Sunday 26 May 2024

LBB (Lesser Black-backed Gull) counts 2024

We are honoured once again be be asked to write a guest blog of our annual pilgrimage to Skomer to count the Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

The weather forecast looked good for the 6 days, in fact it looked brilliant, lots of blue skies and south-easterly winds, it looked perfect for counting, and more than pretty good for the chance of some scarce birds.

But at the end of the day, we were here to count gulls, not find rare birds …………

Great news on arrival, we didn’t even have to carry our obscenely heavy rucksacks up the steps, as we met Leighton and some of the team. We used the wheelbarrows to get some of our stuff to the farm, as we noticed how incredibly green the island was after the wet spring.

At the farm we unpacked as little as possible but still missed a Grey Plover flying over in doing so!

We talked through the gull counts with Leighton and met Ceris and the rest of the team- just how wonderful was it to be back 😊

We loaded up the rucksack with food, drink and maps and we were off counting.

The counting went really well on the first day with beautiful sunshine and the smell of sea air and flowers filling our nostrils constantly – bliss.

Ted picked up 4 Red Kites over the Amos just after midday, and in the afternoon a stunning male White Wagtail, in the evening 3 Collared Doves arrived at the farm. 


Counting LBB’s

So just a brief idea of what we and the island staff do to count the gulls.

The whole island is one colony of LBB’s, it is then divided into sub-colonies which stay the same each year with minor fluctuations in size/ shape, then there are fixed points to view each sub-colony from. Ted and I go to those fixed points and count how many birds are actually on nests/ nesting, these are called the eye counts.

The team then use a correction factor (gained over many years of study) and apply it to our gull counts to give the overall figure.


Friday May 10th

A day we will simply never forget, and it wasn’t because of a rare bird.

We were continuing with the counts but obviously ‘migrant bashing’ early morning and evening.

It didn’t take long as at 7am Ted found a 1st summer male Black Redstart at the Chicken Sheds that rapidly moved to the farm, ultimately staying for a couple of days.


A Black Redstart in the grass.

Photo 1 – Black Redstart by Ted.

We bashed around North Valley with little reward and then went to the research hide where soon things livened up as we picked up a Summer Plumaged Great Northern Diver flying north, followed only 9 minutes later by a Red-throated Diver on the same route ! What was going on? We rapidly left the hide and headed for the Garland Stone to see what was passing on the sea, pretty quickly we saw a flock of 10 Common Scoter going south, but no more divers. We needed breakfast!!

 A re-fuel and off again, bumping into Leighton and friends as we got to the first count point, a quick scan before counting……….. Wow ! 2 more Red-throated Divers flying west then north, a call to Leighton and he got them too 😊

Then a ridiculous count of 13 Red Kites in a flock over North Haven/ The Neck, amassing 17 by the afternoon. All immature, most probably 1st summer birds. In the evening a Lesser Whitethroat in north valley.

 We went to bed pretty early, pretty tired, but then it happened ……. 

First a phone call from Leighton, and then Ceris hammering on our door about the northern lights. We are indebted to you - forever !!!!!

 We rushed out into the farm yard to find others overcome with emotions, we were then in the same way, the sky was simply breathtaking, awe inspiring, magical, over-whelming.


Northern Lights over Skomer.

Northern Lights over Skomer.

Pictures of Northern Lights by Ted.

Saturday 11th May

After the divers the day before we were obviously going seawatching early morning ! No divers or much else to be honest, but we did get a nice Great Skua passing between Skomer and Skokholm. We headed back for breakfast, and then it really kicked off ……

A scan of the west fields picked up a smallish wader flying at us, possibly having come up from the area west of North pond. I shouted to Ted and we were both locked on, different species flew through my head, as all I could really see was a really bright red/ orange belly, Bar-tailed Godwit ?, nope too small, Curlew Sandpiper ? Nope, then we both clicked and both screamed ‘Dotterel’. Nearly 30 years in the making, and simply one of my dream birds for Skomer, and it was flying virtually straight at us. The cameras went mad, we went mad. It flew past us, at which point my arms and legs felt like jelly, the adrenalin rush was intense. It turned towards Moorey Mere and we were willing it to come down, I picked up the phone to Leighton. Leighton and Ceris were on the ‘Gator’, I subsequently found out that Leighton practiced an Emergency Stop ! Sorry to say they didn’t see it. Ted and I were in shock, overjoyed, big fist pumps and hugs ensued. A magical moment, an incredible memory 😊

A Dotterel in flight over Skomer.

