Sunday, 9 August 2015

Adventures in Wales: Dyfi Osprey Project

I'm certain I've mentioned this before, but I'm going to go ahead and say it again anyway; the best experiences are unplanned. The Wednesday of my week in Wales with my parents had been our planned day to visit Skomer Island but we discovered that strong winds meant the boats weren't running, and so we found ourselves up and abluted very early with no destination. Rather than waste the opportunity, we decided to head north towards Aberystwyth with the intention of visiting the Dyfi Osprey Project. This was around about a two and a half hour drive from our campsite in Haverfordwest so we had originally deemed it too far to travel when planning the holiday but since we'd made an early start and had a picnic already packed, it seemed silly not to go for it. 

I can't express how excited I was at the prospect of seeing ospreys in the flesh. They have been my favourite bird of prey for a while now although I always felt like a bit of cheat saying that when I'd never actually seen one! I follow all of the monitored osprey sites on social media, including those at Rutland Water, Dyfi and the Lake District but from where I live in West Sussex, they are all too far away for me to visit for the day. It had become a dream of mine to see the birds in the flesh, one that I hadn't anticipated fulfilling any time soon. 

The project is located on the Cors Dyfi reserve managed by the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust, on the A487 north of Aberystwyth. The reserve itself is not huge but it's beautiful, with lots of vegetation and very dense reedbeds, perfect for spotting warblers. We arrived in the car park and were lucky to find a space, given that it only facilitates 50 cars. When I was speaking to one of the staff there, he did tell me that they are hoping to expand the car park in the future to stop people parking on the main road during the busy season. There is a hide just outside the visitor centre where we spent some time watching the feeders being mobbed by a variety of song birds, including siskins and redpolls, which were both first-time spots for me. 

After some time in the hide, we made our way along the raised wooden walkway, listening to the popping of seed pods as they opened in the heat. The forecast had been spot on; it was a baking day and there was no breeze at all where we were. The skies were clear and perfect for spotting birds of prey. I spotted my first meadow pipit and reed bunting on our walk to the 360° hide, their chirps mixed in with the songs of reed warblers.

Meadow pipit

As we neared the osprey hide, we stopped to watch a reed bunting singing at the top of a shrub. A movement in the sky caught my eye and I brought my binoculars up to focus, and as the sun highlighted a white head, I realised I was seeing an osprey for the first time. I'm not at all ashamed to admit that a shiver went through me as I watched this beautiful bird gliding through the air. It's the first time I've ever had such a strong physical reaction when seeing a new species; it was just so surreal and very special. 

I didn't think to take a photo of the 360° hide which is a shame as it's an impressive structure, constructed from wood and featuring expansive windows giving views of the entire reserve, as the name suggests. When we got there, we were told that Monty, the male, was perched above the nest and that it was Glesni, the female, that we had seen soaring outside. Monty and Glesni have both featured on Springwatch and Autumnwatch in the past, so it was almost like seeing a celebrity, but much, much better! I tried my best not to hog the scopes but I found it almost impossible to tear myself away from the fantastically close view of Monty guarding the nest, where the heads of the three juveniles were just visible. 

Monty perched abover, Glesni on the nest and two of the juveniles either side of her.
The three juveniles, photo courtesy of the Dyfi Osprey Project

We stayed for a long time in the hide and had several enjoyable conversations with the staff and volunteers there. It's wonderful talking to people who are so passionate about birds and wildlife and who really know their stuff. The most fascinating thing I picked up was that the juveniles, once fledged, will instinctively know that they have to migrate, they aren't taught or encouraged by their parents. I find the concept of instinct extremely interesting, especially in a situation like this where these animals just know they have to fly thousands of miles at a certain time without any prompting. 

The juveniles spent some time flapping and stretching their wings. I was told that they were approaching their fledging period and funnily enough, exactly a week after our visit, the oldest chick took her first flight from the nest, closely followed by the other two. It remains Monty's job to continue to bring in fish for feeding until such times as they are ready to migrate; Glesni more or less has no more part in their upbringing. 

There's an open deck area at the back of the observatory, where we sat and had our picnic with undisturbed views of the reserve and surrounding hills. We watched Monty take off and fly towards the left bank of hills before he disappeared over the top, most probably to go fishing again. I was hoping we might see him return with a catch before we left, but he was still gone by the time we came to leave. 

I'm so pleased that the boats to Skomer weren't running that day. Apart from the fact that I think we would have absolutely roasted in the heat had we made it to the island, it meant that I was able to fulfill a dream that I hadn't imagined I'd be able to fulfill for quite some time. The osprey is such a majestic bird and being able to see the Dyfi family in the flesh has just cemented their place at the top of my raptor list. 

