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Thursday, 17 July 2008

A Trip to Skomer island





4.30 am start so as to get on the road early was the plan ! Why do we do these ridiculous things !? Well one word , Passion. For no other reason than passion for birds. I’d planned to do a day trip with a good friend and photography nut Vicky to the jewel of the welsh coast , Skomer island.
Skomer is the largest of three islands of the Pembrokeshire coast and is home to vast colonies of sea birds including Razorbills, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and of course the star of the Skomer the Puffin . After a brief but funny distraction of photographing a family of swallows that were nesting in the gents toilets ! We boarded the boat service that runs from Martins Haven . The boat carries about fifty people about three times a day to Skomer between May - Sept and is only a few pounds . The weather was ok but rain was forecast for later so we took water proofs . The swell was not to bad and we soon started to encounter Auks on the surface of the sea, mostly Razorbill’s and a few puffins taking off . Other birds started to appear like Kittiwakes, Herring, Greater and Lesser Black Backed Gulls, Then we were rewarded with a few Gannet’s passing over the boat no doubt from nearby Grass Holm , which is the second largest Gannet colony in the U.K. These truly are huge birds when one see’s them up close.
Within ten minuets we were coming into the small harbour of Skomer , surrounded by rafts of Puffins and Guillemots and Razorbills .
After a brief talk by one of the resident wardens we spent the first half an hour trying to obtain some flying shots of the puffins coming in from the sea. This was like trying to pick up sand with a sieve!! Almost impossible . The puffins would come streaking past then land in amongst the bracken and taller grasses on the slopes above us. However despite the odds we did claim a few usable shots. Thank God for digital cameras! A wren sang noisily from the bracken which proved an easier target !
We decided to head for the Wick which is the best place on the island for getting up close and personal with the Puffins . On the way we stopped occasionally to take in the wonderful views of this wonderful island . Lesser Black Backs patrolled the wind above our heads and the evidence of their activities didn’t take long to find as on one of the paths that we were on we came across the carcass of a hapless Puffin that its battle with the Black Backs. Although this kind of predator prey relationship is just the same as any that may be played out across the planets different ecosystems . The Puffins certainly don’t seem to be affected by the Gulls on a population level. This is being affected more by our indirect actions and the falling numbers of sand eels around our coasts . Nationally the numbers of Puffins are dropping although when you come to a place like Skomer its hard to picture that. Other birds that inhabit this group of islands that are unique are the Manx Shearwaters that also nest in underground burrows that polka dot the grass covered slopes . The vegetation seemed quite high on our visit and there was no evidence of the burrows although the warden did ask us not to stray from the paths as the Shearwater nests were everywhere and we could collapse the tunnels if we went off trail. We stayed on course and followed the winding track towards the Wick . I stopped to watch a Sedge warbler through the Bino’s but couldn’t get a snap of it before it disappeared into the dense marshy vegetation that we were passing through. We then passed through a more open area and on some higher ground you could see the nesting colony of the Lesser Black Backs only yards away from the Puffins of the Wick. The Wick is a small elongated cove with sheer cliff face on the left side as you look out to sea and sloping dropping stained rock leading up to grass covered slopes on the other side. The view point at the top of the Wick is dotted with puffins burrows and the Dapper little birds walk right past your feet quite unfazed by your presence allowing great photo opportunities , and for me to sketch them at no distance at all . There seemed to be a constant stream of adults coming in with sand eels , some whizzing past your head as they came into land just short of there burrows. Others seemed to be still collecting vegetation for there underground nests. With birds being this close and confiding it gave me to study them in real detail. I noticed many of them had badly worn primaries and secondary feathers bleached by the sun. At the time I could not tell the sexes apart and am sure not many people could but on reading from “ The Auks, by Anthony J. Gaston and Ian L. Jones and beautifully illustrated by Ian Lewington” I found out that the males are bigger especially their bill size and this grows with age in both sexes . The British subspecies of Puffin are the smallest and those of the Arctic are the largest. Another way to tell the age of individuals is the number of grooves running down the outside of the bill . Its amazing to think that these very birds in a few months will be far out to sea facing storms and huge swells in places far away as Newfoundland . These are tuff little birds !
Not much is known of there movements out in the vast oceans in winter, yet they return here every breeding season . This makes our coastline a very special place indeed.
After spending some considerable time with the Puffins we decided to head towards the Farm that once worked the land here. We passed through the Lesser Black Back colony and discovered a lost little soul on the path. A very young rabbit with a white spot on the top of his head. It took some convincing on my part to stop Vicky from taking him home ! As we walked on we noticed Starlings amongst the rocks gathering for the evening. Two pipits having a dispute then quite unexpected a Manx Shearwater foolishly past through the Gulls air space which immediately induced an attack from the Gulls . The Shearwater was knocked into thick undergrowth and did not reappear thank goodness as I think it would have been killed. We prayed that it would re appear at dark to get to its burrow. Swallows flitted around the old farm buildings and we pushed on towards the harbour . A little owl flew up from the track onto one of the many tumble down walls that criss cross the island and then flew on in typical bounding fashion to another dry stone wall further on . A Curlews plaintive call directed us to its flight path across one of the fields where it put in , presumably on a nest.
As we got closer to the harbour we were treated to yet more Puffins congregating to roost ,some on a high exposed rock posed for our cameras . What is it about these birds that people find so endearing. I think its simply that they have so much human like character in them . There was a constant stream coming and going . As they left with quick fluttering wing beats they reminded me of little moths with their flight style. We missed the 3.00 pm boat so had to wait for the next one but no one was complaining ! Puffins ,Guillemots , Razorbills in their hundreds started to arrive for the evening all around us and the noise level from this many birds started to rise. Fulmars wheeled around on stiff wings riding the air currents effortlessly . Looking up the air was filled with tiny fluttering sea moths all coming in to dazzle us with their smart summer plumage and brightly coloured bills. Its no surprise they are called sea parrots by the people of Newfoundland. Its then that I realize how much my face hurts not from the wind or sun burn but from grinning so much all day!
For me and Vicky it was a great day and a special experience , one that everyone should see. As a farewell for two falconers a tiercel Peregrine appeared . Announcing his presence with a loud EE CHUPP….EEE CHUPP!! Which alerted I and Vicky to his position high above amongst the wheeling mass of Auks . Such a day wouldn’t have been complete without seeing a peregrine . But today the Stars of the show were most definatly the Puffins.

