Tuesday, 8 June 2021

June already!

From blustery May into sunny June, time flies here - we're now in the midst of the busiest time of year, where we must count all of the island's cliffnesting seabirds. It's busy, tiring and exhilarating - long days are spent on the boat, with one of us at the helm and three or four others using binoculars to scour the cliffs. Using clickers, we set to - a click per bird seen, or a click per ten on some of the busier stretches of cliffs. Two counts are done of all of the birds in each of the island's 45 sections. Two people count each species in a section, and if these two counts are within 10% of one another they are allowed. If not, we begin again.

And once we've finished all 45 sections? Well, we start again, with the entire island needing to be counted twice. When we close our eyes, we see guillemots... 

Off the water, the island’s hard-working weekly volunteers have a full programme welcoming visitors, patrolling the island and cleaning the accommodation. They keep the whole island ticking over, and we’d be quite lost without them. Over the past two months, they’ve also set to with a whole miscellany of tasks: sign-making, hide repairs, landslide clearance, painting, sanding, bench and gate construction, exclosure deconstruction, and – unenviably – boat-scrubbing. One large bull seal unfortunately seems to view the island boat as his personal lilo and toilet (!) - extra time for boat scrubbing is now being factored into each day of boat counts.




... And more scrubbing!

We’ve had a marvellous bunch of volunteers since the season began, adapting well to new ways of working under Covid restrictions and contributing humour, hard graft, Welsh lessons and cake – all very welcome! Diolch yn fawr! (Please note - applications to volunteer on Skomer in 2022 will be advertised on https://www.welshwildlife.org/ from 1st September). 

Meanwhile, the island is busy with new life. Late May saw the first herring, great and lesser black-backed gull chicks, tiny bundles of fluff guarded by loud and protective parents. They were soon followed by the first puffin chicks - the island is now teeming with puffins bearing sand eels, a sign that beneath the surface hungry pufflings are being well fed. Peeping sounds from the cliffs lead the keen-eyed observer to small fluffy guillemot and razorbill chicks, whilst today (8th June) our first downy kittiwake chick was spotted. 

Lesser black-backed gull chicks © Josie Hewitt

Fulmar with egg © Skomer Warden

Puffin with fish © Skomer Warden

Our earliest chicks, the ravens, are now fledging or have fledged, and look very smart in their fresh plumage – in stark contrast with the now rather ragged adults, which are going into moult. Two shelduck chicks (dubbed shelducklings) are defying our expectations by surviving (for now) in the midst of a gull colony, whilst North Pond boasts three broods of moorhen chicks – small pom-poms with comically oversized feet. 

Highlights of May included a gorgeous male grey-headed wagtail at Moorey Mere on the 21st – this dazzling subspecies of the yellow wagtail is rare in the UK, and was a first for a few of us. We’ve had several cuckoos passing through, including 5 in one day on the 15th, and whimbrel, dunlin, green sandpiper and common sandpiper within the past fortnight. On the 24th, a spoonbill, and an osprey (spotted by Dave of West Coast Birdwatching on one of his tours; compensation for the cold, the wet, and the wind!). And, on the 30th, a male western subalpine warbler - incredibly elusive, but well worth the brief views. Topping off the whole month, on 31st May Leighton spotted a stunning lesser grey shrike at the farm - my first ever shrike, and the island's first since 1993.

Grey-headed wagtail © Joe Wynn
Spoonbill © Kerry Fisher
Osprey © Dave Astins/ West Coast Birdwatching

We're not long into June yet, but it's been quite the start, with the lesser grey shrike being followed on the 1st June by a very smart woodchat shrike, spotted by Lisa at the farm, who on the same day had 7 great egrets overhead - a Pembrokeshire record. 

Lesser grey shrike © Dave Astins/ West Coast Birdwatching

Woodchat shrike © Josie Hewitt

You probably won't hear much from us for a few weeks, as we spend time out on boats or dotted around the island for the rest of seabird season. Wish us luck - and see you on the other side!

– Ceris, Assistant Warden

Sunday, 16 May 2021

The most enchanting of islands

Bore da a croeso i ynys Skomer.

Fy enw i yw Samanta. Volunteer dwi.

I am Samanta, along with Becca I am one of the long-term volunteers (LTVs) on Skomer Island this season.

