Saturday 28 April 2018

The wonders of Skomer

Hello! My name is Dulcie, and I’m one of the Long Term Volunteers (LTV) lucky enough to call Skomer my home for the busy spring season. 

I’ve been given the responsibility of the blog this week.

Prior to becoming a Long-term Volunteer (LTV), I volunteered for 6 months in a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa, and was also involved in a local peregrine falcon project on the edge of Dartmoor with the National Trust.

I graduated from Falmouth University in 2016 with a first-class degree in BA (Hons) Marine & Natural History Photography. The course was a unique blend of photography and biology, with the purpose of combining natural history image making with conservation and the environment.

Ultimately, we explored the potential influence and impact that a camera can achieve; it’s a cliché, but “a picture is worth a thousand words” – photography can definitely be valued as a vital tool in conservation.

Skomer is positively teeming with wildlife - making it not only a precious haven for nature, but a photographer’s paradise too. The island supports an impressive diversity of subjects to capture, from spring’s stunning exhibition of bluebells to the spectacular short-eared owl that glides low above them. A steady flow of summer migrants, such as the woodchat shrike that has recently graced the island, add even more excitement and intrigue for the keen nature enthusiast. 

Guillemots at North Haven 

Razorbill taking flight

Packed tightly on precarious cliff ledges, you can experience the sensory overload of guillemots in their sheer thousands. Hidden amongst them are the razorbills, tucked away in the cliff crevices. These large colonies are particularly fascinating to watch, with their lively behaviour offering a wealth of photographic opportunities. Masters of the skies, fulmars soar above and skillfully exploit the thermal air currents. Swirling just offshore, the unmissable spectacle of gannets high-speed diving can rival any Olympic event. Without a doubt, their remarkable aerial displays present an exhilarating challenge to try and capture. 

And, of course, who could forget the puffins…?! For many, these endearing little birds are often considered the ultimate highlight of a visit to the island. Colourful in both appearance and character, puffins boast enough charisma to fill an entire SD card (or three!). 

Puffin among the campion 

The most recent count of their population indicate that the species is certainly thriving here. Alongside the Manx shearwater, another specialist seabird that inhabits Skomer, puffins heavily rely on the intricate tunnels and burrows that honeycomb the island. This fragile environment provides the optimum habitat for these internationally important nesting colonies. Burrows are exceptionally delicate and vulnerable to collapse. It is for this reason that designated paths are maintained for visitors to prevent any potential casualties. Popular areas, such as The Wick, can become overwhelmingly congested during peak season (aka ‘puffin mania’).

Throughout this period a bustling puffin colony is usually a frenzy of energetic parents busy foraging for their little ones. While puffins are incredibly photogenic and obliging subjects, it’s important to respect their space. A poorly placed tripod leg, or hastily stepping as you spin the camera round, could result in burrow damage or worse. Not to mention, any puffin forced to linger too long with a bill full of sandeels may find itself mercilessly mobbed by another greedy bird! So, it really is essential to be aware of birds and other people, including our very helpful weekly volunteers - please do say hello to them! "

A sunny morning boat introduction talk

The close proximity of the puffins and other wildlife means that a long telephoto lens isn’t necessarily required – depending on the shot you’d like to compose, a 300mm is usually more than adequate. A lighter load of equipment will enable you to explore the island more freely with less strain and, above all, the 87 steps from the boat landing will be smooth sailing (if you pardon the pun!).

Whether you’re a complete beginner, enthusiast, aspiring professional or seasoned photographer, there’s something for everyone here on Skomer. Be creative, have fun, but please remember to be responsible; no photograph is ever worth a risk to wildlife.

Taken something you’re really proud of, or want to know more about what’s going on in your image? Feel free to share to our social media pages, or ask a warden in person – we’d love to hear from you!

A stunning Skomer sunset

Dulcie (Long-term Volunteer)

Sunday 22 April 2018

Looking back; Looking forwards

As my second year as assistant warden seems to be rushing into full swing, I find myself looking back at last year, and anticipating what lies in store for the next few weeks.
It’s notable how different the two springs have been.

