Sunday 26 May 2024

LBB (Lesser Black-backed Gull) counts 2024

We are honoured once again be be asked to write a guest blog of our annual pilgrimage to Skomer to count the Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

The weather forecast looked good for the 6 days, in fact it looked brilliant, lots of blue skies and south-easterly winds, it looked perfect for counting, and more than pretty good for the chance of some scarce birds.

But at the end of the day, we were here to count gulls, not find rare birds …………

Great news on arrival, we didn’t even have to carry our obscenely heavy rucksacks up the steps, as we met Leighton and some of the team. We used the wheelbarrows to get some of our stuff to the farm, as we noticed how incredibly green the island was after the wet spring.

At the farm we unpacked as little as possible but still missed a Grey Plover flying over in doing so!

We talked through the gull counts with Leighton and met Ceris and the rest of the team- just how wonderful was it to be back 😊

We loaded up the rucksack with food, drink and maps and we were off counting.

The counting went really well on the first day with beautiful sunshine and the smell of sea air and flowers filling our nostrils constantly – bliss.

Ted picked up 4 Red Kites over the Amos just after midday, and in the afternoon a stunning male White Wagtail, in the evening 3 Collared Doves arrived at the farm. 


Counting LBB’s

So just a brief idea of what we and the island staff do to count the gulls.

The whole island is one colony of LBB’s, it is then divided into sub-colonies which stay the same each year with minor fluctuations in size/ shape, then there are fixed points to view each sub-colony from. Ted and I go to those fixed points and count how many birds are actually on nests/ nesting, these are called the eye counts.

The team then use a correction factor (gained over many years of study) and apply it to our gull counts to give the overall figure.


Friday May 10th

A day we will simply never forget, and it wasn’t because of a rare bird.

We were continuing with the counts but obviously ‘migrant bashing’ early morning and evening.

It didn’t take long as at 7am Ted found a 1st summer male Black Redstart at the Chicken Sheds that rapidly moved to the farm, ultimately staying for a couple of days.


A Black Redstart in the grass.

Photo 1 – Black Redstart by Ted.

We bashed around North Valley with little reward and then went to the research hide where soon things livened up as we picked up a Summer Plumaged Great Northern Diver flying north, followed only 9 minutes later by a Red-throated Diver on the same route ! What was going on? We rapidly left the hide and headed for the Garland Stone to see what was passing on the sea, pretty quickly we saw a flock of 10 Common Scoter going south, but no more divers. We needed breakfast!!

 A re-fuel and off again, bumping into Leighton and friends as we got to the first count point, a quick scan before counting……….. Wow ! 2 more Red-throated Divers flying west then north, a call to Leighton and he got them too 😊

Then a ridiculous count of 13 Red Kites in a flock over North Haven/ The Neck, amassing 17 by the afternoon. All immature, most probably 1st summer birds. In the evening a Lesser Whitethroat in north valley.

 We went to bed pretty early, pretty tired, but then it happened ……. 

First a phone call from Leighton, and then Ceris hammering on our door about the northern lights. We are indebted to you - forever !!!!!

 We rushed out into the farm yard to find others overcome with emotions, we were then in the same way, the sky was simply breathtaking, awe inspiring, magical, over-whelming.


Northern Lights over Skomer.

Northern Lights over Skomer.

Pictures of Northern Lights by Ted.

Saturday 11th May

After the divers the day before we were obviously going seawatching early morning ! No divers or much else to be honest, but we did get a nice Great Skua passing between Skomer and Skokholm. We headed back for breakfast, and then it really kicked off ……

A scan of the west fields picked up a smallish wader flying at us, possibly having come up from the area west of North pond. I shouted to Ted and we were both locked on, different species flew through my head, as all I could really see was a really bright red/ orange belly, Bar-tailed Godwit ?, nope too small, Curlew Sandpiper ? Nope, then we both clicked and both screamed ‘Dotterel’. Nearly 30 years in the making, and simply one of my dream birds for Skomer, and it was flying virtually straight at us. The cameras went mad, we went mad. It flew past us, at which point my arms and legs felt like jelly, the adrenalin rush was intense. It turned towards Moorey Mere and we were willing it to come down, I picked up the phone to Leighton. Leighton and Ceris were on the ‘Gator’, I subsequently found out that Leighton practiced an Emergency Stop ! Sorry to say they didn’t see it. Ted and I were in shock, overjoyed, big fist pumps and hugs ensued. A magical moment, an incredible memory 😊

A Dotterel in flight over Skomer.

Photo of Dotterel by Mike

The Red Kites continued, we saw 16 together over the farm, although Dave (Astins) saw 23 over Skomer from the Deer Park.

 During gull counts on the north coast we found a colour ringed LBB, ringed right with a white ring with G:U in red.

An LBB Gull with a G:U ring in flight.

