Guide to Seal and Bird Watching on the Farne Islands

by Vanessa Wanders Miles

The Farne Islands are home to around 100,000 pairs of nesting seabirds, including three species of tern, eiders, shags, puffins, razorbills, gulls and guillemots. And let’s not forget the grey seals that are resident there.

If you are a big nature-lover like me, you will be fascinated to be amongst this hive of activity and squawking noise – it’s incredible. Read my guide highlighting all you need to know to go seal and bird watching on the Farne Islands.

Where are the Farne Islands

The Farne Islands are located off the Northumberland coast midway between the fishing port of Seahouses and Bamburgh.

They consist of 28 islands depending on the level of the tide which is separated into Inner and Outer Farne Islands.

How to get to the Farne Islands

The trips to the Farne Islands leave from Seahouses and can be booked either online or from one of the wooden kiosks along the harbour.

I set sail with Serenity Farne Island Boat Tours who were well-organised and knowledgeable about the wildlife. Other tour options, weather permitting, are Billy Shiel Boat Trips or the Golden Gate Farne Island Tours.

Best time to visit Farne Islands

Check this guide to seal and bird watching on the Farne Islands to find out the best time to visit. Wildlife and weather can be unpredictable so times can vary a little.

When the Farne Islands open for visitors

Farne Islands are open to visitors from 28 March to 1 November, however, landing is restricted to 3 islands only – Inner Farne, Staple Island (May-July) and Longstone Island. In the 2021 season, there are only landings available on Inner Farne Island to protect the wildlife and the group sizes are limited.

Best time to see puffins on the Farne Islands

Puffins are the big draw for most visitors and they generally return to the Farne Islands between April and late July with the peak breeding season being in May and June.

For the rest of the year, puffins are feeding and fly out at sea. Here their beaks shed their vibrant markings on their beaks only to return in spring ready for coming back home to clean out their rabbit-like burrows in preparation for breeding.

Best time to go bird watching on the Farne Islands

As we all know, the Farne Islands are not just about puffins. You will fall in love with all the birds by the end of your trip.

JANUARY-MARCH is a little quiet although, the fulmars could start to make an appearance with the odd puffin sighting too.

APRIL is the start of the real action on the Farne Islands as the migrant seabirds return – puffins, eider ducks, kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills, sandwich terns and common terns. Being the breeding season, Shag adults develop a dark glossy green plumage and prominent recurved crest on the front of their heads.

MAY is the best month to see the eiders nesting on Staple Island. The Arctic terns start to arrive and by late May their young are hatching and the dive-bombing begins fiercely protecting their breeding colony.

JUNE is starting to get crowded on the cliff edges with kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills, sandwich terns, common terns and shags. Eider ducks start to leave and are generally gone by the start of July. Pufflings start to hatch but are rarely seen as they are buried deep in their burrows.

JULY is still hectic birdlife on the islands with the usual suspects, and many other species besides. Jumplings (baby guillemots) are making the brave steps to leave the cliffs by jumping into the sea – normally in the evening but occasionally in the daytime. Pufflings are still hatching, with some of the older ones heading towards the sea.

AUGUST is when our beloved puffins begin their exit strategy from the Farne Islands. Arctic terns, guillemots, razorbills, sandwich terns, and common terns make their departure too. Kittiwakes and fulmars leave between mid and end of the month. Overwintering birds can be spotted re-fuelling before they head to the mainland (keep an eye on the stick bundles near the Pele Tower).

SEPTEMBER – OCTOBER sees the last few straggling autumn migrant birds, as well as the shags.

NOVEMBER – DECEMBER is the winter period ad tends to be quiet on the seabird front apart from the shags, of course!

Best time to go seal watching on the Farne Islands

Boat trips to go seal watching on the Farne Islands happen all year round, weather permitting.

There are an estimated 3,000-4,000 Grey Seals in the Farne Islands and you will be treated to watching them basking on the rocks in large colonies, especially at low water.

If cuteness overload is your bag then fluffy seal pups will start to appear from late October until mid-December. The colony is growing well, although pups have a tough time making it past their first year with a 50% survival rate due to abandonment, starvation or storms washing them away on low-lying islands.

History of the Farne Islands

The Farne Islands is one of the best places to visit in the UK and are not just a haven for wildlife, they are steeped in history too. As remote islands, they were perfect pilgrim sites and places for Celtic Christians and Monks to hide away.

St Cuthbert headed to Inner Farne Island when he fled from Holy Island and St Cuthberts Island to be a hermit in 676. After ten years of living in a cell, he was brought back to become Bishop of Lindisfarne. 

St. Cuthbert’s health deteriorated and he returned to Inner Farne Island where he passed away in 687. A church was built on the island in 1370 and dedicated to him at the site of the first monastic buildings on Inner Farne built by Aidan. It was beautifully restored in the 19th century with furnishings formerly in Durham Cathedral.

There was a constant stream of hermits on Inner Farne Island after Cuthbert. The last was Thomas de Melsonby, Prior of Durham, who died there in 1246. 

Thomas Castell was Prior of Durham Cathedral from 1494 to 1519 and he instructed the ‘Pele Tower’ (known as ‘Prior Castell’s Tower’) to be built on the Inner Farne at the start of his tenure. The tower initially served as upgraded accommodation for the monks as well as some protection from border raids.

Following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, the island became the property of Durham Cathedral.