In the low vegetation early this year, the black rabbits stand out even more than normal!
In 2017 I arrived for my first cold Skomer march to an island, surprisingly green. Areas of the island which had been bare ground, or with sparse grass to support the network of burrows running underneath, in 2016 had grown lush grass over the winter, and while the island looked a little bleak in certain lights, there was green to be seen. This year however, we arrived to ice (already quite a difference) and salt/wind burned vegetation. All the bracken from last year has been completely flattened and most of the grass was brown and looking rather dead. What followed was something I never thought I’d see- Skomer covered in SNOW.

The courtyard at the farm in early March 2018

The days of "The Beast From The East" really highlighted the coldness of the buildings out here. In the kitchen my olive oil solidified, my plates cooled my food down before I’d eaten it, and the fridge got down to minus 1 without turning on. Each day was just something to be survived and it was nearly impossible to get anything done.

My kitchen windows were turned to frosted glass by freezing rain.
Outside the wind was biting, and six layers of warm and windproof clothing wasn’t enough, inside, the cold seeped into your bones as you sat at the computer, wearing even more layers and continuously drinking tea.

The perks of being on the island early; the wildlife still thinks of the farm as its' territory, with chough feeding in the courtyard and buzzard using the railings at the compost loos as a lookout post.

While we readied the island for visitors and busied ourselves training up our new Long Term Volunteers, Dulcie and Tom (full introductions and blogs from them are coming soon!), the island has started to change. In the last week bushes suddenly have green bursts of growth, green grass is poking through the dead brown vegetation lying across most of the island. Lots of birds have been seen collecting nesting material and the bluebell leaves are subtly taking hold, and there are flowers breaking through all over, a mere hint at what is to come.

2017: Kittiwakes collecting nesting material last year

2017: Before we know it the island will be full of colour

Myself and Ed have braved the shorts a few times, and at least the inside of our buildings are up to a more reasonable 15°C! (the corridor and bedrooms stubbornly remained at around 5°C for the entirety of March.)

2017: The Blackthorn was in flower by mid April last year, this year it's a little behind.

We’ve just had our first Razorbill egg so it’s time to look closely to spot more, and find the first bright blue guillemot egg on the cliffs!

Postcards are available on the island showing the diversity and colour of guillemot eggs

You may have seen Skomer’s Guillemot’s feature on a recent Natural World (David Attenboroughs Wonder of Eggs), if you missed it, you can watch it here (available for the next two weeks)

And if you’d like to find out more or support the long term guillemot study on Skomer, please click here

Hope you're all warm and well, 
Sarah-Kay aka Purdo aka Assistant Warden aka SKP aka Tall Sarah

Thursday 12 April 2018

Spring work party 2018

Have you ever thought about where the water that comes out of the hostel taps on Skomer comes from?

Well the short answer is - from a well, up to a holding tank and then into a header tank via several pumps and treatment units. And, believe you me, you do not want to hear the long answer.

It was also considered prudent to store as much water as possible as an insurance policy in dry years. Hence an emergency tank was built in the garden at the Farm to hold up to 95,000 litres in years of drought. However, the tank leaked and needed rebuilding.

This brings me onto the work party and the amazing work that they did between the 24th and 31st of March this year. The tank had previously been dismantled by a group of volunteers (thanks again to them) and staff last year. The work parties job was to clean all of the old water tank panels ready to be put back together in a new configuration with new sealant.

On top of this main task, the guys also rebuilt our compost bins, cleared the garden ready for a new tractor shed and for work to take place on the new water tank, as well as helping with deliveries and other odd jobs. 

This was going to be grueling work and they would need to be well fed. So we got our master chef Myfanwy in to make sure they were. Her chocolate peanut butter squares were so full of tasty energy that the guys could work non stop, through the rain and cold, all week long.

The upmost thanks go to all of our volunteers. If it was not for them we wouldn't be able to keep this place so special for wildlife and people.

Helping bring deliveries up the steps

Loading on a new sofa for the hostel

Work begins on the water tank panel cleaning

Replacing the old compost bins

Emptying the old bins - believe it or not but most of what goes into the compost bins comes from the compost loos and more obviously the kitchens

A surprising benefit of the new compost bins is that they work just like a five-bar gate - great for leaning on

A few days later and the pile of panels is going down

Pete took this picture of a two headed Puffin which we put on twitter on the first of April!
Job done - the finished pile of cleaned panels