Photo of ringed G:U by Mike 

This bird was ringed as a chick (male) in a nest on a rooftop in Bristol in 2007, it has been seen on Skomer before, in mid July 2021. Most interestingly he spends his winters on the Algarve in Portugal, having been seen there many times between 2009 and 2024 (Info courtesy of Peter Rock).   

Sunday 12th May

I was up early enjoying the sunrise, which was beautiful as it rose through the carpet of bluebells and Campion ……

Sunrise Photo by Mike

As I watched the sunrise, in the peace and tranquility, the Black Redstart started singing !


Black Redstart video by Mike - a beautiful sounding call as filmed in the courtyard.

 Molly then found a stunning male Common Redstart at the farm, and that started singing too. To have both Redstarts singing around the farm in the morning – simply Skomer magic 😊


A Redstart on a branch at the Farm.

Redstart Photo by Mike

 A Greenshank flying through North Valley was another good bird.

A walk in the evening and a methodical count of Spotted Flycatchers from the farm to North Valley resulted in 28 ! There were probably over 40 on the island.

Monday 13th May

We made the most of a dry early morning, then the storm arrived, and it was a pretty intense storm with very strong winds and torrential rain. We had to make the most of it, we couldn’t count, so packed up a bag and went as quickly as we could to the public hide overlooking north pond. We stayed here for over 4 hrs 😊😊

Was it worth it ? Yes ! As well as the odd wader and a few swift the highlight was most definitely seeing a female Gadwall with 11 ducklings.

By tea-time the rain was easing and we were out walking, we came along the south coast where the sight that greeted us at the Wick of the Puffins was absolutely amazing. I have never seen so many here, mind-boggling numbers.


Video of many Puffins on the Wick by Ted.

Tue May 14th

Our last day in paradise.

We did another seawatch, seeing another Great Northern Diver and watched a Swift arrive from way out to sea until it passed us within metres at Skomer Head, what incredible birds they are.

Through the amazing days we spent here on our pilgrimage, we enjoyed the breeding birds on Skomer, other migrants too, the scenery and of course were re-aquainted with good friends and new, wonderful people.

A female Stonechat in the flowers.

 Photo of female Stonechat by Mike

A Whimbrel on a rock on the edge of a pond.

Photo of Whimbrel by Ted

A Stonechat on a rock.

Photo of male Stonechat by Ted

A Spotted Flycatcher in a tree.
Photo of Spotted Flycatcher by Ted

A Slow Worm on a path.

Photo of Slow Worm by Mike

Kittiwakes on the pond.

Photo of Kittiwakes by Ted

Thank you everyone for being so welcoming, and Thank You Skomer for being the most beautiful place in the world 😊

Mike + Ted Wallen

Sunday 12 May 2024

Red and yellow and pink and green... the aurora borealis from Skomer

We were amongst many people on Friday night to witness the spectacle of the aurora borealis. A consequence of an extreme solar storm, it lit up the skies above the island in vivid, dazzling hues ranging from deep pink to violet to bright green. 

Green and purple shafts of light coming from the sky
Northern Lights over St Brides Bay

A mostly green sky lit with areas of pink
Shafts of light

Phones were called (thank you Leighton!), doors were knocked upon, sleeping people were roused. In various states of drowsiness and excitement, we spilled out into the night to enjoy the Northern Lights as they danced across the sky.

Two figures silhouetted against the northern lights

A single figure silhouetted against the northern lights
The Aurora!

Pictures express more than words - and fortunately, Leighton captured a few shots of the spectacle.

A green, indigo and pink sky
Good sky you've got here

By and large, it was rather too bright for the shearwaters - but to hear their grumbling chorus underground and see the odd Manxie silhouetted against the shifting colours made it all the more unforgettable.

A green, pink and blue sky over St Brides Bay
None of us had ever seen anything to compare with it - perhaps a dim green glow on the horizon, but never these vivid colours moving and changing with every moment. Perhaps you only see this once in a lifetime. 

But perhaps not... the storm is set to continue tonight, so we'll be looking up!

- Ceris, Assistant Warden

Photographs © Skomer Warden

Green, blue and pink shafts of light over St Brides Bay

A deep indigo sky with high shafts of pink and green light coming from the sky
Sea and sky

Tuesday 30 April 2024

Island Update: April on Skomer

Somehow, we are into May already! Take a look back at what we got up to in April with our new long-term volunteers, Huia and Mike.

Early April update - Huia

Spring is well underway and so are things out here on Skomer. Our first visitors arrived on the 29th of March to an island bustling with activity. The Auks and Fulmars are coming and going as they find their land legs after spending the winter at sea. Many of our land birds are busy collecting nest material and we have seen a host of rarities pass through on migration. The sunny days are slowly becoming more frequent and the island is starting to dry out a little as Skomer's wettest spring on record continues.

