The storm brings the manximum number of birds
|Manx Shearwaters in their element|
For the last three years I have been trying to get out on a boat off the Skomer coast to see Manx Shearwaters. Each year I have booked an "evening seabird spectacular" with Dale Sailing. The trip is a 2 hour boat cruise on the iconic Dale Princess that departs from Martins Haven, Pembrokeshire. Unfortunately in previous years every trip has been cancelled due to extreme weather. Summer storms have caused havoc with my scheduling and caused huge disappointment.
I am not a person that gives up easily though- neither are my birding pals Nicola Johns and Paul Joy.
Our 2019 birding trip to Pembrokshire had started badly. On Wednesday my car we had been travelling in decided to die on us after a breakfast stop - a suspected cam belt failure resulting in the RAC ( who were great) recovering us back to Gwent. Thankfully Nicola stepped up to the task and took over the driving duties and did us proud. She got us to Pembroke by the evening. Despite the set back the "three amigos" as we call ourselves pulled together and made the best of it.
We were greeted to the lovely "shire" by dark clouds and rain. Storm Miguel was causing havoc throughout the country and heavy rain was predicted for the next couple of days. The weather gods are a fickle lot and things were not looking good at all.
Thursday morning we tried our luck at catching the boat to Skomer. As we joined the queue at silly o'clock the rain got worse and worse. Out on the bay the sea was rough with lots of white horses ( wave crests) showing. The boat was cancelled but we were told things were looking better for tomorrow.
As ever it is a huge blow but that is the way of things and you have got to just wait it out and try something else. Two of my friends had travelled all the way across for the day from Gwent. It was tough to see the disappointment in their eyes.
Braving the rain and cold ( no sign of flaming June) we walked the deer park headland. I will write more about that in a separate blog but lets just say there was plenty to see despite the weather conditions.
Fridays weather was better. As we stood waiting in the queue for Skomer tickets the sea was calmer and even some blue sky was threatening to show itself. Good news was to be had - it was announced the boats were running. It was smiles all round.
On boarding the Dale Princess I missed a call from Dale Sailing. I had that kind of awful feeling in my stomach that the evening seabird spectacular we had booked was going to be cancelled. In previous years it always "ends" with a call like this.
The day visit on Skomer was fantastic as usual. When I saw the corpses of predated Manx Shearwaters I could not help but wonder what was going to happen later. A wind had started to whip up and the clouds were looking ominous as we waited for our return boat from Skomer.
I called Dale Sailing and was shocked to learn the trip was not cancelled but they were ringing to warn us to wear waterproofs as the skipper was expecting rain. To say I was excited would be an understatement.
At 7 pm after three years of trying I was sat on the Dale Princess with Paul and Nicola at my sides and about 15 other passengers. There was a good swell and it had started to drizzle. The sky was grey - not ideal conditions for photography. The cruise had a guide aboard and I must say from the outset, he had fantastic knowledge and talked whilst stood in the middle of the boat for almost 1.5 hours without putting a word wrong or slipping.
|The boat trip guide. Very knowledgeable and made the trip really interesting.|
The skipper promised me I would see a Manx Shearwater. He would be proved right in a truly epic fashion.
Manx Shearwaters(Puffinus Puffinus) are migratory ocean going seabirds. They travel some 7000 miles or so from the coast of South America all the way to Skomer in order to breed. They are a seabird that is similar looking to an Albatross but are a lot smaller. They have evolved to be able to fly effortlessly just above the waves taking advantage of the wind currents. Shearwaters spend almost their entire lives at sea having only one reason to visit land - to breed.
The birds are poorly adapted for land living . They have very small legs that are positioned at the back of their bodies meaning when they land they have to slide on their chests to move around. In order to breed they use abandoned rabbit and Puffin burrows and lay a single egg.
During the day they are very vulnerable to attack from seagulls. Any that are sighted landing on Skomer during the day will invariably be eaten by seagulls like the Great Black Backed Gull.
|Great Black Backed Gull ( taken at Skomer earlier on our day)|
Skomer is home to the worlds largest single colony of Manx Shearwaters so in June they are actively breeding on the Islands. The only safe time for them to land to feed their chicks is during complete darkness.
On our boat trip we were hoping to find Manx Shearwaters starting to gather in large groups known as rafts waiting for the darkness to fall before they headed to Skomer to feed their waiting chicks.
As we reached Skomer the sea was starting to get a little rough. The sea currents are always choppy around the island but the wind was whipping up and a storm was coming.
Then our guide pointed out our first Manx Shearwaters. It was fabulous -at long last but the evening was going to just get better. The skipper sighted more birds further out . He saw a lot of birds in fact thousands of them.
|Manx Shearwater skimming the waves|
The boat made its way towards the swirling black dots. Suddenly before us was a panorama of choppy seas, grey clouds and thousands of Manx Shearwaters. It was estimated to be at least 5000. None of us had expected this. It was sight to behold. We took hundreds of pictures, persevering to focus as the boat moved up and down in the swell, sea spray misting our lenses and waves blocking our view.
The Manx Shearwaters were amazing. Some swooped in huge swarms over the water, others floated in the ocean swell. The pictures I took speak for themselves I think. It was a truly amazing experience. The skipper of the boat and our guide both stated they had never seen so many Manx Shearwaters.
|A flock of Manx Shearwaters|
|Rafts of Shearwaters|
|A close up shot of Manx Shearwaters|
It was thought the high winds and stormy weather had forced them in. Other species of birds were also in big numbers - Puffins swarmed around Skomer, several Gannets and Fulmars were seen close to the boat , Razorbills and Guillemots dotted the waters around the boat and gulls swooped across the waves. Whilst us humans were finding the weather a challenge, to the wildlife it was ideal, and it seemed especially so for the Shearwaters.
What a great trip. I am sure that was probably a once in a lifetime experience and a memory The Three Amigos will cherish forever.
Big Thanks to Pembrokeshire Islands (Dale Sailing), the skipper for getting us around safely on the water and our knowledgeable guide.