already our thoughts are drifting to next March, when we'll be back, to do it all over again....

Thursday 17 November 2011

The long and the short of it!

Looking at me...Long-eared Owl in Veg garden (Jamie Coleman)

Short-eared Owl on north rocks (Jamie Coleman)

Thursday 17th November comments: Migration is starting to wind down on the Farnes as the last of the summer migrants have all but gone (the only hint of summer was a lingering Blackcap) whilst winter residents are now well and truly settled, with a scattering of Thrushes and the occasional Robin present.

On the sea things are just as quiet with the only noticeable highlight being a Black Guillemot near Inner Farne last weekend. However we still produce a surprise or two even at this late stage and both have come in the form of Owls. Both Long-eared and Short-eared Owls are currently resident and both have found unusual roosting sites - the long-eared decided a disused Kittiwake nest was to its liking whilst the Short-eared chose the north rocks!

We enjoyed the sights of these fantastic Owls on the island although the local Rock Pipit population were less keen on their new residents. So maybe I'll take it back, it's never dull on the Farnes even in mid-November.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Count continues

Seal pup on Brownsman (Ciaran Hatsell)

Tuesday 15th November comments: Just a quick update as it's been a long day on the islands as the team have been involved in the latest round of counting and spraying of the Seal pups on the islands. Since our last visit we have had 167 new pups born bringing our island total to a very healthy 1,234 pups this autumn!! With three weeks to go, we'll be pushing close to last season's total of 1,499.

It wasn't just the seals which captured our attention as we've had a few birds, including a stunning Long-eared Owl, which perched nicely for all to view. We also discovered our first Waxwing of the autumn, a lone bird flying west, calling low over the islands which is a part of a national influx.

Today's highlights: Purple Sandpiper 90, Short-eared Owl 2, Long-eared Owl 1, Woodcock 4, Black Redstart, Waxwing 1 west, Blackcap 2 and Snow Bunting 3.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Winter Wonderland

Mudfight. Two bull seals have a tussle in Brownsman Pool (Graeme Duncan)

A second coat 'weaner' pup has a break before heading into the water

Hiya! Another of our weaner pups plump and happy

Stunnner. A White-fronted Goose passes by Brownsman (Jamie Coleman)

Sunday 13th November comments: It’s been a great weekend as everything went with plenty of highlights, except one thing; the weather. With south-easterly winds blowing across the islands with rain on Sunday, it wasn’t the best time to be out visiting the Farne Islands. Despite this, the resident warden team enjoyed every minute of it as we had some great birds, plenty of seal action and the FA Cup first round wasn’t bad for one north-east team…

The Seal colonies have been as active as ever with plenty of new pups being born and bull seals battling for island supremacy. On the bird front we’ve has some noticeable highlights including 19 White-fronted Geese with a good haul of Little Gulls moving south whilst a Water Rail in the gas cage was a bit novel. On a personal note, one of my footy teams; Gateshead, made it into round two of the FA Cup, so well done lads and keep it going…

Highlights: White-fronted Goose 19 in total (3 west at 09:40, one landed on Staple Island on 10:02 and then fifteen west on 11:00), Pink-footed Goose 1 west, Pochard male south, Velvet Scoter 2S, Common Scoter 57N, Red-breasted Merganser 2, Water Rail 1 in the gas cage on Brownsman! Little Auk 13 lingering, Little Gull 116 south (peak count of the year), Short-eared Owl single west, Skylark 11, Black Redstart male lingering, Blackbird 127, Redwing 28, Fieldfare 38, Snow Bunting 4 south and Reed Bunting 2.

Friday 11 November 2011

Fight night

It’s fight night on Brownsman. The Grey Seal colonies on the Farnes are buzzing with activity as more and more pups are being born by the day and attentive mothers are protecting the young from the worst of the elements. However it’s not all peaceful as the Bulls have moved in…

Adult male Grey Seals, known as bulls, can weigh up to 50 stone and have only one thing on their mind. The biggest and strongest protect the best sites on the colonies, keeping a harem of cow seals, which they will mate with once the pupping season is over. However to protect the sites, bulls will fight and fight hard. Big battles can ensue and some bulls will fight to the death. Thankfully in most cases, the smaller of the two animals usually retreats to the sea and all ends well without blood being spilt (as shown in Graeme’s excellent video above).

However the team witnessed a horrific event today on Brownsman which will live long in the memory. A young pup managed to get tangled up in such a confrontation between two rival bulls and the result was fatal. As the two bulls squared up to each other, one decided to show strength and grab a two week old seal pup and throw the animal around as if it was a rag doll. The event took seconds, the bulls retreated, but for this young Seal pup, its life had been ended in a brutal way. It’s never dull out and this really is life on the edge and nature in rawest form.

Thursday 10 November 2011

The Final Frontier

Not the best photo but its a White-front! (Graeme Duncan)

First since 1997 - White-fronted Goose over the islands (Graeme Duncan)

Get out of my patch - Merlin dive bombs Sparrowhawk (Graeme Duncan)

Bye bye Sparrohawk (its a big bird!) Graeme Duncan

Thursday 10th November comments: It's been another busy period as we've spent the entire day out on the seal colonies, counting and marking more pups, just before our next storm moves in. The Seal colonies have been full of activity in the past few days, as we've seen an increase in young pups making it to independence, as well as more youngsters born. Alongside this, mating has started between parents whilst we've seen some epic battles between rival bulls and at times, this is better than Eastenders!! Our latest count brings the overall autumn tally to a very healthy 1,067 pups.

