Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Skomer 6th July 2014

Sarah, Tobias and I spent Sunday 6th July on Skomer. We had not been to the island for around eight years and Tobias never, and with his burgeoning interest in birds (all either 'quack-quacks' or owls) we thought that Skomer would be a great place for him to get close to some wild birds - in particular Puffin. We took a bit of a risk in that the only day we had for the island was the Sunday but in the event the weather was superb, almost too hot and sunny in fact. To cap it, the Grand Prix and the tennis finals meant that numbers of visitors on the day were low and the mid-morning boat was cancelled. We arrived at the ticket office at 08:30 and booked our tickets and still had time for a 45 minute stroll around the nearby headland. A distant pair of Chough were seen as were a family group of Northern Wheatear, the male now looking very ragged after the breeding season. The juveniles were evidently recently fledged, this is not a plumage that I am particularly familiar with. Swallows gave excellent views, particularly around the toilet block where a pair had decided to nest on the cistern in the gents, peering down on you as you relieved yourself prior to the ferry crossing.

Northern Wheatear  - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
Male Northern Wheatear

Northern Wheatear  - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
Juvenile Northern Wheatear

Barn Swallow  - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
Barn Swallow

Skomer from the mainland
North Shore of Skokholm from the Mainland

The 20 minute ferry crossing was fairly uneventful with no Porpoise or Dolphin seen and the only seabirds being the common island breeders. As we had eaten no breakfast we headed to the Old Farm in the centre of the island which, since our last visit, has been converted into volunteers accommodation and a picnic area. We sat and enjoyed the view and listened to the Sedge Warblers and Wren singing from the Bracken, the latter sounding a little different from the birds that I am accustomed to hearing, supporting a Welsh island dialect.

Sedge Warbler - Skomer _ Simon Colenutt
Sedge Warbler - Skomer

From the Old Farm we walked west to Marble Rocks overlooking Pigstone Bay. I have been to Skomer on two previous occasions in May and June, at this time I have either seen carpets of Bluebell or a sea of Red Campion in bloom. During this visit the island was a little less colourful being smothered with a cover of Bracken and Bramble, however, on the shorter cliff top swards the vegetation was dominated by a mix of low growing Sea Campion, Scarlet Pimpernel, Sea Mayweed and Thrift making for an equally colourful display.

Sea Campion and Scarlet Pimpernel - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
Sea Campion and Scarlet Pimpernel - Skomer

Breeding gull were much in evidence with the Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls with either fledged young or well grown young practicing their flying. The Lesser Black-backs in particular were vigorous in their defence of their young, particularly around the Young Ground area where the path passes through a nesting colony, here visitors are bombarded by feisty parents. There are around 12,000 pairs of Lesser black-back breeding on Skomer.

 Adult Herring Gull - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
 Adult Herring Gull - Skomer

 Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
 Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull - Skomer

 Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
 Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull - Skomer

 Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
 Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull - Skomer

At Skomer Head we loitered and scanned the sea for Cetaceans but with no luck although the view of Grassholm was spectacular with one side of the islands swathed in the white of the 39,000 pairs of Gannet that breed there. This is 10% of the world population and the third largest colony in the UK behind St Kilda and Bass Rock. GPS tracking of these birds has shown that most move north into the Irish sea to feed but it is hard to believe that the large numbers seen off Cornwall in the summer are not birds from this colony. The distinctive, "chow' of Chough was heard and four birds flew past us giving great views.

Grassholm from Skomer - Simon Colenutt
 East Coast of Grassholm from Skomer

The commonest bird on Skomer is the Manx Shearwater with some 120,000 pairs breeding across the island, this coupled with the 45,000 breeding on the nearby Skokholm make for the largest breeding concentration in the world. However, its a rare event indeed to see them during the day on the islands and although I spent maybe 45 minutes scanning to sea I saw none. The only signs were the numerous burrows spread throughout the islands and the scatter of dead birds left after gulls, mainly Great Black-backs, capture any that fail to return to sea or the safety of the burrows come dawn.

 Dead Manx Shearwater - Skomer

We continued around the island stopping at various view points to watch the thousands of Guillemot and Razorbill breeding on the cliffs. Many of these now seem to have well grown chicks close to fledging. With around 20,000 pairs of Guillemot (2005 census) and 5,000 pairs of Razorbill breeding on the island the site, sound and smell of these colonies is something to savour.

Auk Colony - Skomer

One of the highlights of any visit to Skomer in spring are the Puffins, these are perhaps best seen at The Wick in the south of the island. Here the birds afford amazing views as they go about their business, regularly walking across the path and through the legs of visitors. During this visit the Sea Mayweed was growing at Puffin head height and the birds looked quite at home in their mini jungle. Many were evidently feeding young and were to-ing and fro-ing with bills filled with Sand Eel. There are some 10,000 breeding pairs of Puffin on Skomer with around 2,000 pairs on Skokholm.

The two other Auk species breeding on Skomer are the Guillemot and Razorbill, these are abundant but tend to be less showey than Puffin since they nest on the steep cliff faces. I have found the steps to the ferry the best location for seeing these two species close-to.

Guillemot - Skomer

Razorbill - Skomer

We left Skomer at 15:00 having spent a fabulous five hours enjoying the wealth of seabirds on this beautiful island of the coast of Pembrokeshire.

Details of how to visit the island can be found here.