Carrying out repairs on our Bull Hole research hide © Ceris Aston

By now, all start of season maintenance has been completed, and we are fully into the visitor season. It is really great to see so many people returning to the island, although those who have had the pleasure of visiting us this year will know there have been a couple of changes. Like in all previous years it is super important not to stray from the path due to the island’s extensive burrow network, but we have had to implement a counter-clockwise one way system to allow everyone to remain covid safe whilst sticking to those all-important paths.

The island at the moment is covered in a frosting of sea campion and a sea of bluebells. Our puffins and Manx shearwaters are currently on eggs, whitethroat and sedge warblers are calling, and our first razorbill and guillemot eggs have been laid. Swifts, swallows and sand martins have been seen passing through, with some swallows even taking up residence at the farm.

A frosting of sea campion © Ceris Aston

A sea of bluebells © Beth Thompson

For me, like for so many others, Skomer is a special place. I have visited twice as a day visitor and I am really excited to be living here for the next couple of months. Before arriving on the island I was working on a TV documentary called Wonders of the Celtic Deep, exploring the Welsh coastline and bringing our native wildlife into living rooms across the country - but actually being here on the island is something else. I am super passionate about the natural world, and how these special places are managed. The warden team has been especially helpful in mentoring me on practical volunteering such as repairing the research hides and boardwalks, but it has been in areas of birding that I have grown tremendously.   

Skomer is a very special place © Skomer Warden

I think I am finally starting to realise what the difference between someone who enjoys nature and a birder is. I have been learning to actively look out for the birds around me, and record what I see so it can be entered into Skomer’s long term bird log, and I am starting to appreciate the excitement of seeing a new species for the first time. I have a bird list, and I want to add to it, and the only way I am going to do so is by concentrating on what I see and hear, truly seeing and hearing instead of taking the ordinary for granted, because you never know when a rarity is going to appear.

A big part of my responsibilities here when I am not welcoming guests off the boats is surveying our breeding bird population, whether that is our seabirds, waders or passerines. Passerine monitoring is through Breeding Bird Surveys – this means sunrise walks every ten days along a set route and recording everything I see and hear. I also make daily trips to the razorbill cliffs at Bull Hole to keep an eye on who is who, and who has an egg.

Razorbills (Alca torda) at North Haven © Ceris Aston

Alongside this bird watching, I am carrying out a mini project mapping the habitats of Pembrokeshire’s last breeding curlews. We have at least 3 territories on the centre of the island, and I am watching for any breeding behaviour that will give a deeper insight into the lives of this ‘conservation priority’ species. All in all it has been a fabulous experience so far, I am learning a lot from the team and there is still almost 2 months for me to learn even more about this most enchanting of islands!

Samanta, Long Term Volunteer

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Gargling guillemots & legless lizards... An LTV's-eye view of Skomer!

Hi everyone! I’m Becca, one of the long-term volunteers (LTVs) on the island this year.

A brief introduction about myself - after realising a few years ago that I wanted to pursue a career in ecology, I studied a Masters in Biodiversity & Conservation. Following a slow first year post-graduation (the joys of living through a global historical event, eh?), I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to gain some practical experience in the field. Having previously done some research on gannets in Scotland, I’m particularly eager to work with the huge range of seabirds that are found here on Skomer!

The team has been very busy since our last blog - this week saw us welcoming visitors onto Skomer for the first time since September 2019, which has been very exciting! We’re so pleased to finally be able to share the island with the public again, and have been buzzing around getting the island’s infrastructure ready for their arrival. Between bird surveys, barge deliveries and clearing out multiple storage sheds, Samanta (my fellow LTV) and I have been getting our DIY on, making pretty the picnic benches and installing signage along the paths so that visitors can enjoy their time on the island as much as we’re enjoying ours!

With our love for the island in mind, I wanted to share with you my personal favourite places on Skomer (and in game show fashion, these are in no particular order)…

Garland Stone

A walk to the Garland Stone is the first thing we did on our introductory tour of Skomer, and is always my first thought when I fancy a pre/post-work stroll. Once you’ve passed through the sea of bluebells currently covering much of the island, you’re greeted by a spectacular view of the Garland Stone and the sea beyond it - with swallows and sand martins swirling around your head, fulmar gliding over the rocks below, and gannets soaring above the water in the distance, you really get a feel for how wild yet peaceful Skomer Island can be. Gannets are also an indication that there might be cetaceans around, so it’s a great place to catch a glimpse of harbour porpoise or common dolphins!

In the foreground, a grassy green bank, cutting away into steep cliffs. Beyond, a large rock in a blue sea.
Nothing beats the Garland Stone on a sunny afternoon! 

