Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Skomer- Puffins and Owls

I try to visit one of the Pembrokeshire islands every year. It is always great to leave the mainland and visit the seabird colonies out on the cliffs of these remote havens. Being based around an hour away from Martins Haven, an early start is needed to get anywhere near the front of the queue for tickets.
Arriving around 45 minutes before the lodge to buy tickets opens, we arrived to one of the largest queues I have seen at that time in the morning. This resulted in us not being booked until the 11am boat.

The Deer park is always worth a scout around, and with a fair bit of time to kill, a full circuit was walked, giving some of the first views of the rafts of seabirds offshore and flying Choughs. A strong SW wind was howling across the headland, the start of a storm arriving the following night, which made it difficult to stand upright on occasions!

The winds however died later in the morning, leaving a smooth crossing to North Haven on Skomer, to be greeted by the usual hoards of Puffins on the water and cliffs around us. Following the introductory talk, most of the boat bolted towards The Wick, well known as one of the better spots on the island to watch its most famous resident. Being a creature of habitat however, I walked northwards from the farmhouse, through the north valley bushes. Sedge Warblers boldly sang and a Blackbird warbled quietly from deep within.
As we walked further, Meadow Pipits parachuting into the trackside vegetation as we approached the Garland stone, where sandwiches were eaten as we took in the seabirds offshore. A few Manx Shearwater were fairly unusual to see so close to shore in the middle of the day, however scanning didn't reveal any cetaceans.

We continued along the north coast, passing breeding Oystercatcher and GBBG nests before heading down along the west coast, past Skomer head and down towards the Wick, where the Puffin flocks were turned up to maximum....

It has been interesting to compare numbers from year to year, and this year certainly seemed to be  good one, with very large numbers present here. It seemed as if many of the birds were at home and many were feeding newly hatched chicks, resulting in regular visits to their nestholes. At the top of the Wick viewpoint, the numbers along the clifftop in front were staggering, even more so considering many were only a few feet away! Despite this though, it is always worth remembering the sobering point that Puffin populations have declined dramatically over the last few decades and all is not well with our seabird populations. 

With the wind being fairly strong, I didn't take many photos (digi-scoping+ wind = failure) so instead I spent a while watching the behaviour of the Puffins. A lot of territorial battles and pair bonding were taking place, with lots of bill clattering  and squabbles taking place.
With the stunning view down the cliffs and a carpet of Puffins at the front, the view is spectacular. This photo sums it up quite well, taken on a 'point and shoot' camera, showing just how close the action is. The Puffins in this one remind me of a number of rock album covers.

Having seen a few photos on social media of a leucistic Puffin on the island, it made for quite a target to try to find it. With 27,000 Puffins on Skomer currently, it was not an easy task without insider knowledge. We were pointed in the right way, and after a short while, out popped a head from a burrow to our right. Strikingly white, we could see it was the leucisitic individual! With white all the way from its forehead, down its nape and across its ears, it certainly stands out from the crowd. After only a few seconds, the bird spun around and walked straight back down its burrow.

With our time coming to an end on the island, a walk back towards the interior of the island was taken to look for an Owl. With it now being around 4pm, it seemed a perfect time for a day hunting Owl to be out, and with a drop in the wind, our chances seemed good!

Walking back towards North Haven, a Short-eared Owl was hunting ahead. We continued to walk onward, before the bird disappeared. As we stood on the track, the Owl flew up and straight towards us, passing closely. Some of the best views I remember having of the species (a concussed electrocuted individual doesn't count....) .
After having watched it for a couple of minutes and with the bird still hunting in view, I scrambled to set up my scope and camera. A few seconds later, and it was again flying towards us, this time even closer.
The Owl passed within 20ft of us, with no-one else around. Bliss.

What a way to end another superb visit to a superb island!