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

Thursday 4 March 2021

Back to Skomer!

With the stove lit, bread rising and dinner on the go, we thought it was high time to update the blog as we begin a new season on Skomer.

We’ll begin with introductions: The island bade farewell to Nathan and Sylwia as wardens this winter, welcoming a new warden in Leighton Newman. Leighton’s name will be familiar to many of you – he was the Skomer Visitor Officer from 2015 to 2017, before spending three years as Ranger at Blakeney Point with the National Trust. He’s joined by me, Ceris Aston, back as Assistant Warden after being furloughed in May last year due to Covid. It’s brilliant to be back on Skomer, and we’re both looking forward to the coming year.

Leighton loading the Mule
Just a few more boxes to go!

 On March 1st, we loaded the Dale Princess, remembering anew just how many boxes and bags it takes to package one month’s shopping and 9 months’ living for two people.

We had a smooth crossing in glorious sunshine and were greeted on arrival by the sight of four red kites flying low over the island. Unfortunately, we also had good views of a recent landslide which has blocked the boat slipway with some rather hefty boulders. First job for the to-do list!

Landslide at North Haven
Boulders - with one Assistant Warden for scale

We disembarked and unloaded at the jetty. The steps haven’t got any fewer (is it possible there are more this year?) but eventually we, and all of our belongings, were installed at North Haven. Many thanks to the skilled boatmen of Dale Sailing and to all those who lent a hand (or several hands) along the way.

View from the Dale Princess
Tuesday morning saw the two of us set off for the farm, to perform a full inspection of the buildings and assess any damage sustained over the winter. Nothing too drastic, but a few sections of gutter and chimney cowls are down – all noted on our quickly growing list. Dumper lessons followed – just as the steps had seemed to get higher, so the gateways seemed to narrow as I approached, but before too long we’d reached the heady heights of second gear. With the dumper safely returned to the shed, and all of the buildings’ windows open to air, we set off for a circuit of the north west of the island.

View from the farm
In North Valley we stopped almost immediately at the sight of a marsh harrier quartering over North Valley, flushing a ringtail (a female or immature hen harrier) as it did so. Leighton managed to read the tags on the marsh harrier’s wings, identifying it as a young Norfolk bird which has been in the local area since November. Other highlights of the day included a Great Northern Diver (my first) preening at Pigstone Bay, porpoise seen from North Haven and Skomer Head, an exceptionally early record for goldcrest and our first chiffchaff of the year. The evening’s harrier roost count, inevitably, saw no harriers – but we could hardly complain.

Tagged marsh harrier
Wednesday began with list-making and phone and computer set-up – always taking longer than you expect. Next came adventures in plumbing, with the flush having flushed its last. Having retrieved the required part from the farm, installation successfully followed – voila, a working toilet.

We also looked at raven and chough monitoring methodologies, and divided up the island between us into monitoring areas. These corvids are early breeders – ravens may already be on eggs, coinciding the feeding of their young with the availability of seabird eggs in April. One of our earliest tasks is to establish the location of their territories and, where possible, nest sites.

Chough feeding
The evening was a chance to catch up on some of the recent videos from the Friends of Skokholm and Skomer 40th anniversary reunion. At about 9 o’clock we heard a sound from outside, looked at one another. ‘Did you hear that?’

It was unmistakeable – a strange breathy chuckling, rising and falling outside the window. The Manxies are back.

We’ll do our best to keep you posted throughout the season. For now, thanks for the support, and we hope to see some of you before too long. – Ceris, Assistant Warden  

The Dale Princess

First North Haven sunrise

View from the kitchen