On a completely different note, for those of you who have been watching the brilliant (it really is mind-blowing) Frozen Planet, the Farnes team loved the dive bombing Arctic Terns last night - hitting and drawing blood on a polar bear. No one messes with an Arctic Tern! (remember that when you visit next summer).

On the bird front on the islands, yesterday produced a stunning discovery - a White-fronted Goose. The lone bird flew low over Brownsman and Staple Island and brought great delight, as it remains a very rare bird out here, with just four previous sightings, this was the first since 1997. Other highlights included an influx of Woodcock along with the usual Thrushes. Little Auks remain resident with up to 14 yesterday lingering in Staple Sound and a scattering of other birds including a large Sparrowhawk which was seen off by a resident Merlin. With another storm on its way, anything is possible over the next few days, but maybe not a Polar bear. Then again...

Tuesday 8 November 2011

In coming...

Mealy Redpoll showing well (Graeme Duncan)

Woodock on the rocks (Graeme Duncan)

A stunner, male Black Redstart (Graeme Duncan)

Stunner in flight, Black Redstart (Graeme DUncan)

Tuesday 8th November comments: The weather has changed (again) as a south-easterly weather front has moved in, bringing rain and brisk winds (as well as a few birds along the way). The team have been stranded on Brownsman although with plenty of birds dropping in, we've not been bored.

Good numbers of Thrushes have been moving over (especially Fieldfare), whilst migrants like Woodcock have been seen in good numbers (in double figures) with plenty of Blackcaps, Robins and Goldcrest arriving. Other highlights included a very tame (down to just a metre!) Mealy Redpoll whilst two Black Redstarts including an impressive male. With further south-east winds forecast, we may have a few more birds to report tomorrow...

Sunday 6 November 2011

The Seal of approval

A cracking day over Longstone

I'm watching...we'll keep clear of Bull seals

Saying hello, Seals galore

Sunday 6th November comments: It was another cracking day on the islands, as the sun was shining and the team were once again back on the seal colonies, counting the latest round of pups. Birding was a bit quieter than yesterday although 15 Snow Buntings are now lingering, whilst the partial summer-plumage Great Northern Diver was seen again. The final day total for seal pups was just under 200, bringing our overall autumn total to an impressive 902. A good day's work by the team and they deserve a beer or two tonight.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Let it snow

A stunner on Brownsman; a Twite shows well (Graeme Duncan)

A party of Snow Buntings drops in (Graeme Duncan)

Resident warden Ciaran Hatsell searching for birds

Saturday 5th November comments: Its been a very pleasant, crisp dry day on the islands, as the team enjoyed a rare day-off from the usual island activities. Despite the free-time, the team took full advantage of the settled weather and seawatched for the majority of the day, as well as searching for the odd migrant or two.

Highlights included 13 Snow Buntings (including 12 together), 2 Twite, 3 Woodcock, and a Short-eared Owl migrating west towards the mainland. Sea passage produced a scattering of Divers (including Great Northern), a double figure count of Little Gulls whilst lingering Little Auks peaked at ten. On the majestic front, two herds of Whooper Swans moved south totalling twenty-four whilst five Long-tailed Ducks were also recorded.

In general it was a very pleasant day but its back to the grind tomorrow and another Seal count. Wamses here we come...

Thursday 3 November 2011

Long time in coming

Not a care in the world, a Staple seal pup (David Steel)

It's my path now, a sleeping pup (Ciaran Hatsell)

Seal team in action

Peregrine with a Song Thrush 'kill' (Graeme Duncan)

Birding on the Farnes (Graeme Duncan)

Thursday 3rd November comments: It's been a while since the last update although it relects the busy times on the islands at this moment. We eventually said goodbye to our last visitors of the year on Monday as Inner Farne closed until 1st April 2012. It really doesn't seem that long ago that we were opening up the islands back in the spring and where has time gone!?

Following the closure we've been packing down Inner Farne as St.Cuthbert's chapel windows were boarded up for the winter (with protective shutters), the boundary ropes were taken down and the benches stored inside for the winter months ahead. Eventually after cleaning the Pele Tower from top to toe, the final five wardens moved onto Brownsman for our last month on the Farnes.

We've also managed another count of the Grey Seal pups, as we marked pups with red dye - we now have blue, yellow and red marked pups. The colonies appear to be doing well as we have now reached 704 pups - a very healthy total for the time of year.

As well as pups, a few birds have dropped in, with highlights of Water rail, Long-eared Owl, two Black Redstarts and daily sightings of Little Auks (with a peak of eight today). A partial summer-plumage Great Northern Diver is lingering whilst Black Guillemots have returned to winter with a lone individual recorded on two dates. However if you were a passerine, Brownsman was not the place to be today, as we entertained two Peregrines, a Merlin and a Sparrowhawk. Those migrating Thrushes were keeping their heads down.