Monday, 3 August 2015

Adventures in Wales: Skomer Island

I am sneaking in some long-overdue blogging time, in between the 2nd and 3rd modules of my Zoology course. It's been just over a fortnight since I returned from my camping holiday in South Wales, although it feels like an awful lot longer than two weeks and I miss it a huge amount. Honestly, what a place. For a lover of wildlife and the outdoors, like myself, there is no shortage of places to visit, things to do and experiences to have. It's a shame we only had a week there; I would gladly have put up with the wind a little longer if it meant I could have had more time there. 

Although, I confess, I missed my bed a LOT.

Once we'd settled on Pembrokeshire as our destination (I went away with my mum and step-dad), a visit to Skomer Island was top of the list of things to do. Everyone I've spoken to who has been there has told me what a remarkable place it is, that a trip there is an absolute must. It wasn't only the prospect of seeing puffins up close and personal--though that was definitely a source of a great excitement--but also the chance to spot razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and other wildlife I've never seen in the flesh before. 

We went away from 11th-18th July and my birthday was on the 13th so it would have been perfect to visit then. Sadly, Mondays are the only day the boats don't run to the island, so we chose the Wednesday which looked to be the least rainy, according to the forecast. Once again, despite the sun and high temperatures, our plan was foiled, this time by the strong winds; thankfully I discovered this on Twitter rather than when we arrived! A top tip for anyone visiting in the future; follow the Skomer Boat Info account. They post around 8am every day with updates on the boats; very handy!

I was beginning to feel like we'd never make it to the island. They do say "third time's a charm" and in this particular scenario, that turned out to be true as we arrived on the Thursday at 9am and managed to get on the 11am boat. We had some time to kill beforehand, so we took a walk in the deer park just across from the ticket office. This turned out to be a bonus for me in terms of birds. I spotted a male and female stonechat, both clutching caterpillars in their beaks, a linnet and a rock pipit, none of which I'd ever seen before.
Male stonechat

We climbed to the very top of a rather steep, rocky outcrop and were rewarded with a brilliant view of Skomer. Directly below, in the clear water of the Celtic sea, there was a group of guillemots busy diving for fish and a couple of lone puffins only identifiable from that distance by the flash of colour on their beaks. 

By the time we got back to the meeting point for the boat, we were exhausted but I was buoyed up at the thought that we would shortly be disembarking on the island. The boat seemed rather small for transporting 50 passengers plus crew across the short stretch of sea and once we were all loaded on, it was quite cosy! As we approached the island, the skies above us were suddenly filled with noise. Looking up, I saw hundreds and hundreds of puffins, swooping and darting like tiny fighter jets. They filled the surrounding water too and kept growing in number as we reached the jetty. Everywhere I looked, there were puffins. Each rocky ledge and grassy tussock either side of the steps as we began to climb was occupied by the birds. It was very surreal. 

After a brief talk by one of the island Wardens, we were left to explore for the next 5 hours, until our return boat at 4pm. We chose to go clockwise around the island which turned out to be a good idea since the wind was blowing with us, and when it started raining later in the day, we weren't walking into it. Skomer is an extremely exposed place, with no trees or shelter of any kind, save for the bird hide and farm buildings in the center. Be prepared to get wet! The benefit of such a wide-open space is that the views back to the mainland and of the neighbouring islands were stunning. We were able to enjoy these for the first half of our visit, before the weather closed in, blanketing everything in grey cloud and left us feeling like we were in another world. 

The Wick is one of the most popular spots on the island, as there are a huge number of puffin burrows here, as well as kittiwakes nesting in the cliffs. The trail is narrow and it is extremely important to remain on the designated tracks at all times, a rule that applies to the entire island. This is because three of the species breeding on Skomer (puffins, manx shearwater and rabbits) are burrowing animals and therefore it has very unstable, honeycombed foundations. One foot off the path could result in a crushed puffin nest and a broken human ankle. 

There were lots of people stopping to take photos at the Wick and for good reason. The puffins were quite literally everywhere and many less than a meter away from my feet. At one point, I was snapping away at one particular bird when I heard my mum say "Em, don't move. Turn around slowly" and when I did, a particularly brave individual was stood by my leg. Seeing them at such close proximity really demonstrated to me just how absolutely tiny they are! I had heard before our visit that they are smaller than most people realise, but I really wasn't prepared for the level of truth in that statement. 