Getting Hacked off

I had to run an errand that would mean me having to go to Norfolk on the 19th of June and a friend offered for me to go and see five Tiercel peregrines that he was putting out to hack. Hacking is a Falconry term and means to release young falcons in a controlled manner to allow the young falcons to develop they’re flying skills subsequent to being taken up for training. These young falcons would be out for about ten to seventeen days and would have food supplied on a constant basis at the hack site which they would return to each day for their rations if they needed them. The Idea being that when trapped up at the end of the hack period they will be strong on the wing know about wind and lift and how to use it. Also it is hoped that they may have killed or at least put in serious attacks on various quarry whilst out at liberty. This is a process that also has some element of risks to it as the young birds do on occasion get lost or worse get killed. However this is no different to many wild falcons at this stage of development.
It was a real pleasure to see these four young Tiercels at liberty and as I was visiting on one of the early day’s they seemed very reluctant to leave the safety of the hack chamber. I took numerous photo’s of them and in the days after my visit kept fully briefed of their progress. Sadly two did disappear last seen giving chase to a Heron of all things ! Certainly not lacking in courage those two and lets hope they are doing well and now fending for themselves . The remaining three were caught up after giving my friend a magical experience of seeing young falcons chasing each other and any bird that came into their airspace around his property
I asked my friend if he would do it again and it was a resounding yes
He has Kept back one of the tiercels for himself(blue) and it will be flown as a game hawk alongside the rest of his team of other falcons.
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