Tuesday 3 October 2023

Young Birders' Week 2023

This year, we enjoyed having 25 young people staying in the hostel as part of Young Birders' Week 2023. The event was generously funded by Pembrokeshire Bird Group and the Nature Networks Fund which helped to make the event accessible for young people.

We got up to a variety of activities during their stay - from moth trapping to cetacean watching, Manxie chick weighing and quizzes it truly was a fun week for the island staff. But that's enough from me - let's give our young people a voice and hear their thoughts on the event.

Rob, Skomer VO


1. Liliana 

Liliana, one of the group, holding a Manxie chick.
Liliana holding a Manxie chick

A treasure trove of tremendous wildlife, a windswept landscape bejewelled with birds, which holds such a special place in my heart. Skomer Island, a place I have been lucky enough to visit on a few occasions over the years as a Pembrokeshire local myself. After staying on the island for weekly volunteering in April I couldn’t wait to get back and this years Young Birders week was the perfect opportunity. Seeing the island in September is quite a different experience to the chaos of the breeding season, but no less spectacular. Autumn migrants are starting to pass through, the weather is even more
changeable, and the Manx Shearwater chicks are beginning their nightly preparations for their extraordinary fledging to Argentina.

Having just finished my second year of Zoology at Cardiff University, Skomer Young Birders presented a fantastic opportunity to get some first-hand survey experience and develop my passion for birds around like-minded young people. I attended the week last year too and feel as though it really helped propel me further in my personal and academic life, giving me a taste of what working outdoors in field research might be like and vastly improving my identification skills. So I was back again this year, eager to learn more from the staff, researchers, and other young birders.

We had the chance to conduct cetacean surveys with the Long Term Volunteers, spotting pods of porpoise fishing around Garlan Stone, and hear from the resident grey seal researcher who told us all about the lives of seals while we watched newborn pups take their first swim. One evening we set up Skomer vole traps, filling them with cozy straw bedding and lots of oat snacks, then checked them the following morning. Getting to hold the little voles was wonderful, they have such sweet little faces, and learning that they are recognised as a genetic sub-species was fascinating for the evolutionary biologist in me. Helping out with the daily Manxy chick weighing was a definite highlight. The chicks were all in various stages of loosing their fluffy down which was resulting in some extremely funky feather-styles, somehow making them even cuter! I will also never forget the moth trap that we did on the second night, I have never seen so many moths in my life! There must have been almost 300 moths, which gave everyone plenty of time to improve their ID skills as we sorted through all the species.

The weather was unseasonably warm so daily swims were a must, and the birds passing through over the few days were marvellous. My first ever Hoopoe, Wryneck and Spotted flycatcher all on the same day! However, when the final day came, and the annual bird race was upon us, the sea mist had well and truly set in. It definitely made the race far more interesting, not being able to see the sea from the cliffs rather ruled out spotting any seabirds and did force everyone to rely more on sound ID, an area in which I still have a lot to learn. I really enjoyed getting to know the other young people over the few days and the range of interests, backgrounds and birding-skill meant everyone had something to learn from each other.

I cannot sing the praises of Skomer Young Birders enough, I absolutely love nature, the outdoors, and birds, and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience! Everyone was so friendly and willing to share their knowledge and the organised activities provided great practical experience, while the free time left plenty of opportunity to explore this special island. A fantastic few days in a beautiful place with great people creating memories I will treasure… what more could you ask for.


2. Ellie

A selfie of a group of young people birding at the Farm.
Ellie, as seen in Jake's selfie of their team on the Bird Race

Having now had the chance to look through my camera at the hundreds of photos I took that week, I can officially say I ticked off 52 species, and 6 lifers in 4 days! While seeing the birds on a young birders trip was key, the people and the landscape really boosted how great this trip is to look back at. We've all kept in contact back on the mainland and are already looking for ways to get back. The staff are so enthusiastic about what they do and what they know, super inspiring. As someone aiming for this line of work it was such a good insight into fieldwork based ecological employment. Such a wel organised trip, ace activities and as much fun and laughs as their was wildlife on the island. Can't recommend this week enough no matter the level of birder you enter at, guaranteed to learn something new and look back fondly.


3. Jenny

Jenny holding a Skomer Vole.
Jenny holding a Skomer Vole

Up goes the ferry, down cries my belly, we’re coming round the bend, here it goes! No mysterious out-of-mist reveal but in its place a rare sighting: the sun! and with it an infrequent glow, the island in the distance standing proud like a crow. “There!” shout the crew of the Dale Princess, pointing to the rising fin popping out of the sea as its owner sinks back in. We rise and rush to one side of the boat, catching sight of a rogue juvenile razorbill afloat.

When we make it to shore, the recently crowned islanders are weaving up the stairs, ready to start heaving as they lift our bags in conveyor belt formation and their faces are alit with the kind of joy reserved for i-went-on-a-yoga-retreat-but-then-i-ended-up-enlightened-to-the-fact-that-pied-wagtails-are-massively-underrated. Once we arrive there is a man with blue hair standing on a dumper and a tall lady with short hair almost, well yes actually, jumping up and down and both are grinning and we’re spinning our bags onto the four-wheeled yellow vehicle. They’re telling us that this is their favourite week and we’re wondering if they say this every week but really they do seem very excited and we’re excited and we all plod up the path.