Bull Hole

In my opinion, this is one of the best seabird spots on the island. Home to guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and more, Bull Hole is an intense experience… the sight, sound, and (if the wind is in your favour) smell of a large seabird colony can be somewhat overwhelming! Over this past week I’ve started work on monitoring a small plot for razorbill productivity on the cliff here, and am always impressed by how many birds have managed to cram themselves into what looks like such a small space! Guillemots have what is probably the smallest breeding territory of any bird, extending by only a beak’s length around its nest.

A photograph of guillemots closely bunched together against a dark cliff face
Prime real estate - only a peck away

North Haven

As the boat pulled into land on our initial arrival, I was amazed at how much wildlife I could see before I’d even set foot on the island, and that amazement still remains! The tough walk up the landing steps is worth it for the chance to get a close-up view of the seabirds that nest there, and there are puffins everywhere you look - rafting on the water, bumbling about their burrows, and flapping inches from your head as they whoosh down the hillside. But the biggest personal highlight for me at North Haven is the seals. You can find them every morning laid out like sausages on the beach, but when they’re not being lazy, they’re being extremely curious and like to get a good look at what you’re up to (we had a sizeable audience when clearing the landslide in early April)!

A razorbill standing on a rock
A rather smart-looking razorbill posing by the landing steps

The Farm

As well as being my home whilst working on Skomer, the Farm has proven itself to be a fantastic place to spot wildlife. I’ve seen a lot of personal firsts here - slow worms, ring ouzels and whimbrels, to name but a few - and have also witnessed some fantastic bird behaviours, all from the comfort of a picnic bench with a biscuit in one hand and my binoculars in another! The sight of two short-eared owls dramatically whirling around in the air above the hostel is one I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

A woman with a large smile on her face holding a very small slow worm
I was very pleased with my first slow worm, even if it was a baby one!

I could continue this list forever (every part of the island is amazing), but will end it there for now!

Look forward to keeping you posted as the season progresses.

Becca, Long-term Volunteer

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

A Canvas of Blue and Green

Over the past few weeks, there have been a few new faces slowly familiarising themselves with the winding footpaths around Skomer Island. On the 1st of April, the island’s resident (human) population boomed from two to five (!), with our new Visitor Officer and Long Term Volunteers Becca and Samanta making the crossing from Martin’s Haven. The team were also joined by our Head of Islands and Marine, Lisa, and her partner Dave, for some much appreciated voluntary support at this early point in the season. Eleven days later, in what very much seemed like the blink of an eye, the resident population saw yet another jump! This time the team were joined by our new fieldworker Freya, and researchers Jules and Josie from Herriot Watt and Gloucester universities respectively.

Learning the winding footpaths of Skomer © Ceris Aston

You will hear more from the rest of the team over the next few weeks. But for now, it is probably best that I introduce myself! So, hello (su'mae!) – my name is Beth, and I’ll be the new Skomer Island Visitor Officer for 2021!

Crossing over to the island was a somewhat surreal experience. Having never visited Skomer before, and indeed having only seen some of the island’s most well-known inhabitants, puffins, once on a somewhat wet and grey day in Scotland; I was not quite sure what to expect! For those of you who have made the journey across yourselves, you will be familiar with rounding the corner out of Martin’s Haven to a canvas of blue and green (or perhaps, knowing the Welsh weather, grey!). We were greeted on our arrival by Leighton and Ceris, our Warden and Assistant Warden, as well as a number of rather curious seals, an array of auks – razors, guillies and, of course, puffins - and more fulmars than I have ever seen in my entire life!

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) at The Wick © Beth Thompson

Northern fulmar at Garland Stone (Fulmarus glacialis) © Beth Thompson

Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) over North Pond © Beth Thompson

Red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) at Skomer Head © Beth Thompson 

I had been warned in advance of the infamous ninety steps that must be scaled from the landing stage – now feeling rather familiar with these steps, I find myself wondering if there are actually more than ninety?! Having narrowly avoided throwing any of our luggage or food unceremoniously into a rockpool, we made our way up to our new home.

Sunset over the Farm © Beth Thompson

Sunset at North Pond © Beth Thompson

Time seems to have run away with us since then. I find it incredibly difficult to believe that, upon writing this, we’ve been settling in to our new island home for over two weeks! In that time we’ve carried out our first breeding bird surveys of the year, cleared the remainder of the landslide at North Haven, repaired several boardwalks around the island, scrubbed and painted hostel rooms, and baked (with varying degrees of success!) more loaves of bread than I’m willing to admit! It’s been an absolute whirlwind – filled mostly with sunshine, blue skies, incredible wildlife, and a whole lot of laughter!

