Puffins with a view
Whilst we’ve barely scratched the surface of the seabird colonies across the UK, we wanted to share our experience on the ones we have visited. Lunga and the Farnes were solo trips for me but Kate and I go to the Isle of May together.
Feel free to have a look at our page on puffins to find out more about these comical little birds.
Next on the bucket list trip is a visit to Fair Isle and Shetland (who knows when though!) We would love to do a trip where you can photograph puffins at sunset but some investigation is required first.
Hope you enjoy this little summary and we’d love to hear about your favourite places.
Lunga - Treshnish Isles, Inner Hebrides
Last year I visited Lunga for the first time during the wonderful heatwave we had in early Summer 2018. It was glorious and warm, we had common and bottlenose dolphins playing in the waves, I only required a light jacket for the boat trip but the rest of the time I had a vest top, jeans, and my boots on.
This year, 4 layers later, some gloves, plus a headband to keep my ears warm and I was still very cold! It was as equally sunny though, which made for some tricky photography conditions. Apparently there is such a thing as too much light. The shadows were extremely harsh and there was no escape from it.
Lunga doesn’t have the most graceful of landings, with a pontoon being brought to the boat then a scramble across some rocks but the views and landscape more than make up for it. It’s also a lot quieter than the likes of the Farnes and most people get caught up with the first puffins they come across but if you head straight for Harp Rock you get a little bit of solitude. This year I had about 25 minutes or so with no-one else around meaning I got to enjoy the stunning views over the sea surrounded by puffins, razorbills, guilllemots, and shags by myself.
One of the reasons I prefer to go in May is because the island is carpeted in native bluebells and if the puffins play ball then you can get some beautiful shots of them surrounded by the flowers. Yes, you don’t get the classic sand eel shot at that time of year but it’s nice to have something a little different, especially with the backdrop of the turquoise waters.
There’s less birds than other islands but Lunga is a little bit special in that the puffins actively seek out human company. We provide much needed protection from bigger birds like ravens (of which there were plenty) and skuas. You see puffins flying back to the island in their hundreds as people arrive on the island and they’re very tolerant of people. As long as you’re careful of their burrows you can get some great close up encounters.
What do I love about it?
Scenery, close ups, and bluebells. There’s lots to see on the journey too. On a clear day you can see up to Muck, Rum, and Eigg.
What’s not so great?
There are no toilets! If that’s the only drawback though it won’t stop me visiting. You just need to make sure you go on the boat ;-)
Who did I travel with?
I’ve been with Turus Mara and Staffa Tours. If you’re looking to max out your time on Lunga then Turus Mara is your best bet as on their all day trip you get 4 hours on the island. Staffa Tours go from Tobermory so saves travelling time on either side of the trip depending where you’re staying.
Farne Islands (Inner and Staple) - Northumberland
The Farnes are an extremely popular set of islands off the Northumberland coast and a number of tour operators take people from all over the world out to the see the colonies of seabirds. This year I went as part of a trip with our camera club in mid June. My first highlight was the Starlings behind at the Seahouses harbour. I’ve never seen such friendly birds and they fed right out your hand! It was a great way to start the trip.
We’ve never spent any time in this part of England and I was a bit taken aback with the scenery as I drove through Bamburgh, it was just beautiful. Imagine living opposite that castle and being fortunate enough to see it everyday. It was a gorgeous day and I really enjoyed the drive down there. The return journey not so much but you know what it's like when you just want to get home.
As we landed on Staple Island we were greeted by a large Herring Gull attempting to swallow a dead Puffling. Unfortunately in the days preceding my trip the islands were hit by storms and a lot of puffin burrows flooded, causing a large number of pufflings to perish. It was hard to watch but it is nature and you only had to walk a bit further along the boardwalk to see the circle of life in full flow when you find a gulls nest with chicks who also need fed.
