Puffins in the mist
|Atlantic Puffin with a beak full of Sand Eels|
A trip to Skomer - Puffins in the Mist
|Looking across Jack Sound. Tusker Rock can be seen, with Middleholm and Skomer in the distance shrouded in thick mist|
Early on Thursday morning, Paul "Rushy" Coombes and I set off on our journey to Skomer. As we traveled West the weather steadily got worse and worse. Most of South Wales was covered in a thick blanket of low clouds.
We were incredibly excited nevertheless and I have always been a "pint half full kind" of chap so even though the doubts started to creep in as we gradually approached Martins Haven in Dale, Pembrokeshire, I remained super positive. As long as the Dale Princess sails we will be OK. The winds were southerly and very favorable. I always check in the days leading up before any Skomer trip if there are any North Winds. These winds are inevitably bad and there is a big chance the boat will be canceled as they can't land on Skomer if there are strong North Winds.
When we arrived at the Martins Havens car park there was only one car that had beat us to it. Now that's incredible. Previously it would already be pretty full at 8.30 am in the morning and the queue would have had a hundred people in it waiting for Lockely Lodge to open to buy a ticket. Times have changed, however. Covid has put an end to all the mad rushing to Martins Haven and praying that it's not too busy so that you will be lucky enough to get a ticket.
A new online booking system has been introduced and it is essential that you pre-book in advance of your visit. In my opinion, this is long overdue. I have been doing an annual pilgrimage to Skomer since 2006 and the panic to travel there to ensure you get a ticket has been getting earlier and earlier and the queues were getting ridiculous. It's a bad enough disappointment when the boat gets canceled because of the weather, but if you had traveled hundreds of miles to get there and you arrived a little late then being at the end of a long queue and failing to get a ticket was particularly galling.
Our trip was booked for 12.30 pm and it was nice not to have to spend lots of time waiting anxiously in a queue. Instead, we had time to explore the Headlands Deerpark. If only though there had not been any mist! The Deerpark is always worth a walk around. The gorse land habitat is full of Linnets, Stonechats, and Pipits. I usually spot the odd Chough as well. In good weather, you can walk up to the observation point and onto the headland and look across the Jack Sound and see Middleholm and Skomer Island.
Paul and I walked to the point and climbed down to the rocks that overlook the sound. The visibility was pretty shocking, we had a job to see beyond the Tusker Rock.
|Paul looking into the gloom|
|From the rocks we did some sea watching which was very productive|
However, as we sat down on the rocks and just enjoyed the sound of the waves and the procession of different seabirds and a Grey Seal to keep us occupied. The mist began to gradually lift. Eventually, the mist-capped islands of Middleholm and Skomer were revealed to us. They reminded me of King Kong Island and they looked very spooky and eerie. My worries about the boat being canceled were soon dispelled when the Dale Princess sailed into view and was full of excited passengers.
I must admit I could have sat on the rocks enjoying the view for hours. There was so much to entertain us on the wildlife front. Below us in the water we watched a flock of Kittiwakes feeding, Shags diving to hunt fish, a dalmatian colored Gannet flew around the head, small rafts of Razorbills, Guillemots, and Puffins appeared, Rock Pipits called from the rocks around us and gulls coursed the skies above.
Paul found the remains of a dead Manx Shearwater on the rocks and once of its webbed feat was still intact. Poor little thing, the gulls really do a number on them. Skomer has the largest colony of Manx Shearwaters in the world. They only come into the island at night to avoid being eaten by the gulls.
|Manx Shearwater remains|
The time passed quickly on the rocks and it was soon time to start making our way back to collect our tickets for our trip to Skomer from the lodge.
|Covid two meter markers - Puffin Feet|
After collecting our tickets we waiting excitedly for the boat down at the jetty. The weather had improved somewhat, the mist had continued to lift but the sky remained thick with cloud. As ever I really enjoyed the boat trip over. There was a gentle swell but nothing to worry about. The boats are at half capacity due to Covid and because of the reduced numbers of visitors allowed on the Island.
|Thumbs up we are on our way to Skomer :)|
I found it really nice not to be packed in like a sardine in a can and I was able to enjoy the view more. I was struck by just how many birds there was this year. Thousands of seabirds were flying around and could be seen floating on the sea. Some of the Island cliffs were covered in Guillemot and Razorbill colonies.
