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