Birdlife of the Farne Islands


The Farne Islands are internationally recognised as one of the main breeding sites for seabirds in Northern Europe.

Here we set out to try and give the reader some idea of the birds that a visitor to the Farne Islands may see at the height of the breeding season which runs approximately between the April and the middle of July each year. The main types of bird resident at the Islands are listed first with their name, taxonomic name, and the number of pairs of birds which nested on the Islands in 2004 unless otherwise stated. There follows a short list of common visiting birds which can often be seen but do not nest on the Islands.

All bird figures are courtesy of the National Trust and Inner Farne Head Warden David Steel and are used here with their kind permission.

Puffin Fratercula arctica, 55,674 (2003)
The puffin is one of the most popular birds which nest at the Farne Islands with avid birders and casual day trippers alike. Indeed, many people who have visited the Farne Islands have travelled from locations thousands of miles away soley to come  here and see these little birds in one of their most natural habitats.

The puffin is a small, squat looking bird which has a white front with a black back, it has orange feet and legs. Its most prominent and notable feature is its brightly coloured parrot shaped bill which is specially shaped to enable it to carry a large number of sandeels, which is almost the staple diet of the puffin.

When the puffin makes its nest, it does so in a small burrow which it digs to a depth of about one metre. There the female puffin lays a single egg which one of the pair incubates constantly while the other feeds. It is for this simple reason that not so many puffins are seen in comparison to the likes of the guillemots or kittiwakes. When the puffin chick hatches, it is fed by the parents until it is ready to fly. During this time, the puffins burrows are susceptible to flooding due to torrential rain and in past years, many thousands have drowned in their burrows whilst forlornly trying to protect their chicks from the rising waters. Fortunately, there are no rats on the Farne Islands which have been responsible for the decimation of puffin colonies elsewhere around the British Isles such as Lundy.

When the puffin chick emerges from its burrow for the first time, it is almost the same size as its parents, though it can be distinguished fairly easily when close up as they are more greyish in their colouring and do not have the brightly coloured bill of their parents.

By late July, the puffins gather in large rafts measuring some thousands of birds all of them ready to fly off to spend their winter out at sea, mostly in the North Atlantic. By around the middle of the second week of August, most of the puffins have left the Islands, leaving only a handful of stragglers, which will eventually join the rest of them in the following days. By the middle to end of August, the only trace around the Islands of the puffins is the thousands of now vacant burrows which will remain empty until the following April when their former inhabitants return to breed once more.

Guillemot  Uria aalge, 21,847
Guillemots, like the puffins and the very similar looking relation the razorbill are members of the auk family of seabirds. They don't build a nest, instead they lay a pear-shaped egg on the bare surface of the rock, which, if kicked or bumped will spin in a circle and not be knocked off. A few weeks after the guillemot chick hatches it will jump from the rock, still unable to fly, into the water where it will feed for the first time, being taught by its parents. Many of the guillemot chicks do not survive this transition and in late June of 2004, thousands of chicks died due to poor weather conditions. Approximately 3% of the guillemot population at the Islands are "bridled", these birds have a white ring around each eye with a white streak leading to the back of their heads, which almost makes them look as if they are wearing spectacles.

Razorbill  Alca torda
The razorbill is very similar in shape and size to the Guillemot, the main visible differences being that the razorbill is a much more blackish colour compared to the dark brown of the guillemot. It also has a much squarer shaped bill with a white diagonal streak on the end and a white line leading back to the eyes.

Fulmar Fulmaris glacialis, 165
The fulmar is a member of the petrel family of seabirds and is a comparitive newcomer to settle on the Islands having first having nested in 1935. Like the guillemot and razorbill, the fulmar does not build a nest, instead it lays its single egg on the ground, though usually this is on grass or soil.

Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, 187
The cormorant is a large black bird with a white-yellow chin and white patches below its wings. There are two main colonies around the Islands where the cormorants nest away from the other birds.

Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis, 1,410
The shag bears a close resemblance to the cormorant so much so that it often causes it to be mis-identified as the latter. When seen alongside each other, the differences can be more readily seen. The shag is a dark bottle green colour and is approximately three quarters the size of the cormorant. During the early part of the breeding season, the shag has a crest on the top of its head which drops back down when it has mated.

Eider somateria mollissima, 661
It is said that when Saint Cuthbert lived the life of a hermit on Inner Farne that he had the eiders feeding from his hand, hence the affectionate name of "Cuddy's Duck", by which the eider is sometimes known. The eiders can be seen in great numbers and are often seen in and around the harbour area at Seahouses. The drakes are mainly a black and white colour with a pinkish tinge to their chest and a green patch at the sides of their head. Whereas the ducks are a dappled brown colour almost similar to the smaller Mallard without the purple patches on their wings. Often it would appear that there are few ducks about compared to the drakes, however, their colouring keeps them well camouflaged against the rocks.

The eider duck lays a clutch of six to eight eggs and when the chicks hatch, they have to fend for themselves straight away. They are taken either by their mothers or more usually by an "aunt" down to the sea for the first time where they soon learn to feed and to fend for themselves. It is said that, out of the eggs that the eider lays, it is rare if more than one survives to adulthood.

Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, 37
An oystercatcher is a small slender black and white bodied wading bird with a red-orange ring around each eye and a long orange bill. The name oystercatcher is something of a misnomer, as these birds neither catch or eat oysters. Their staple diet is one of barnacles and mussels which cling to the rocks below the high water mark.

Black-headed Gull Laridae ridibundus, 301

Lesser Black-backed Gull Laridae fuscus, 429

Herring Gull Laridae argentatus, 536

Great Black-backed Gull Laridae marinus, 7

Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla, 5,151
The kittiwake is one of the most abundant birds around the Farne Islands. They make a nest of mud and straw which often has to be rebuilt as they are easily washed from the rocks by either torrential rain or heavy seas.

Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea, 3,972

Common Tern Sterna hirundo, 133

Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis, 1,853