Friday, 29 May 2015

25th May - Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire

The sun was out when I left the cottage early to get in the queue for the landing tickets.  The cottage opens at 8.30, but with it being a Bank Holiday Monday, and the weather looked to be set fair we were, or I was advised to get there early.  So it was 6.30 as I drove towards Martin's Haven with dark clouds away to the west.  I had left Helen in the cottage asleep, we were going to get the 10.00am crossing which meant I could come back and get her later.

I was third in line, the office finally opening at 8.15 I picked up the tickets and headed back to the cottage.  After a quick breakfast, packing of the picnic into the rucksack, we were off.  There was still some time to wait so we walked around the Deer Park.

As we looked over Jack Sound towards the island a single Gannet flew past.

We made our way to the landing jetty, passing Stonechats and Meadow Pipits in the park. As we stood waiting to board the Dale Princess that would take us to the island I was taken by the Thrift growing on the rocks.

Finally we were off to Skomer, and as we left the cloud was clearing and it was getting a lot brighter.

Skomer is one of the most important seabird sites in Southern Britain covered in maritime grass, lush inland vegetation and streams.  At this time of year there are Bluebells carpeting the island, we had seen the blue haze from the mainland, and were looking forward to seeing them close up.

Most of the island is at least 60 metres above sea level, with a series of ridges, the highest of which is just over 75 metres.  The main attraction of the island is the seabirds, the colony of Manx Shearwaters probably being the largest in the world, but we were very unlikely to see a single bird, as they were either in their nest burrows, or out at sea.  The other attraction is of course the Puffin followed by Guillemot and razorbill, but the other supporting cast is as equally impressive.

We landed in North Haven and walked the steps to the meeting point.  here we were given the instructions about the island from the Warden while a Puffin attended its burrow above its head.

We headed away from the landing site into the centre of the island and the Farm House where those staying on the island live.  As we walked towards it we passed through many Bluebells, Lesser Black-backed Gulls sitting amongst them.

From the house  I could hear a Wren singing along with a Sedge Warbler.  I couldn't find the Sedge Warbler but did find the Wren on the top of an old building.

A Lesser Black-backed Gull sat on a stone wall and looked splendid with a background of a bluebell haze.

We were heading towards Garland Stone, and the path took us through a blue carpet all around us, the video below giving some indication of what it was like.

From the middle of the Bluebells I could hear a Reed Bunting singing.  It had found the one spot of green amongst the sea of blue.

The Meadow Pipits though preferred to sit amongst the Bluebells, even if it did find the bracken easier to perch on.

Looking out to sea when we reached the tip of the island three Gannets passed by, two adults and probably a third year bird.

And looking out to the west you could see the island of Grassholm a significant breeding colonies, the white rocks showing clearly where the Gannets nest.

We set off around the island towards the south.  Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls streamed past us, as well as a pair of Choughs duelling above us with some Jackdaws.  The upper two birds are the Choughs

We reached a small haven with ledges that were occupied by Guillemots Razorbills and Kittiwakes

You could see, hear and smell them.  We stopped here to have a coffee and were joined by a male Wheatear foraging on the cliff top.

This was to be the first of about four pairs we saw, the many burrows being ideal for them if they can find one not occupied.

We could see gulls moving out to sea, but scanning the sea through a calm patch we could see the dorsal fins of the Harbour Porpoise breaking the water.

Our space was then invaded so we decided to set off again, the Lesser Black-backed Gulls looking quite spectacular in the Bluebells once more.

A single Oystercatcher was calling from a rock, and by getting low I was able to get a blue background behind it, not something you see with an Oystercatcher.

On a rock that was sitting in the middle of the bluebells was a Great Black-backed Gull, and it was being rather attentive to the surrounding stones.  The stones though turned about to be three chicks, and one of the islands top predators showed its caring side as it first regurgitated food then carefully passed small bits to the chicks.

A little further on I was able to get a different perspective on the Oystercatcher.

We came across a group of people who had picked up a pair of Peregrine Falcons that were annoying the Oystercatchers and displaying to each other using the cliff updrafts.

Finally both drifted away, why is it they always drift away, and don't come back?

The flowers were now changing, the Bluebells being replaced by Sea Campion, which has white flowers, and stay quite closee to the floor creating a white carpet in contrast to the blue.

Another small cove revealed two Grey Seals in the sea.

After looking around they both lazed about on the surface allowing the sea to roll over them.

We were now at Skomer Head a promontory looking out to the west.  There was lots of pink thrift on the cliff top.

The island is riddled with burrows, everywhere you look there are holes, and they are all mostly occupied by Manx Shearwaters.

The coastal scenery was also quite spectacular as the sun broke through to light up the cliff tops.

From Skomer Head we followed the trail towards the Wick, an area of high cliffs, and plenty of nesting seabirds.  As we walked through the Sea Campion and the Thrift another Wheatear appeared on the rocks.

The land at the top of the wick was full of grass and Sea Campion, and of course riddled with burrows.  Here as you would expect were Puffins, and they were extremely close to the footpath as they came out or waited outside their burrows.

A bit like the Bitterns recently in Minsmere I took loads of photographs of the photogenic Puffins and the other two auks, the Guillemot and Razorbill.  So as a result just like the bitterns I will have a separate post for all the photographs I have taken over the time we were here on the island, and sailing around it, here though I will show some of the best.  

