Mike's 200 bird challenge Blog 11

Skomer/Ramsey Islands: puffins and shearwaters.

A few months ago we booked a short break in South Wales while our son was home from abroad, to return to Skomer Island where we originally took him about twenty years ago. We remembered it as a beautiful place, and because of its iconic summer visitors, Puffins. Si at the end of April we headed off to our rented apartment in Tenby, and very early the next morning set off for Marloes where the day boats that take you to the island are based. Places on the boats are on a first come, first served basis, and as the numbers of day visitors to the island are strictly limited, it is important to get there early, as at peak times the boats can sell out very quickly. Fortunately it wasn’t too busy that day so we were able to get places on the first boat out at 10am, and waited expectantly down by the landing stage.

The previous days rain and wind had blown over and it was a calm sunny day, so there were no problems with seasickness on the short boat trip across the sound to the island. We were also lucky to see good views of Gannets, who nest in large numbers on the much smaller island of Grassholm further off shore, fishing in the sound. Having disembarked and listened to the welcome talk from the warden we were free to wander the island, sticking to the waymarked paths to avoid stepping on and damaging the burrows occupied by many thousands of Manx Shearwaters that nest on the island in the summer. When we came to the first Puffin nesting site we sat by the path to watch these comical little birds, who look so ungainly on land and while flying, and take photographs. As we sat there I felt a bang on the back of my head, which was inflicted by a Manx Shearwater which had obviously flown out of its burrow behind us and was surprised to find an obstacle in its normal flight path! Fortunately I was wearing a cap which softened the blow, but at least I could cross Manx Shearwater on my list.

Carrying on towards the furthest point on the island where the most populous seabird cliffs were my wife spotted a strange looking bird on the ridge which, when located in the scope, turned out to be a Cuckoo, being mobbed by some very nervous Meadow Pipits. When we mentioned this to the volunteer wardens at the seabird cliffs there was much excitement as this is a quite unusual bird for the island, and the first reported this year, so a very good spot. We then spent quite a while watching the comings and goings of the thousands of birds nesting on the cliffs and on the grassy slopes, Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots and Fulmar and Kittiwake, two new species for me. Having seen a Whimbrel earlier in the day in the fields on the mainland near the boat jetty, I had seen seven new species for the year, taking me to 183 including the bonus Cuckoo which I wasn’t expecting on this trip. It had been a fabulous day on a glorious island and as the weather forecast was set fair for the next day, we decided to come back as we reasoned that we would probably not get the opportunity again for some time.

The next day we were lucky enough to see a Short Eared Owl perched on a post about 30 yards from the path and were able to watch it for a long time, even being able to show it through the scope to many of the other island visitors as they passed. We also had excellent views of a pair of Hen Harriers being harassed by gulls and crows, and quite a few buzzards soaring in the thermals above the island.

The following day we had booked a boat transfer from St Davids to the RSPB reserve on Ramsey Island, further up the coast from Skomer. The contrast between the two islands could not have been greater. We were told by the volunteers who help with the boats that the experience would be completely different, and they were right. Whilst Skomer’s boats were full and the paths round the island busy with birders and photographers. Ramseys boat had seven people on it, and the second boat only five, so including the warden and staff there were probably only about twenty people on the whole island. The reason apparently is Puffins. Skomer has them and Ramsey doesn’t, and they are the crowd pleasers.

But I have to say that the day we spent on Ramsey was idyllic, the island is wild and peaceful and the scenery is amazing. At one stage we were stood at the top of a cliff in the warm sun watching a Peregrine Falcon wheeling past at eye level and soaring above the sea below us. There are also Little Owls that breed in the stone walls on the island, but every time we thought we may have seen one it turned out to be another wall climbing rabbit! Despite not seeing any new species to add to my list it had been a fantastic day, and I would highly recommend a visit to this wild and beautiful place.

Puffin by Mike Bell