A short trip across to Inner Farne and it’s where I probably got the best shots of the day. It’s also where I had my first proper Arctic Tern encounter. Safe to say, I’m glad I brought a hat! They were nesting on the paths and boardwalk so you had to watch your step as the little chicks could quite easily be stepped on. With how they so fiercely protect their nests, I do wonder if it adds extra stress to an already fraught time of year. Nesting birds are protected by the schedule 1 licence so what makes this situation any different? I’ve not investigated it but let me know your thoughts/insider knowledge!
The flight path of the puffins is really where this island comes in to its own though. It was ideal for photographing them sweeping in with beaks full of sand eels but wow, do they have it rough! For every puffin coming in there were 4/5 black headed gulls just waiting to pounce on them. Some were skilled enough to land straight in their burrows, missing the attack and delivering a much needed feed to their chick.
What do I love about it?
It’s brilliant for puffins in flight, you get great views of them coming in.
What’s not so great?
It is busy. There’s so many people there it doesn’t quite have the isolated feel of Lunga.
From a photography perspective, I wouldn’t say it's the most scenic of islands as it’s quite flat with lots of brown mud, which doesn’t make for the most attractive of backdrops.
You either have to pay to a hefty landing fee to the National Trust or join for a year if you want to make it more cost effective. I did the latter though I think I’ll cancel it after a year, unless I plan a return trip to the Farnes.
Who did I go with?
Billy Shiels boat trip. I can’t comment on any other operator though.
Isle of May - Sailing from Anstruther or North Berwick
We’ve been over to the Isle of May a couple of times now. Once with the camera club and this year with our Mum and Kate’s mother in law who is a massive fan of puffins. I really do mean massive, there’s puffin memorabilia all over her house and she loves them. Surprisingly, she’s never seen them up close before so we were really excited to take her across to the island for a first proper encounter.
Similar to the Farnes, the terns were still dive bombing though their chicks were quite a bit bigger by this point in the season.
The Isle of May is a large island with lots of vantage points all offering something different. If you head round to Bishops Cove it's the favourite spot for photographing birds in flight. Depending on which direction the wind is blowing it’ll slow them down so it’s easier to catch them in frame. Of course, the day we visited this year the wind was on their tails so they were even faster and it was nigh on impossible!
Thankfully there were a few puffins who were clearly a bit tired from their journey and were sitting quite the thing on some rocks beside the path. I’ve never seen so many sand eels in one birds mouth! The record catch is apparently 62, so it’s lucky their beaks are specially designed to hook the eels in, making it easier carry large volumes of the slippery little things.
It’s also a great island for eider ducks, which are our heaviest and fastest flying duck. They can be very hard to spot as they have a great talent for staying still and quiet meaning you can quite easily walk past them.
On both trips we’ve taken an initial wander round the island together and then split up to avoid us getting the same shots.
On the 2nd trip we were lucky enough to watch the release of 4 pufflings who had fledged during the day, which isn’t safe for them due to the number of predators around.
What do we love?
The variety of shots you can get. The landscape isn’t flat so there’s a good selection of backdrops you can go for.
What’s not so great?
There’s really nothing to call out about the Isle of May. The birds are more skittish than Lunga but then it’s a different kettle of fish, or eels over there.
Who did we go with?
The May Princess, which we took from Anstruther. It’s a great crew and we had a lovely chat with Ed Thomson.
Now I’ve described the 3 colonies, where is my ultimate favourite?
I have to go with Lunga. It’s just so beautiful and the experience is unlike any other.
I like the tranquility, the views, and the trip over. For me, it’s a way to escape for a few hours and really be able to immerse yourself in the surroundings. It’s lovely to be able to put down your kit and just enjoy the privilege that comes from a wild animal allowing you in to their world, especially when they use you as protection.
Now you’ve read our summary of the small amount of colonies we’ve visited we’d love to hear you views and experiences? Please let us know in the comments section where your favourite place to photograph/watch Puffins, or any other seabird is 😊