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

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