Beth delivering 'as much flour as you can carry!' © Ceris Aston

Clearing the landslide at North Haven © Ceris Aston 

Gator chat © Ceris Aston

We really cannot wait to be able to share Skomer with you all once again, hopefully very soon.

Until next time. Wela i di wedyn!

Beth, Visitor Officer

Friday, 26 March 2021

The Ace of Spades

It’s somewhat startling to realise it has been a fortnight since our last update – it’s been a busy couple of weeks, and set to get busier! Spring has sprung on Skomer. The willow trees are busy with bumblebees, curlew are calling and displaying over the central fields, and the cliffs are loud with excitable kittiwakes. We’ve even seen our first peacock butterflies, fluttering in the unaccustomed warmth of the sun; whilst up at the farm, lizards have been seen basking against a sheltered wall. 

Common lizard in the sun
The weather has been largely kind, allowing us to tackle our ever-growing list of maintenance tasks. We’ve been mending hides, boardwalks and benches; filling in holes dug by overly-industrious rabbits on public paths; oiling everything that can be oiled; and removing vegetation from the jetty steps – a task which saw one broom denuded of all its bristles, whilst another broke in two. We may need some more… 

We spent some time doing battle with the heap of rock and earth remaining on the slipway, creating enough space to allow us to get the dumper through and onto the beach – with deliveries from the mainland due, we couldn’t wait for backup. Instead, the two of us set to, each occasionally, unconvincingly, reassuring the other that the pile was getting smaller. Once finally on the beach, we experimented with the winch. Hopefully we will avoid getting the dumper stuck but, just in case, it’s of some comfort to know that there’s a way of extricating it! 

It's clear!
This week, Skomer has also been busy with contractors, coming out to work variously on the island’s electrics, plumbing, and WiFi – a combination of servicing and repairs which will hopefully stand us in good stead for the coming season. 

We’ve also had technicians from Rock Engineering out to assess and make safe the rockfall in North Haven. As they abseiled down the cliff face, removing everything loose, Leighton and I looked ruefully at the newly formed pile of earth and rock on the slipway. Spades once again at the ready…

Making safe the cliff

This looks familiar...
With Lisa, the Wildlife Trust's Head of Islands and Marine, coming out to the island with contractors, there has been an opportunity to meet and chat face to face about the coming season. The whens and hows of the island opening remain dependent upon lockdown restrictions – like many others, we await government updates whilst trying to work out what different scenarios might mean for us in practice. Challenges remain, but we’re looking forward to welcoming visitors and volunteers as soon as we’re able to.
North Haven meeting
We’ve continued our monitoring of raven and chough nesting sites and have recently confirmed four active raven nests with sightings of adults on the nest. We suspect a further two nests, noting the presence of sharp-eyed adults keeping a distance and watching us when we are nearby. Chough are more elusive still, but we’ve seen nest-building activity in three different territories. The sound of their call sees us racing to spot them, hoping to see nest material in their beaks before they disappear from sight. 

Raven's nest with eggs
On Monday, the first puffins came to land, flying in great circles of the bay before dropping down onto the slope by North Haven. Within moments, their small comical figures were everywhere we looked. Some stood bemusedly for a few seconds before taking flight once more, others set off with determined waddles to investigate their surroundings. They are always entertaining. 

Back on land...

But not for long!
Now onto the beasts, the birds, and the bees: 

Like the rest of Pembrokeshire, we’ve had our eyes peeled for the adventurous walrus who showed up on the mainland this week, scanning likely haul-out spots and speculating on how our resident grey seals might react to its presence. Alas, this might not be the year for a Skomer walrus – hopefully the lost beast will soon wend its way safely home. 

However, the sea hasn’t been short of spectacles. Last Saturday, we watched a group of around 100 common dolphins in the sea off the north-west coast of the island for about 40 minutes. A few harbour porpoises closer to shore were sadly somewhat upstaged – I’ve never seen anything like it.

New sightings for the year included a flock of common scoter seen off Skomer Head, two black-tailed godwit at Moorey Mere, a single lapwing and three shelduck at North Pond, and a collared dove at North Valley Willows. On Wednesday we were excited to see a single female-type black redstart at the farm (we remain somewhat in awe of our Skokholm neighbours spotting seven on the same day). And, finally, our first hirundines of the year! – on Tuesday Leighton saw a group of five sand martins passing through North Haven. 