A group of volunteers and staff in front of our dumper truck.

We have made the most of the breaks in the weather to get the island ready for the busy season ahead. At the end of March we had a work party arrive along with our first weekly volunteers of the season and our new long-term volunteers. Everyone got stuck into it through mud, rain, hail and fog. The week was spent getting the farm and paths shipshape and the work party did a marvellous job replacing the boardwalk at Moorey Mere.

A new boardwalk with a hide in the background. It is a nice sunset.
The new Moorey Mere boardwalk

A member of staff on the dumper truck in North Haven with a calm sea in the background.
Hostel guests are back and so are busy morning changeovers

A pair of Razorbills in the grass.
A pair of Razorbills enjoying the sun
The birds have been very busy. We have greater numbers of Guillemot and Razorbills on the cliffs each week. The Puffins have been clearing out their burrows and taking in fresh nest material. Our Chough have been seen displaying their breeding behaviour known as quivering and we are starting to locate their nest sites. Shags and Ravens are already on their nests and as the days get longer the night time chorus of Manx Shearwaters grows ever louder.

Due to the poor weather we only managed to do one Puffin count this season giving us our 2024 total of 41,605. While this number is slightly down on last year's count we are not concerned because we weren't able to do our normal two to three counts, because they have to happen on calm sunny days.

A Puffin with nest material.
A Puffin taking nest material back to its burrow
Bluebells on the sides of the track to Garland Stone.
Bluebells along the track to the Garland Stone
It won't be long before the island is carpeted in bright colours. The bluebells are already in bloom, the bracken is starting to wake up and the thrift and red campion are beginning to add their beautiful pink shades to the landscape. Despite the ever persistent wind a few butterflies have found a calm moment to emerge bringing the promise of summer with them.
A Peacock butterfly in the workshop.
A Peacock butterfly who managed to stay out of the wind
Fog sitting in North Valley in the early morning.
Morning fog sitting low over North Valley
Mike and Huia standing in Wick Stream, looking happy.
The LTVs Huia and Mike looking for Three-lobed Water-crowfoot
Three-lobed Water-crowfoot is the rarest species of Water-crowfoot in the UK. This mud loving species of buttercup favours disturbed ground often on the edges of puddles and small streams trampled by livestock. Our LTVs set out with Assistant Warden Ceris for an annual Water-crowfoot hunt and much to our surprise we found a staggering eight plants growing in the trampled ground around the Wick Stream. A fantastic result!
Three-lobed Water-crowfoot up close with the white flowers showing well.
Three-lobed Water-crowfoot, we found it!
The Farm is hard to see in the fog.
The Farm looking very spooky in the mist
The island has spent many days this spring hidden from sight beneath a blanket of thick sea fog.
Fog in North Haven with the building emerging from the fog.
Sea fog sitting over North Haven
A silhouette of sunset over North Valley.
Watching the sunset over North Valley
Late April update - Mike
All in all it has been a very wild start to the season, with high winds making it difficult to get on and off the island and waterlogged paths making it a very muddy business moving around on the island. It's fair to say we are getting on with it and not letting a bit of rain stop us from enjoying all the wonders this little piece of Pembrokeshire has to offer. Skomer life is picking up pace now as we prepare for 'seabird season'. We have had (aside from a few bad weather days) a constant stream of visitors and volunteers, keen to explore and appreciate our wonderful island, and especially in calm weather moments Skomer has looked magical. 

We are not the only ones being kept on our toes; late April is an extremely busy time for our birds, as nest building and courting gets underway.  As I write this, we have proof of nesting from species including Ravens to Swallows, and Peregrines to Wheatears.  All 3 of our Auk species are breeding at the moment and we have seen Guillemots and Razorbill eggs which we are very excited about! 

A view down to North Haven in the sun
Two Razorbills on an egg in a rocky hole.
Our first Razorbill egg!

This amazing photo was taken by Molly, one of our researchers.  Alongside volunteers, staff and visitors we have academics and students from across the country staying with us to study and monitor our seabirds, and this time of year is busy for them too, as we now have some of our largest aggregations of seabirds on our cliffs.  Key species for research are Guillemots and Manx Shearwaters, and our teams are up at all hours of the day and night to monitor these enigmatic birds.  The 'Manxies' as we call them are streaming in in vast numbers now, and beginning to breed which is lovely to see.  

To our visitors' delight, the puffins are back in huge numbers right across the south coast of the island and are as inquisitive as ever.  We recently have had our first report of a puffin carrying sand eels too, a favourite fish dinner to serve to their chicks! 