If you’ve visited the RNLI Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh, you will be aware of the incident that happened on the 5th of September 1838.

Grace Darling was the daughter of a lighthouse keeper on Longstone Island, and, at the age of 22, she gained national notoriety for her bravery. Along with her father, they saved nine people from the wreck of the steamship ‘Forfarshire’ that ran into a crazy storm by the Farne Islands on its way to Scotland.

In 1894, the islands were bought by industrialist and philanthropist William George Armstrong who also purchased Bamburgh Castle in the same year. He sold the Farne Islands to the National Trust in 1925 for £800.

The Farne Islands are still owned and managed by the National Trust today and their rangers live in Pele Tower to care for the upkeep and wildlife there.

My experience of seal and bird watching on the Farne Islands

With a variety of trips on offer, you need to decide what your focus is and whether you want to make a landing. My dream was to see the puffins as close as possible so I opted for the 3-hour Inner Farne Islands Tour which includes a 1-hour landing.

The Inner Farne Islands are a haven for naturalists and photographers where there is literally a mass of squawking birds and herds of seals with a more relaxed disposition. As with any wildlife trip, every experience is varied. Animals can be unpredictable and the time of year will make a big difference when you go seal and bird watching on the Farne Islands.

Watching birdlife on Staple Island

As our boat drew closer to Staple Island, we spotted puffins flying close to the water’s surface and then diving down to catch fish. Did you know puffins can swim in the same way as they fly? They flap their wings and use their feet to steer.

The boat pulled into a rocky inset and remained stationary to catch the sheer craziness of action and noise. The strong smell of guano reminded me of my visit to the penguin rookeries in Antarctica.

Arctic Terns and Kittiwakes have a similar foraging strategy which is to simply dive-bombing into the sea at great speed. they were coming from all angles, it was hard to know where to look.

On the rocks on either side of the boat was a mass of Guillemots, known collectively as a bazaar. It is clear Guillemots see the pinnacles of Staple Island as their favourite place to breed as there is little space left. 

With almost 30,000 birds on this breeding ground, it comes as no surprise that you should look at every cliff face for signs of life. On sheer cliff ledges, there are many Black-legged Kittiwake nests with feeding and nurturing. Kittiwakes spend all their time at sea until the breeding period, from May to September, where they take great care of creating the perfect nest to keep the eggs from rolling out.

Grey Seals on Longstone Island

Our boat stopped by Longstone Island to watch the Atlantic Grey Seals. The Farnes is one of the third largest colonies on the east coast of England and it was stunning to see them basking on the rocks lifting their heads, stretching and yawning.

Puffin time on the Inner Farne Island

It was time for our landing on Inner Farne Island to see birdlife up close. I was super excited to see Puffins, the stars of the show, and there were plenty.

We walked up the jetty and began the walk around the boardwalk, we were dodging the territorial Arctic Terns who protect their nests with vigour, and will attack or peck intruders threatening their young.

Many Black-headed Gull nests were cleverly created along the wall of the boardwalk allowing for amazing photo opportunities. As the parents disappeared for food, some chicks were left exposed. They hatch with a fluffy down and have a mottled pattern of brown spots all over their body. They are able to stand within a day, but usually stay in the nest for a week so this chick must’ve been pretty new to this world.

On the left, amongst the vegetation, was the perfect spot to watch the Puffins popping into their burrows with the latest mouthful of fish for their pufflings. It was adorable to see their faces appear from their underground nests, jump out and pad their feet around before their spread their wings to take flight for the next forage. Best to duck your head as I nearly had a close encounter with one clumsy ‘clown of the sea’.

Inner Farne Island Lighthouse

Walking further around you will spot the known landmark of the white lighthouse or the ‘High Light’ as it is commonly known. It was first erected in 1809 and is still in use today. The Low Light was pulled down in 1911 after the High Light was automated.

Breeding season on Inner Farne Island cliffs

To the left of the ‘High Light’ was a large colony of all different types of birds all crammed into every space possible, each squawking louder than the next. Your eye moves around from Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Shags, Puffins and Razorbills.

A family of Shags were feeding their chicks and certainly made themselves heard amongst the deafening noise of the other species. The primitive-looking birds are generally found either diving for fish from the surface of the sea or nesting on coastal cliffs.

With a backdrop of Guillemots and Kittiwakes, we spotted a majestic Razorbill standing proudly on the cliff edge. This seabird, easily recognisable by the deep, blunt beak, only comes to shore to breed and spends winter on the wing in the northern Atlantic.

Tips for visiting the Farne Islands

  • Take cash to pay for the landing – There is an additional landing fee to pay to National Trust and this is done at the hut before you set off.
  • Consider whether to take a dog or not – Dogs are allowed on board the boat but will not be allowed to land on the Farne Islands
  • Accessibility – There is a  boardwalk that circles Inner Farne Island making it easier for wheelchairs to move but you would need to be able to make it up from the jetty. Staple Island have no walkway so this trip is only suitable for able-bodied visitors. Check the National Trust’s accessibility webpage.
  • Bad weather – Be prepared that the boat trip can be cancelled in adverse weather conditions. If the trip goes ahead, have some warm and waterproof gear with you.

Prepare for your Farne Islands trip

Ready to get planning your trip to the Farne Islands? Here are some useful links to get you started!

Tours to Farne Islands

Accommodation near Farne Islands

Transport near Farne Islands

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