“ City: Northumberland / Country: England „
The seabird colonies of the UK are famous attractions for birdwatchers and nature lovers. In a previous review I wrote about a visit to Bempton Cliffs, one of the largest onshore sites: however, something I have always wanted to see is one of the island colonies. I finally managed to do this a couple of weeks ago when we visited RSPB Coquet Island.
What is Coquet Island?
Coquet Island is a tiny notch of rock in the North Sea, which would have been entirely unremarkable but for a mildly interesting religious history and a massive colony of seabirds. Technically it is the property of the Duke of Northumberland - however, the RSPB have managed the area for several years and even the Duke has to ask permission to step ashore. The importance of the site means that only the wardens are allowed to actually walk on the island, but members of the public can take boats which move around the shoreline of the island and moor on the jetty to allow a good view of the birds.
How to get to Coquet Island?
Coquet Island is reached from Amble, a small town which lies to the South East of Alnwick on the rocky Northumberland coast. Visitors can park here and chose from several different boat companies - however, we decided to go for the hour long RSPB trip that runs from the Northumberland Seabird Centre.
The attractions of Coquet Island
Unlike many RSPB reserves which offer other attractions, Coquet Island is all about the birds. The primary attraction for the hardcore birdwatchers is the roseate terns, beautiful, delicate seabirds of which about 90% of the UK population live on Coquet Island. Given that the other major colony is in Northern Island, for many people Coquet Island is the only opportunity to see these birds.
But this is by no means a single species island. There are three other tern species - sandwich, arctic and common, all of them equally elegant and equally stunning. Black headed gulls are pretty much everywhere, which makes the whole thing a rather noisier experience, and there's the occasional fulmar peeping from the cliff through its pretty black eyes. Another key species is the Eider Ducks. Coquet Island is the most southerly breeding point for Eiders, and its great fun to see these big, quirky birds bobbing through the water with their flotillas of offspring.
And then, of course, there are the irresistible puffins. I thought I was lucky to have seen four puffins last time I was at Bempton. Coquet Island has several thousand - floating on the waves, perched on the cliffs, spinning dizzily over our heads flapping their wings like mad to keep airborne. For anyone who wants to introduce kids to birding, puffins must be one of the best ways in. But you should bear in mind when planning your trip that puffin season only lasts until mid July, so most of the birds will be gone by the school Summer holidays.
An added bonus for us was the heads of a couple of seals (species unknown, I'm afraid) that popped up occasionally around the shoreline. You didn't get the best of views, as they kept their distance from the boats, but still - a seal!
Pricing and facilities
The pricing of the trip was very reasonable indeed - the hour's trip cost only £5.50 per person (£6 for non-members of the RSPB) and would have been £3 for children. There are other longer boat trips, some specifically tailored to see Roseates and others exploring larger parts of the coast. Plug 'Northumberland Seabird Centre' into google and you can find out all the options.
The Seabird Centre itself is quite basic, although there is information about Coquet Island and a cafe area offering drinks and light refreshments. There are also volunteers on hand to answer any questions. The only criticism of the centre is that space considerations mean there are no toilets on site, but there is a public toilet block about five minutes walk along Amble marina.
Accessibility is, however, a limiting factor in who can go on the boat trips. The trip we took involved climbing down a steep flight of steps to get to the boat, which would obviously present an problem to those with mobility issues. I would recommend contacting Northumberland Seabird Centre and seeing if there was any other way on board.
Coquet Island is absolutely brilliant. Of course there are flaws - the accessibility side is a thorny one, as is the lack of toilets at the visitor centre. Nor is it a destination for those without sea legs. But for steady stomached birdwatchers, this was an experience that will be very hard to beat. The sheer volume of birds was absolutely staggering, as was their proximity. This is a place that reminds you of how fantastic the natural world can be.