Set sail for great bird shots

Even at 1/1000th of a second, the wingtips of puffin show motion blur. Picture by Ivor Rackham.
Even at 1/1000th of a second, the wingtips of puffin show motion blur. Picture by Ivor Rackham.

This is a great time for wildlife photography.

Our migrant visitors have arrived en-masse. Thousands of puffin join the multitudes of guillemot and razorbill that swarm to our islands, cliffs and crags, along with kittiwake, shag and tern.

Bird photography is a challenge. Even the relatively accessible black headed gull can move quickly. Oystercatcher and curlew are timid and difficult to get close to.

Like most photography, the secret is to get close to the subject. Besides having a long lens and achieving a fast shutter, learning the birds’ behaviour and discovering how to get near them is a big part of getting a successful photograph.

It amazes me how many people living in Northumberland have never ventured out to see the seabirds at close quarters. A day trip to the Farne Islands will put you close to protected nesting sites. It’s perfect for both birding enthusiasts and wildlife photographers.

A visit arranged with Billy Shiel (farne-islands.com) or Serenity (farneislandstours.co.uk) from Seahouses will cost you close to £70 for a day on both Staple Island and Inner Farne, although National Trust membership will save you £27.30 in landing fees.

You do get really close to the birds and it is relatively easy to come away with shots of puffin with beaks stuffed full of sand-eels. Wear a hat because during nesting season the Arctic tern on Inner Farne are aggressively territorial and will peck you on the head.

Visiting the Farne Islands is noisy, smelly and intensive, and not suited to everyone. There are no toilets on Staple Island so make use of the public conveniences in Seahouses before you set sail. If you are eating a packed lunch, take some means of cleaning your hands as there is guano everywhere.

You cannot land on Coquet Island, but a trip around it is a wonderful experience. Dave Gray’s Puffin Cruises (puffincruises.co.uk) set sail from Amble at high tide and last for around an hour. They only cost £10 per person so great value, especially for small groups.

You’ll get close to fast-moving puffin on the wing, as well as huge rafts of them on the water. There is a large grey seal colony on the seaward side of the island, and they will often swim up to the boats out of curiosity. It’s not that unusual to see a pod of dolphin on these trips too.

Coquet Island is also the nesting ground to Britain’s largest colony of rare roseate tern, and that attracts birdwatchers on these trips. There’s plenty of room to move around in their boats.

Think about taking pictures that put the birds into context, using the island or other boats as a backdrop.

If going out to sea isn’t for you, then Dunstanburgh Castle is worth visiting for the kittiwake nesting on the cliffs. A little farther up the coast is Long Nanny, between Low Newton and Beadnall. The National Trust and RSPB protect the little tern and Arctic tern nests there.

Alternatively, just sitting still by the rocks at Druridge Bay can result in waders like redshank and turnstone coming very close to you.

This week’s challenge words are Drink and Dreamy, with the theme of experimenting with shutter times.