One of the reasons for visit the west Wales coast with Paul was to get to Skomer Island and see the Puffins. Aunty and I went there a couple of years ago, and despite Aunty not being a mad keen bird watcher, the experience has stayed with her in a positive way. But this visit was for Paul, not me. The Island is owned and managed by the South & West Wales Wildlife Trust – successful so it is now a very popular trip for birders and non-birders. In fact it seems to be even more popular now than just a few years ago. I knew we had to be there early to get on the boat across the 2 mile trip. What I didn’t factor in was how early we needed to be. It’s not possible to book in advance, mainly because the tides and weather conditions can make it very difficult if not impossible to land on the island.
We arrived at around 6.30am, which meant getting up at 5am to take into account the 1 hour drive, to find a sizeable queue of people ahead of us. There is a limit of 250 people allowed on the island at any one time and so everyone now gets there early. If you are planing to go this is important to factor into your plans – especially as the booking office doesn’t open until 9am. But the wait was not too onerous, as we quickly built up a humorous conversation with those around us, and time flew past. the gods were smiling on us as the organiser spot on an extra boat that we jumped at the opportunity to get on the island first. So let us not waste any more time but lets get to the wildlife.
Old maps sometimes refer to Skomer as Skalmey. This is of Viking origin, coming from two words “skalm” meaning a short sword, or cleft or cut, and “ey” meaning island. Skalmey or Cleft Island, probably referring to the fact that the island appears almost cut in two. There is evidence of occupation going back 2000 years, and almost certainly longer but there has been very little archeological excavation much is unknown. If you would like to read more then it is possible to download a history of the island produced by the Wildlife Trust.
Skomer is an internationally import nesting site for the mysterious Manx Shearwater. There are an estimated 120,000 breeding pairs on Skomer and a further 45,000 pairs on Skokholm, making the two islands the largest known concentration of this species in the world. This amounts to about 2/3 of the worlds breeding population. We didn’t get an photos of the Shearwaters as they only return to their nests after dark, spending the day out at sea hunting for food. The island though is littered with their bodies as they targeted by the Greater Black-backed Gull. The scientific name of the Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus often causes surprise. In the Middle Ages the plump young Shearwaters, when taken for food, where known as ‘puffins’ or ‘puffings’ from their plump and fatty nature. In 1676 the bird was first described from specimens collected on the Calf of Man and named the ‘Manx Puffin’
Skomer is also home to a unique species of bank vole (Myodes glareolus skomerens), unsurprisingly called the Skomer Vole. The lack of land-based predators on the island means that the bracken habitat is an ideal place for the vole, with the population reaching around 20,000 during the summer months. The voles provide the main source of food for Short-eared Owls during the breeding season. As we walked around the island we saw the old hunting, but unfortunately they were too far away for a decent photo.
The sea cliffs provide nesting sites for Guillements and Razorbills, whilst Lesser and Greater Black-backed Gulls nest inland. Both of these gulls predate not only the Manx Shearwater as they return to their burrows, but also lay ambush to the Puffins as they return with fish and sand eels for their young. We saw this a number of times. As they come into land the Puffins seem to drop and dive into their burrows to avoid the larger gulls.
During the summer the island is home to around 20,000 Puffins, with a further 6,000 on the smaller neighbouring Skokholm Island. The act numer is uncertain, and the polish numbers vary considerably, but however many there are they are numerous. However the recent winter storms in 2014 had a significant impact on the number of returning pairs, but they now seem to the increasing again.
They return to their nesting sites in April, gradually building up in numbers as the egg laying season approaches. They nest under- ground in burrows, not only battling with each other for these, but also with Manx Shearwaters since both species use the same sort of burrows for nesting. Puffins prefer nest sites close to the clifftop since the parent birds can come in quickly and then escape again to sea, giving the predatory gulls the minimum chance to attack them. The Wildlife Trust has published a great pamphlet that you can download here.
The razorbill (Alca torda) is a colonial seabird that only comes to land in order to breed. This agile bird chooses one partner for life; females lay one egg per year. Razorbills nest along coastal cliffs in enclosed or slightly exposed crevices. The parents spend equal amounts of time incubating. Once the chick has hatched, the parents take turns foraging for their young and sometimes fly long distances before finding prey. The oldest known Razorbill was at least 41 years old It was banded as a nestling on Bardsey Island in the United Kingdom in 1968, and was resighted while breeding in 2009.