After a full English breakfast to set us up for the day, we made our way to the farm near the harbour where we were leaving the car for a couple of days. From there it was less than a mile walk to the jetty for the boat to take us the ten minute journey across to Skomer Island. What a day we picked for it! Last week the forecast kept changing from sunny to overcast to cloudy to light rain to heavy rain, but we woke up this morning to brilliant sunshine and not a cloud in the sky.
Called Ynys Sgomer in Welsh, Skomer is an island off the coast of Pembrokeshire in south west Wales, best known for its wildlife. This is our second attempt at visiting Skomer to see the puffins, after an aborted effort some years ago. Places are very limited on the island, only 250 visitors per day and a mere 16 people can stay overnight, so we feel quite privileged to be amongst the few.
It's a fairly small island, 1.5 x 2 miles, with the highest point being 75m above sea level. It might not sound like much, but when you have to carry all your gear (clothes, food, bedding, camera equipment) in a backpack up a series of switchback steps to reach that point, it morphs into the highest mountain you've ever climbed. Having said that, it wasn't as bad as I expected it to be, and if we thought we were taking a lot of stuff, we had packed light compared to the others on the boat – we had everything in one backpack each (plus camera gear), other had two rucksacks plus a holdall per person!
There are said to be over 16,000 breeding pairs of Puffins on Skomer at last count (although I am not sure exactly HOW they do count them!) and neighbouring Skokholm Islands, making them one of the most important Puffin colonies in Britain.
At the moment they are building their nests, often in old disused rabbit warrens or in home dug burrows.
Puffins form long-term relationships, with the female laying a single egg, and both parents incubating the egg and feeding the chick (or "puffling" – I love that word!) using the same burrow as in previous years. The puffling grows to full size in about six weeks and then flies away from the island to spend its next three to four years floating on the high seas. I would love to come back in mid-to-late-June to see the pufflings!
Puffins often live 20 years or more (unless they get eaten by tourists in Iceland of course) with the oldest known puffin believed to have lived to be 38 years old. One of the reasons I am particularly attracted to puffins, is their almost comical colourful beaks and feet which in spring turn a colourful orange in preparation for the breeding season and the beak increases in size as the bird matures. The size and colour of puffin beaks is believed to serve as badges of experience and help birds assess the ‘quality’ of potential mates. So it's true with puffins as well as humans: size matters!
There is one particular area on the island known as The Wick, and this is where the puffin party is! I expected to only see them at a distance as you are not allowed to stray from the island's paths, so I did not expect them to run over my feet as they scuttled from one side of the path to the other with their nest building material.
Roving eye: While Mrs Puffin was busy home making, Mr P was checking out his neighbour's wife!
The island may not be big, but we walked solidly for over five hours, probably covering around five miles; the island is criss-crossed by paths and dotted with hides overlooking ponds.
Rabbits were introduced in the 13th century and their burrows and grazing have had a profound effect on the island landscape in more ways than one: they nibble heathland and other flowering plants promoting dominance of unpalatable plants; their burrows cause soil erosion; the rabbits are a source of food for the island's buzzards and gulls (we saw one being eaten); they provide good feeding habitats for the chough and meadow pipits by keeping the grass short through grazing; and empty borrows are taken over by Manx sheerwaters and puffins (you could say they burrow borrow). All in all rabbits on Skomer are a conservation conundrum. There are said to be 30,000 rabbits on the island, I think we probably saw 29,998 of those – everywhere you look there are cute, fluffy little rabbits' tails bobbing up and down as they hop off or their little pink ears sticking up out of a burrow, only really visible when backlit by the sun.
A third of the world population of Manx Shearwaters nest on the island and at night time tens of thousands of the nocturnal birds return to their burrows, skimming the air like half-seen shadows and tumbling clumsily to the ground. With so many birds all calling at once, the intensity of their discordant cries smothers the island in a blanket of strangely eerie noise. We went to bed at 21:00, exhausted from the walking and constant battering wind on the island, setting the alarm for 23:00 to check out the sheerwaters. Stormy nights such as tonight is the best condition to see the birds, and we certainly weren't disappointed – you could say I had an up close and personal experience as one wind-battered bird struggled to keep his course in the gusty, dark night and smacked straight into my face. I don't know who was most startled, me or him! I'm jolly glad the sheerwaters are not the same sized as gulls – the impact was more soft and feathery than painful. After a few minutes regaining his composure on the ground (“I've never run into a Norwegian on this island before”) he was on his merry way.
With no heating, the bedrooms in the solid stone building can get very damp and cold, and we finally retired for the night fully clothed inckuding gloves and a balaclava, covered with a quilt and two blankets. With the howling wind, screeching sheerwaters and snoring husband; I didn't get a great deal of sleep.
David in front of the accommodation