Then it happened, something I have been dreaming about for ages - we arrived at Skomer. I just love it when the boat sails into the landing place in North Haven. The noise of thousands of Puffins, the sky is alive with birds darting around like small missiles, and that distinctive seabird smell. It all adds up to cause bird excitement overload.
Up the steps, I practically bounded two at a time. As I climbed them the Razorbills and Guillemots caught my eye and it was time to make a quick stop to take some pictures. This area is the best place for getting close pictures of these species of Auk. You don't get long though as you are not allowed to linger on the steps and must progress quickly to the Wardens Greeting area.
Every time you visit Skomer you have to listen to the Wardens talk before being - unleashed ( allowed) onto the Island proper. Usually, one of the researchers who stay on the island presents the talk and explains briefly some interesting facts about Skomer and provides tips on where some of the more interesting and rare birds or animals have been sighted.
|The Daily Sightings Board|
Eventually - the "whistle blows" and the excited visitors are unleashed (allowed) to explore Skomer. This year there are some new rules in place due to Covid. These mainly govern the paths you can use to access the Island and there some one-way routes in place, especially if you take the North paths.
Paul and I went up the hill from the landing area at breakneck speed and before we knew it arrived at the Farm. We could hardly see it, as the mist was incredibly thick and you had about six meters of visibility. North of the farm we had been told that the Short-Eared Owls had been seen. There was no chance of seeing them in this "pea-souper".
During a short pit-stop I saw a Common Whitethroat singing whilst perched up. I noticed that it had a ring on it. I have not been able to enhance it sufficiently enough to read it, unfortunately.
|A ringed Common Whitethroat|
Now it was time to head South and make our way to The Wick, arguably one of the best places on Skomer to see Puffins with fish in their beaks.
During the months of June and July, the Puffin chicks hatch, and their parents begin to catch lots of fish to feed the chicks. Every time I visit Skomer I tend to aim for a particular type of shot and on a particular target species. I find it helps me focus and use the limited time I have on the island. There is a lot that can distract you and before you know it you will run out of time and need to return to the landing area.
On this visit, I wanted pictures of Puffins with fish in their mouths. Anything else would be a bonus.
|Puffin at the Wick|
When we arrived at the Wick I was struck by the numbers of burrows. The whole area looked honeycombed. There were holes everywhere. This year there was also a great deal of orange-colored mud. Every year I visit the "observation" area the flowers seem to change. This year the burrows seem to be dominated by Sea Campion flowers. One year I remember there being huge carpets of Mayweeds.
|Panoramic misty views|
|The Puffins were very tolerant|
The Wick had plenty of Puffins. Hundreds were just standing around watching the chaos that was going on in the skies above. The Wick is a clifftop area that overlooks a huge sheer cliff face that is home to thousands of Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, and Kittiwakes. The skies are full of bird traffic. Puffins come shooting in with fish that they have caught out at sea and they are harried constantly by Great Black-Backed Lesser Black-Backed and Herring Gulls who are trying to steal their catch.