And as for the bees? So far, we’ve had buff-tailed and white-tailed bumblebees and common carder bees buzzing around – we’re looking forward to more invertebrate action in the coming months. 

Time for a cuppa now, and on with the list! More when we get a chance – thanks for reading. 

– Ceris, Assistant Warden

Buff-tailed bumblebee

Lesser black-backed gulls

Leighton monitoring chough

Sunset from The Wick

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Battening down the hatches

Rain is battering the windows in the North Haven library, the wind is howling, and at sea great white horses are throwing spray into the air. It is the kind of day when it is rather pleasant to be inside, with spreadsheets and filing systems seeming more inviting than usual. Wet weather is also an opportunity to write a quick update on what we’ve seen and done in the week that was. 

For the first week after our arrival on the island, we were almost fooled into thinking spring had come. The days were bright and sunny, queen bumblebees busied themselves in the daffodils at North Haven and the farm, and when walking on the west of the island we invariably saw porpoises in the calm waters close to land. 

Breakfast with a view

Queen buff-tailed bumblebee

Guillemots and razorbills rafted closer and closer to shore, and after a few days were back on the cliffs in good numbers, making a familiar din with their gargling and deep-throated purr. At South Stream and the Wick, they were accompanied by the high call of ‘kittiwake, kitti-waaaake’, as these dainty gulls returned to inspect last year’s nests and plan refurbishments. 

Rafting razorbills

The good weather was an opportunity to conduct monitoring on raven and chough territories. We’ve been able to pinpoint most, if not all, of the raven territories, and have mapped nests across the island. We’ll visit these on a weekly basis. Chough nests are harder to spot – these scarlet-billed corvids nest in holes in the cliffs, so we keep our eyes peeled for signs of them entering and exiting nests. 

Unfortunately, the internet at both North Haven and the farm had failed at some point over the winter – on Saturday, Guy from Dragon WiFi came out to try to fix the problem. The boat crossing was an opportunity to bring out a few staff and volunteers to help shift some of the landslide blocking the slipway. Numbers were limited by Covid restrictions, but though the team was small it was mighty, shifting a good 40 tonnes of rock and earth. We’re enormously grateful for the help – whilst around 20 tonnes remain, it feels a good deal more achievable for the two of us to clear. It’s vital that the slipway is cleared soon as we are expecting a delivery of solar panels for the farm and the return of our boat, with brand new trailer, from Dale Sailing. 

With wind and rain forecast, we spent Tuesday storm-proofing the buildings; mending gutters, boarding up a broken window at the farm and securing anything loose and likely to fly away. Leighton created an impressive pile of firewood whilst I attached a new lid and handle to the compost heap. By then, the wind was beginning to pick up, and in the final stages I found myself dodging fragments of eggshell and loose tea. 

Waves hitting Skokholm

It’s been a blustery few days, and looks set to continue in much the same vein. Winds last night reached 75mph, and we were relieved upon checking the buildings that no damage had been sustained. Whilst yesterday saw constant rain, today the clouds have been blowing through quickly – one moment rain, the next bright sunshine. Hail is forecast… 


And shine!

And now for the birds! On Sunday Leighton spotted Skomer’s hotly-anticipated first wheatear of the season, a few days after they’d been seen by our neighbours on Skokholm and Ramsey, and we had our first short-eared owl of the year on Gorse Hill. We’ve had a total of four blue tits in the scrub at South Stream and North Valley Crossing – fairly unusual visitors in springtime, though expected in autumn. We’ve also had two sightings of black redstart and of goldcrest, and several of chiffchaffs – the first of the warblers. Wader highlights have been a single bar-tailed godwit, a group of 25 curlew, and 7 golden plover. Yesterday’s wind also brought some ducks our way, with 22 teal on Moorey Mere, and a solitary tufted duck hunkering down in North Pond. 

Teal at Moorey Mere

Some of you might also be pleased to hear of the arrival of some small comical auks, seen bobbing about on the sea – yes, the puffins are back! 

There's a puffin there, honest

We’ve also seen our first slow worms of the year – two fortunate survivors of the landslide, whose hibernation was rudely interrupted when the cliff fell and took them with it. And, yesterday, our first Skomer vole – nibbling on the short grass outside the farm whilst being buffeted by the wind. 

Skomer vole

Slow worm 

Signing off now. Thanks for joining a rather whistlestop tour of the week – look forward to writing again on the next rainy day!

– Ceris, Assistant Warden

Grey seal at North Haven

Wren in daffodils

Lesser black-backed gull