A Puffin with its wings out on the Wick. A nice light is behind it.
A Puffin posing for the camera at sunset

Our weekly volunteers have been busy over the last few weeks cutting back vegetation in preparation for the inevitable bracken growth spurt in the coming months.  They have also started our citizen science surveys on reptiles and cetaceans which will be continued throughout the spring and summer. They have loved finding slow worms, toads, frogs and Skomer voles under our refugia and observing common dolphins and harbour porpoise from the coast.
A Skomer Vole in the bracken.
A Skomer Vole, our only endemic mammal

Two Harbour Porpoises in the sea.
Harbour Porpoise, taken by a weekly volunteer

The island is now bursting with colour, as our wildflowers are reaching their peak, Red Campion and Bluebells complementing each other perfectly in our fields. 

To conclude, April has been a month of glorious sunshine, heavy rain, mist, high wind and everything in between, and a roller coaster of wildlife moments we will never forget.  Bring on May and bring on summer!
A hillside full of bluebells at the Garland Stone.
A carpet of magnificent Bluebells near the Garland Stone

A Wren singing on a fence post.
A beautiful wren, singing its heart out

Monday 4 March 2024

... And back again!

The winters are getting shorter. Certainly, that’s how it seems – as we returned to Skomer last Wednesday, it didn’t seem like three months since we had left.

After the usual fortnight of constantly checking the online forecast, we took advantage of the first available weather window, boarding Wavedancer at Neyland marina early on Wednesday morning. 

A moored boat loaded up with lots of bags, boxes and barrels.
Loading the Wavedancer 

Barrels, boxes and tins of beans on the deck of a boat
Everything but the kitchen sink!

We enjoyed… or endured… a rather choppy and very wet voyage to the island. Accompanied out of the haven by common dolphins, we made it around St Ann’s Head in sheeting rain and with an unpleasant degree of swell. More than one of us went green about the gills and one wayward jar of mango chutney was nearly lost overboard, but for some hasty action by those on deck! 

Two figures in waterproofs on the deck of a boat, with grey sea and grey sky in the background
A dreich journey

Two figures in waterproofs standing on deck and smiling at the camera
Leaving Neyland

Two figures in waterproofs on the deck of the boat smiling at the camera
Soggy but unfazed

Four figures in waterproofs on the deck of a boat with land in the background
Skomer in sight!

At last, the island. Breakfasts miraculously having remained where they were supposed to, we were very glad to set foot on the steps once more.

Then the boxes – the bags – the tins of paint – the guttering – the brewery kit – the books – the cartons of milk – the tarpaulins – the fuel cans – and, of course, the baked beans. Those 87 steps don’t get any easier… but, sustained by crΓ¨me eggs, and with two additional helpers, we made it to the top. Back again – fulmars wheeling past, made curious by our presence, and seals popping their heads out of the water to inspect the boat. There we paused a moment as Wavedancer departed – just us four, now, and thousands of auks on the cliffs.

In the foreground a figure in red waterproofs leaning on a fence post as further down the steps two others look at a pile of boxes
Nearly there...

A tall person in a blue coat secures a dumper load of bags, boxes and a length of guttering
Rob loads the dumper

A foggy view of North Haven bay
The mainland's out there somewhere

We have become accustomed to some sort of disaster awaiting us on our return – a rockfall, missing roof tiles, broken windows or an absent satellite dish. It was therefore with an air almost of disbelief that we checked first the buildings and then the paths and cautiously pronounced that all was well. Some mould on the internal walls – to be expected – but the island has weathered the winter remarkably unscathed.

Since then, we’ve mostly been settling in, setting up the buildings, carrying out biosecurity checks, and making a start on our ever growing to-do lists.

The island has alternately been bathed in glorious sunshine and barraged by wind and rain – a tumultuous start to the season. After the wettest February on record, Skomer is sodden – the old dam at North Valley Crossing is holding back a significant amount of water, and paths have become streams in several places. Wellies are essential…

A wall between two pools of water. The right hand water level is much lower than that on the left.
North Valley Crossing

A waterlogged area of grass in the sunshine.

Despite the cold and the wet, it is beginning to feel like spring – daffodils are blooming in bright patches amongst the bracken, chough and shags are nest building, and ravens are already incubating at the Wick.

A cliff in the foreground with a distant island in the background, against bright blue sea and sky.
Guillemots on the cliffs at South Stream

A farm compound of buildings surrounded by brown bracken, set against grey sky
A classic March view

A ruined building and a courtyard in bright sunshine
A glorious Sunday

Oh, and this morning Leighton spotted our first puffin of the year! We haven’t seen or heard any Manxies yet, but it won’t be long.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be cleaning and painting the accommodation, improving the paths, carrying out monitoring of the early breeding species, putting the finishing touches to last year’s reports, and preparing to welcome our first visitors of the year on 29th March. Not long now!

It’s good to be back.

-        – Ceris, Assistant Warden

Grey skies, a grey pond, and a strip of sunlit bracken in between the two
North Pond with looming rain

A large rock in a windswept sea against bright blue skies
Garland Stone in the sunshine