Trying to take a picture of a Puffin in flight is very challenging at the best of times. We had to deal with poor visibility due to the mist, strong winds, and the odd rain shower was thrown in. It was tough getting a good picture in focus of them in flight especially with fish in their mouths.
|Flight shots at The Wick was challenging.|
Taking a picture of them once they had landed was even harder. The Puffins would land almost at random and would almost always catch you off guard. Then they would quickly get their bearings and hurtle away running comically to a nearby burrow where they would disappear. Almost on every occasion, I had a chance to photograph one with fish in its beak it was only for a split second and then it would scuttle off and vanish down a hole.
|A Puffin running to its burrow. The sound of their pattering feet is quite funny.|
The Puffins need to be quick off the mark because if they dally they will be robbed of their hard-earned catch by the many Gulls who lie in wait and will pounce at any moment.
|A Great Black-Backed Gull|
One thing visitors need to be conscious of is that you don't block a Puffin that is trying to get to its burrow. If you are in the way then you have got to move quickly out of the way. The volunteers will soon be on your backs and quite rightly so if you impede the little Auks just for a photo. What you really need is to find a Puffin that "forgets" where its burrow is or gets lost, in other words, a bit of a stupid one. If one of these turns up then there is a good opportunity to be had for a picture.
In the meantime, I enjoyed the Puffins which were "hanging out" doing their things, preening, sleeping, and standing about.
The weather began to get worse and to be honest Paul and I was losing the battle to get the flight shots we wanted.
We said our goodbyes to The Wick and walked back to the hill that leads down to the landing-place.
I have not seen so many Puffins in this area for years. The numbers seem to have gone through the roof. They were everywhere.
|Lots of Puffins|
I decided to set up camp on the path and wait. The Puffins were hurtling over the landing area and flying into land all over the place. It was starting to get a little like a clay pigeon shoot, as the Puffins seemed to explode into view out of the mist and you had time it right to get them in focus quick enough.
|Zooming by a Puffin bearing fish|
|Incoming fish delivery|
Then the Puffin in the second picture turned up. This bird was the "stupid one", it landed about 3 meters in front of me and had that "Confused.com" look on its face. It stood there completely unobstructed for a good fifteen minutes appearing to have completely lost its bearings.
It was like a gift from God as it afforded a fantastic opportunity to take pictures of it with a full beak of Sand Eels.
|Fantastic views of Puffins with fish in their beaks|
|Lots of Sand Eels appeared to be the dish of the day|
This bird took off several times and would return almost to the exact same spot. Eventually, it did seem to remember where its burrow was and dived quickly down it at long last.
We were lucky to have a couple of other Puffins that behaved the same way and I don't recall ever having this many good opportunities to take pictures of Puffins like this at a respectful distance on previous visits.
During all the excitement we also had a couple of gate crashers to the great birding fest we were having.
A pair of Choughs showed well and at one point flew off over the top of my head. It's always great to see these rare Corvids.
|A Chough flies over my head|
Before we knew it the five o'clock boat had arrived and it was time to go. Whilst walking down I quickly grabbed a picture of pair of Razorbills and a Grey Seal that had hauled out onto a rock near the jetty.
The return voyage to Matins Haven was quite eventful. I was sat on the seaward side and as we passed the Neck, one of the crews of the Dale Princes shouted if you look out to sea there are Manx Shearwaters. I could not believe our luck. Indeed there they were flying low across the sea. As there is more space on the boat now due to fewer passengers being allowed there was a little more room than usual and I was able to grab a picture of a Manxy.
|A Manx Shearwater - so good to see one that is alive and kicking.|
Next up was Gannet that had been spotted with a huge Gar Fish in its mouth. Unfortunately, it dropped it before I could see it but I was pleased to get quite a close picture of these massive seabirds.
It was a nice bird to finish the day with. Despite the misty conditions the trip had been truly epic and will live long in my memory.
I have thought hard about cutting the blog post down in length and content but I just could not do it justice unless I put as much in as possible. The pictures are just a small collection of over 7000 that I took during the visit.
A big thank you to Paul Coombes who did the driving and for his listening to my many stories - I am sure his ears were aching by the end of the day :)
The days bird list
- Rock Pippit
- Meadow Pipit
- Herring Gull
- Great Black-Backed Gull
- Lesser Black-Backed Gull
- Rock Dove
- Common Whitethroat
- Carrion Crow
- House Sparrow