They are wonderful birds to watch, comical but at the same time endearing with a sad look.

They are also not the best at landing, on the sea they hit the water and go under, on land they try and land on their feet but almost always end up in a heap.

The burrows though were not just the homes of the Puffins and Manz Shearwaters, Rabbits could be seen too.

We walked on leaving the Puffins for awhile.  Looking across the water on the other side rather than Bluebells the island was covered in Thrift producing a pink haze.

The Wick is a narrow inlet with very steep sided cliffs, as well as the auks nesting on the ledges there were Kittiwakes and Fulmar.  The Kittiwake is a lovely dove like gull, the soft features of the face enhanced by the dove grey on the wings, and the black wing tips that look like the wings have been dipped in ink.

Fulmar were making the most of the wind and the updrafts circling around and coming up above the cliff before falling away again.

A little further on we encountered more Puffins, this time flying in and standing so close.

What we were not aware was that they came so close because they wanted to cross the poath to get to their burrows.  They had this concerned look as they shuffled forward looking for away to get past.  Once we realised we backed away and let them pass.

A little further on we came across one that was just at the entrance to the burrow, peering out doesn't it just look so cute

From the Wick we walked across the South Plateau and stopped to eat our lunch overlooking the Mew Stone.  On the rock were pairs of Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls and several pairs of Jackdaws.  As we ate I watched a Peregrine flying around the rock, avoiding every time it appeared the camera.

We were not alone having lunch, a pair of Wheatear foraged just below us, and this Jackdaw came very close.

From the Mew Stone we walked around to South Haven and the High Cliff.  Here there were more auks, with plenty of Guillemots occupying ledges, there were no Puffins here though.

Looking down Kittiwakes could be seen and heard as they flew close to the cliff face.

The guillemots were not just on the cliff ledges they were also on the water, and every so often would explode from the water into the air.

As we watched the auks below on the sea, a Raven passed overhead, probably looking for an electricity pylon.

By now we had almost completely circled the island.  We still had plenty of time before we were due to catch the boat back so we decided to head inland once again with the objective to look for the reported Little Owls.  After a brief stop to gain directions we headed out west from the farm house, scanning the stone walls.  

we had a quick look over the pond, a man made water on which there were plenty of Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Canada Geese.  Helen also found a Pheasant which was a surprise, as it is hard to imagine a Pheasant managing to fly across the water as they can hardly fly across a road at home.

From the hide we walked the path towards Skomer Head.  This followed a stone wall and we kept looking.  As I saw a strange shape on the wall Helen said she had found it, and there on the top of the wall sat a Little Owl in the sunshine.

We crept a little closer, but were not able to leave the path.  It continued though to watch us.

Behind us we could hear children, and so could the owl.  It changed its position, and you could sense it was going to fly away.

And that is exactly what it did, it flew off into the field and dropped down behind a bush of nettles.  We could still just see the top of its head, so as the family passed us, oblivious to what we were watching we stood, had a cup of coffee and waited to see if it would return.  Unfortunately it didn't come back to the wall, but as we waited we were able to make out a pair of Curlew at the back of the field, almost merged into the heat haze.  Apparently these are the only breeding Curlew in Pembrokeshire.

We decided to walk back to the landing area at North Haven.  As we did we could hear Curlew calling, then both flew past over our heads.

Meadow Pipits were every where on the island, and at one stage a pair were mobbing the Little Owl as it sat in the field.  Not the most photogenic of birds but I could pass up this one perched on the stone wall with a beak full of insects for its young hidden away in the Bluebells

Just before we reached North Haven, a Herring Gull flew in and perched close to the path.  Gulls get a bad press, They are currently a red listed bird, struggling to recover from the Botulism poisoning they suffered in the late eighties.  Given a close look they are a strikingly handsome bird.

As we watched it was joined by who we must assume was its mate and they entered into some gull conversation.  While looking quite fearsome they also look very striking

I hoped that before we left I could get the chance to photograph the auks that were on the cliffs close to the landing steps.  Fortunately we had time, and were allowed to go down the steps early to get the chance.

The razorbill up close is smart, and probably one of my favourites with the white eyeliner, a striking yellow gape.

They can also look quite fluffy.

All three auks were here, the Puffins higher up on the grass, but also gathered on the rocks where they would fly off and return with the comical landing techniques.

Further down the cliff were the Guillemots, I leaned over the fence, and looked down as they looked up at me.  They remind me of the alien figures you can see, the black eyes having that blank other worldly look.

There are two types of Guillemots but of the same species.  Some have the white line behind the back of the eye, these are known as Bridled.  You can see both here.

And here you can see the difference between the Razorbill, and Guillemot, the Razorbill more stocky and black, while the Guillemot is a chocolate brown, and with a more softer look.

We moved down the steps to the bottom as the auks were gathering close on the water.  It was probably due to the fact that they have been fed that they came so close, but it was nice to get some close shots.

The Guillemot.

A Razorbill, looking a little browner than in other photographs

And of course the Puffin, gorgeous.

Finally the Dale Princess appeared around the headland and we were off back to the mainland.

It had been a wonderful day, the weather adding to the spectacle.  We had seen everything there was to see other than the Short-eared Owls, but then one shouldn't be greedy.  

Back at the cottage I spent some time before photographing the Swifts that were nesting in the church nearby, this was the best one.

The weather looks set fair so tomorrow will see us off to explore elsewhere.