There is the farm and the swallows are singing, Mario karting around the archways of the old barn with no roof. The sun is high and we can spot a few others (meadow pipit, singing robin, is that a linnet? Oh I don’t know) coming to join the party. After we get a low-down of the plan we make a beeline for the path, as the grinning blue haired man (Rob is his name) is giving us a tour of the island. We begin east side I think but it could be south, because at this point we’ve got first-time-round jelly brains which makes us see through frames that make island orientation utterly different from all the times that will follow.

Rob’s leaping from path to rock, pointing high and low and jumping to and fro explaining all the essentials he thinks we need to know. The puffins and razorbills and guillemots were here, but now they’re not just the shearwaters that walk weird. But here, eat this leaf it tastes like lemon and called sorrel and this other one tormentil is a yellow four petalled flower. You see the different gulls? The herring and greater and lesser black backs and maybe we’ll see some kittiwakes and oh whats that sound? The chough’ty chough choughs! Jibbering away yes jabber chatter blabber. Is that a pheasant?? What’s hopping? I hear a hollow whaling sound! Red admiral, hello!

The visitors have gone round the bend we’ll sing a fair well song and then splash! Wasn’t me, oop hello there you are a curious whiskered watery mammal! Stop hiding underwater please!

 Next day, we’re out near the Neck, burrows blobbing the landscape, Sarah reaches down, until she’s armpit level with the ground. Then a fluffy one’s in her hand, blinking and wondering why he’s back on the scales. But she’s measuring your weight before fledge, it’s important stuff you know and now you’ve all got special burrow numbers, a bit random but its your very own code! Alright he thinks and settles in, adorning his fluff to the goggle-y eyed strangers, although he’s a rare one, his friends mostly preferring the squiggle, squirm, flap technique. Sarah shows her expert shuffle, lightly tip tapping across the land, stepping on just the right mound as to keep everything bound.

Their nocturnal habits were quite the intrigue, and we came back to see what all the legendary partying around at night was about. Indeed, we discovered they even keep the bouncy castle tradition alive, and with a big moon in sight some say no not tonight. But others were ready, had the Argentinian tango in mind, and off they went on their 11-day flight.

The days continued on…a snoot, the unseen coot, only choice was the route. The mysterious incident of two voles trapped at nighttime. Whaling, bathing seals on the shore, what more? Sunnies, full tummies and bunnies galore. All played a part in making this a curious week: the bee and bird buffs, the flying rocket enthusiasts, the master devil’s coach horse spotter…the convolvulus hawk moth! There was excitement, and movement and squawking all around - and not just from the birds. A fantastic time. Thank you to the amazing team on Skomer Island!


4. Daisy

Rob leading a guided walk at the Harold Stone.
The group on a guided walk of the island with VO Rob

In the first week of September this year, I was lucky enough to take part in Skomer’s Young Birders’ Week. This is a yearly opportunity for people aged 18-25 to experience a 3-night stay on the island and see all it has to offer in the autumn, including Manx shearwater chicks, new-born seal pups and migrating birds on their way to their winter grounds.

 I found out about the week on social media and thought it sounded like the perfect chance to get back to nature. I’ve loved wildlife for almost as long as I can remember, and volunteered with a few different organisations to this end, including monitoring marine mammals with the Wildlife Trust at Cardigan Bay. I studied Biology at university, hoping to one day work in conservation. Since graduating, I’ve worked in an office job for an environmental charity, but have really missed the outdoors and the connection to nature that more hands-on conservation can bring.

 I travelled from Bedfordshire to west Wales via three trains and a friend’s van, arriving at the boat to Skomer for 10am. The wildlife lost no time and as we reached the docking area on the island we saw three porpoises surfacing, including a calf, just a few metres from the boat. Gannets and fulmars were gliding above the sea and the skies were blue and sunny – and stayed that way until we left – something I’m not used to on the Welsh coast!

 The next 3 days were packed full of experiences that were just as magical, including weighing Manx shearwater chicks, night walks around the island, and vole trapping, meaning we could see and handle the endemic Skomer vole, a subspecies of bank vole. The team on the island were extremely generous with their time, letting us help set up traps, and answering any questions we had about the island and their work on it.

 Although it’s hard to narrow it down, my highlights of the week were:

 ·       Morning moth trapping – there were some beautiful moths that I’ve never seen before, including a huge Convolvulus hawk-moth.

·       Watching a short-eared owl hunt over the bracken as the sun was setting on our first night on the island.

·       Night walks, seeing some of the hundreds of thousands of Manx shearwaters on the island take their first flights and start their migration to Argentina (including one which fledged from the rock Sir David Attenborough sat next to on his recent documentary, Wild Isles)

·       Sitting at the farmhouse, where the visitor accommodation is, watching swallows swoop around the old buildings while having breakfast.

·       Walking around the whole island as part of a Bird Race on our last day, where we split into teams and tried to see as many species as possible. Despite the competitive aspect, when one team spotted a little owl sitting in a rock formation they immediately sent detailed directions to the whatsapp group so that everyone would have a chance to see it. We also saw a peregrine falcon, a spotted flycatcher, some of the island’s choughs, a pair of curlews, and then later on a snipe and dunlin resting at the North pond.

 A huge thank you to the staff, volunteers and researchers on Skomer as well as the other young birders for all they did in making it such a wonderful few days. And another thank you to the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales for making the week possible. It’s really inspired me to spend some more time out in nature, birdwatching and volunteering – and I’m already looking into applying to come back to Skomer to volunteer. It’s a difficult place to leave behind!

A group selfie on the steps.
The first group

A group selfie with the second group.
Our second bunch of young birders

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