Photo of Dotterel by Mike

The Red Kites continued, we saw 16 together over the farm, although Dave (Astins) saw 23 over Skomer from the Deer Park.

 During gull counts on the north coast we found a colour ringed LBB, ringed right with a white ring with G:U in red.

An LBB Gull with a G:U ring in flight.

Photo of ringed G:U by Mike 

This bird was ringed as a chick (male) in a nest on a rooftop in Bristol in 2007, it has been seen on Skomer before, in mid July 2021. Most interestingly he spends his winters on the Algarve in Portugal, having been seen there many times between 2009 and 2024 (Info courtesy of Peter Rock).   

Sunday 12th May

I was up early enjoying the sunrise, which was beautiful as it rose through the carpet of bluebells and Campion ……

Sunrise Photo by Mike

As I watched the sunrise, in the peace and tranquility, the Black Redstart started singing !


Black Redstart video by Mike - a beautiful sounding call as filmed in the courtyard.

 Molly then found a stunning male Common Redstart at the farm, and that started singing too. To have both Redstarts singing around the farm in the morning – simply Skomer magic 😊


A Redstart on a branch at the Farm.

Redstart Photo by Mike

 A Greenshank flying through North Valley was another good bird.

A walk in the evening and a methodical count of Spotted Flycatchers from the farm to North Valley resulted in 28 ! There were probably over 40 on the island.

Monday 13th May

We made the most of a dry early morning, then the storm arrived, and it was a pretty intense storm with very strong winds and torrential rain. We had to make the most of it, we couldn’t count, so packed up a bag and went as quickly as we could to the public hide overlooking north pond. We stayed here for over 4 hrs 😊😊

Was it worth it ? Yes ! As well as the odd wader and a few swift the highlight was most definitely seeing a female Gadwall with 11 ducklings.

By tea-time the rain was easing and we were out walking, we came along the south coast where the sight that greeted us at the Wick of the Puffins was absolutely amazing. I have never seen so many here, mind-boggling numbers.


Video of many Puffins on the Wick by Ted.

Tue May 14th

Our last day in paradise.

We did another seawatch, seeing another Great Northern Diver and watched a Swift arrive from way out to sea until it passed us within metres at Skomer Head, what incredible birds they are.

Through the amazing days we spent here on our pilgrimage, we enjoyed the breeding birds on Skomer, other migrants too, the scenery and of course were re-aquainted with good friends and new, wonderful people.

A female Stonechat in the flowers.

 Photo of female Stonechat by Mike

A Whimbrel on a rock on the edge of a pond.

Photo of Whimbrel by Ted

A Stonechat on a rock.

Photo of male Stonechat by Ted

A Spotted Flycatcher in a tree.
Photo of Spotted Flycatcher by Ted

A Slow Worm on a path.

Photo of Slow Worm by Mike

Kittiwakes on the pond.

Photo of Kittiwakes by Ted

Thank you everyone for being so welcoming, and Thank You Skomer for being the most beautiful place in the world 😊

Mike + Ted Wallen

Sunday 12 May 2024

Red and yellow and pink and green... the aurora borealis from Skomer

We were amongst many people on Friday night to witness the spectacle of the aurora borealis. A consequence of an extreme solar storm, it lit up the skies above the island in vivid, dazzling hues ranging from deep pink to violet to bright green. 

Green and purple shafts of light coming from the sky
Northern Lights over St Brides Bay

A mostly green sky lit with areas of pink
Shafts of light

Phones were called (thank you Leighton!), doors were knocked upon, sleeping people were roused. In various states of drowsiness and excitement, we spilled out into the night to enjoy the Northern Lights as they danced across the sky.

Two figures silhouetted against the northern lights

A single figure silhouetted against the northern lights
The Aurora!

Pictures express more than words - and fortunately, Leighton captured a few shots of the spectacle.

A green, indigo and pink sky
Good sky you've got here

By and large, it was rather too bright for the shearwaters - but to hear their grumbling chorus underground and see the odd Manxie silhouetted against the shifting colours made it all the more unforgettable.

A green, pink and blue sky over St Brides Bay
None of us had ever seen anything to compare with it - perhaps a dim green glow on the horizon, but never these vivid colours moving and changing with every moment. Perhaps you only see this once in a lifetime. 

But perhaps not... the storm is set to continue tonight, so we'll be looking up!

- Ceris, Assistant Warden

Photographs © Skomer Warden

Green, blue and pink shafts of light over St Brides Bay

A deep indigo sky with high shafts of pink and green light coming from the sky
Sea and sky