Breeding birds report 2021

With the pandemic ongoing in 2021, the Rangers cautiously expanded their presence, management, and monitoring work across the islands, inching ever closer to normality. We were happy to open our beloved islands to the public once again, and to share the wondrous spectacle of seabirds with our visitors. It was not a normal season for two reasons - ongoing restrictions meant that the Rangers were still unable to live out on the islands and productivity monitoring for shag, kittiwake, eider, razorbill and puffin was restricted to only the Inner Group for the second year running

Crucially, the Rangers were able calculate breeding bird figures for most islands in the Inner and Outer Groups. However, just like last year, the fact that we were unable to visit the Outer Group more frequently, means that we should treat our figures as minimum counts.

Puffin census was carried out on the four key islands of Inner Farne, Staple, Brownsman and the Wideopens, where the majority of these colourful auks reside. As in 2020, the heavily reduced Ranger presence likely influenced a notable increase in predatory large gulls. This applied subsequent pressure on our ground nesting birds. Our reduced capacity to perform habitat management work to the usual standard in 2021 (most notably on Brownsman), also contributed to a sense of notable change on the Farne Islands. The question on our lips was how this altered character would impact on the nesting birds. 

Breeding birds overview

Twenty-four species of birds nested on the Farne Islands in 2021. It was a dramatic season that will be remembered as one of the years in which a mass displacement of terns occurred across the islands. Arctic terns did not settle on Inner Farne. This is the result of a multitude of factors, touched upon above but discussed in detail in the annual report. Although Arctic terns have fluctuated on Inner Farne in recent years, it can be deduced that the reduced Ranger presence has been a key factor in this recent, abrupt decline, as numbers had already decreased from 1,070 pairs in 2019 to 491 pairs in 2020. Thankfully, the numbers held on the Outer Group in 2021, to produce a Farnes total of 502 pairs. Although most noticeable, it was not just the Arctic terns that suffered. Common terns fell to a mere 15 pairs, and Sandwich terns to 285 pairs. 

The poor fortunes of the terns are mirrored in a rise in large gull species, with increased numbers of combined Herring and Lesser black-back gulls noted across all the islands, particularly the key ground-nesting bird islands. 2060 pairs of large gulls represented an increase of 30.6% from 2020 and the highest numbers since 1978. These increases were particularly pronounced on the three islands that are typically manned by Rangers and visitors. Inner Farne saw 41.6% more pairs from the previous season, whilst Staple and Brownsman saw more pronounced increases of 44.5% and 71% respectively. Colony expansions were particularly noticeable on Inner Farne and Brownsman. Analysis of both species will be discussed below in the systematic list. Great black-backed gull numbers remained stable with a decrease of just one pair from 2020. Black-headed gull however experienced a third year of consecutive decline, with numbers below 400 pairs for the first time in a decade. 

Considering the challenges faced by the tern species, our other prominent ground nesting species; Eider, held up quite well with an increase of 15.6%. Although a positive rise, 372 pairs is below the 5-year mean and the third lowest count since 1948. Beneath the ground meanwhile, Puffins experienced a further decline with 36,211 pairs present across the four prominent islands. If comparing this result to the last time that Inner Farne, West Wideopen, Brownsman and Staple all were counted in 2019, this represents a decrease of 14.6%. Next year we intend to resume normal service and count the puffins on East Wideopen, North Wamses, South Wamses and Big Harcar.    

It was broadly a more positive picture for the cliff-nesting species, though predation, extreme weather and Ranger protection are highly influential on their nesting success. It was a solid year for cliff nesting auks. Guillemots dominated the ledges with 62,936 individuals counted. Although this represents a minor decrease of 477 pairs, it is still the third largest count ever for the Farne Islands and third time that numbers have exceeded 60,000. They also appear to have colonised a new island; Longstone End, albeit in single figures. Razorbills also performed strongly, with 443 pairs representing a 10% increase from 2020, and fulmars increased by 13% since 2020. Kittiwakes also did well and continued to exceed the 5-year mean, with 4,304 pairs recorded across the islands. Shags did extremely poorly, with just 425 pairs recorded. This resident species has struggled to recover since the Beast from the east decimated their numbers 2018.