We stood for quite some time watching one puffin desperately battling against the strong winds to land, his beak absolutely crammed full of sand eels. It took many attempts to get the above photo and even though it isn't quite in focus, it's not bad considering the speed he was zipping by at! I'm still not sure whether he made the landing or not; he could still be going for all I know. 

As well as sea and song birds, Skomer hosts several birds of prey. They have peregrine falcons nesting on "the Neck" (a portion of the island where nest colonies are being monitored to compare the effects of being "visitor-free" on breeding) and kestrels, buzzards, little owls and short-eared owls elsewhere. Everywhere I walked, I noticed remains of raptor meals. Most of them looked to be manx shearwater carcasses, with only the wings, feet and occasionally the skulls left behind. We came across a large scattering of pellets and bones on one group of rocks, evidence of it being an owl's favourite eating spot. I even noticed a headless great-spotted woodpecker near to the visitor center which I assume had been caught on the mainland and dropped, because, as I mentioned earlier, there are no trees on Skomer for a woodpecker to utilise.

As the weather closed in around lunchtime, we took shelter in the covered picnic area attached to the visitor center and spent some time drying off and eating our picnic. It wasn't cold but the relentless gusts had left us feeling a little windswept after walking round half the island already. Given its remote location, the facilities on the island are limited, as you would expect. I used one of the composting toilets (which appeared no different to a regular toilet apart from the draft that came up the tube!) and had a bit of shock when I walked into the cubicle to find a mud nest attached to the wall, complete with brooding adult house martin! The martin looked at me for a few moments, blinking, before deciding to give me some privacy and swooping low over my head and out the door. Four gaping, yellow beaks poked out from the vacated nest. I'll admit, it felt slightly strange sharing my toilet cubicle with house martin chicks but hey; there's a first for everything!

After lunch, we headed over to Garland Stone at the North of the island. We didn't venture any further East as we only had a short time before we had to catch our boat back but at Garland Stone we were greeted by more puffins as well as a couple of lounging grey seals. I had my eyes peeled for choughs as we walked through the thigh-high ferns but had no luck there. 


When we originally planned our trip and I saw we would be on the island for 5 hours, I had thought that seemed like an awfully long time. In actual fact, that time completely flew by! There is so much to see on Skomer and with us constantly stopping to take it all in, it actually wasn't possible to cover the entirety of the trail. A good excuse to go back, I say. 

Climbing back down the 80 or so steps to the waiting boat, it seemed as if the puffins were all lined up to say goodbye as they perched on their rocky ledges. To have them so close and completely unfazed by our presence was a real joy. I even managed to see a few guillemots and razorbills up close on my descent. 

One thing on my mind after my visit here is this. Being able to see these creatures at such close proximity is a privilege and we should respect that. We don't automatically have the right to interact with wildlife in this way, it is something that we have to earn and it can't be abused. I strongly believe that projects such as this one are a fantastic way to get people interested in wildlife, particularly young minds. I think so many people don't respect or have any interest in the natural world because they don't understand it and can't appreciate how important it all is. 

Visiting Skomer was truly a unique experience. An element of being a birder is being prepared not to see anything, or to only catch a glimpse of a species before it's gone again; this is just something we automatically accept, it comes with the territory. Coming to a place like this is just overwhelming, like a reward for all of that patience and waiting done in the past. This isn't a zoo or a conservation park. This island is wild, the animals are wild. That we are lucky enough to experience that wildness, to immerse ourselves in it for the day and share that space with these animals, is not something to be taken for granted. 

I have a few tips that might come in handy if you visit in the future:

-It may sound obvious, but PLEASE wear decent footwear! I actually saw several people wearing flip flops/ flimsy sandals. I don't think they knew just how uneven some of the terrain would be.

-Bring cash for the boat. You can pay your landing fee by card in the mainland lodge but the boat and car park only take cash. 

-Don't choose the sunniest day. I'm quite thankful we weren't able to go on the Wednesday as I think we would have suffered with the heat. Remember, there's nowhere to shelter and that means no shade. It's better to get a bit wet from the rain than get sunstroke!

-I already mentioned this but just to remind you: follow Skomer Boats Info on Twitter so you can find out if the boats are running before setting out for the day.

-Be prepared to walk. It's quite a tough day out, especially if you are a little uneasy on your feet. A few people I saw seemed to be struggling and, again, I don't think they'd done their research on the island beforehand. 

I spotted a total of 14 new species on my holiday, one of which was a complete dream for me and had me feeling a little emotional (blog post to come). I wonder if you can guess which one from my list of "firsts" below?

Meadow Pipit
Rock Pipit
Reed Warbler
Reed Bunting