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New England Seabirds

Wilson's Storm-petrel Dave Jones

Trip Reports







Skommer Island

Evening Boat Trip
Day Visit Skommer Island
Manx Shearwater
Atlantic Puffins at the Wick

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Atlantic Puffin Skommer Island burrow

Atlantic Puffin emerges from its burrow on Skommer Island.

The first week of July found me in London where I toured such tradition sites as the British Museum, the National Gallery of Art, St Pauls and took a walking tour of London which featured places known to Dickens and Shakespear. On the Fourth of July ( not a holiday in England ), I took a bus to Heathrow Airport where I rented a car for 3 weeks and headed west toward Cardiff in Wales.
In Cardiff I toured the art museum with an impressive collection of Impressionist paintings and lined up outside the city hall to see Prince Charles who was presenting a flag to a regiment for their service in Iraq.

Continuing west to Pembrokshire, I stopped at the National Wetlands Center of Wales between the towns of Llanelli and Swansea. The brochure said to follow the little duck signs which were abundant until I got very close to the center. It seems that some farmer stole the signs to but up around his duck pond. There were 3 possible ways to go so I had to do an exhaustive search ( try each road in succession ) until I finally got it right. The center cost 4.5 £ for adult admission.

It is actually a zoo with captive birds, but there is a wetland area with a wonderful bird hide called the British Hide. July is not really a great time to visit, but the hide was filled with real birders. I saw: Mediterranean Gull, Black-tailed Godwits, Green Shank, Kingfisher, Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Little Egret, Moorhen, Long-tailed Tit, and Great Crested Grebe. Best of all I met some helpful birders who showered me with advise on where to go. They also let me know they were not enthusiastic about the Iraq war or the royal family. Prince Charles is the Duke of Wales.

Skommer Island
My objective in visiting Skommer Island was to have a Manx Shearwater experience. The Manx is a small shearwater that nests in burrows where it hides from Lesser Blacked Gulls common in Europe. The Manx Shearwater returns to the burrow only at night and unless it is a dark night, it dives immediately into the burrow and out of sight. To really see the shearwater outside the burrows you need to visit on a dark night either a small moon or a cloudy night. You can spend the night on the island, but reservations must be made in January . In January there is nothing you can do about predicting a cloudy night and moonless nights go fast..

Marloe Sands Hostel - Don’t judge from the outside
The best place to stay to visit Skommer Island is the Marloe Sands Hostel. Alternatively there are some small hotels in Martin Haven. The Marloe Sands hostel in a renovated farmstead doesn't look so great from the outside. My first take was that this was a mistake, but inside it was a pleasant surprise and one of my favorite hostels of the trip. The former piggery is now the kitchen and dining room. Male and female dorms are in the old stone chicken house. Single and double rooms are in the former farm house. The thick stone walls keep it cool in the daytime. The 6 bed female dorm is really very comfortable with 2 showers, 2 toilets and 3 sinks. The hostel is surrounded by fields of barley. A short walk takes you to the cliff overlooking the beach and to a bird hide on a small pond. Since I had no reservation to spend the night on the island I will make a day visit and an evening boat trip around the island.

One day I wandered on the cliffs at Marloe Sands where I had a flock of 7 Cliff Chough, 15 Oystercatchers, Gannets, Common Buzzard, Kestrel, Stonechat. From the hide on a nearby pond: Sedge Warbler, Coot, Little Grebe.

Evening Boat Trip Around Stockhom and Skommer Islands
Dale Sailing at Martin Haven offers an evening trip for 20£ around the islands. The trip leaves at 6 PM in an inflated boat designed for thrill seekers who want to bounce over the waves. The seats are shaped like horses and each passenger has a handle in front. You better hold on tight because this is a very rough ride. Once outside the harbor the boat bounces over the waves becoming airborne and then slams down on the water. I am sharing this adventure with one other woman who wants only to see Puffins. The driver really enjoys flying over the waves. I am very afraid that I am going to fracture my spine. The trick is to hold on tight to the seat with your knees so that you fly with the seat. If you don't when the boat becomes airborne you fly above the seat and crash back when the boat hits the water. To take this trip your camera should be in a plastic bag in your backpack and your binoculars tucked inside your waterproof jacket. Sit as far back in the boat as possible. Forget trying to see any birds until the boat stops as spray is constantly coming into your face.

And so we went out to the island with the driver making cowboy whoops and my fellow passenger and I holding on to the bucking bronco for dear life. But we are seeing birds. The driver recognizes Manx Shearwaters and actually stops to show me a few. I think on most trips he is only out for Puffins, but tonight he has got it that Manx Shearwaters are important. We first go near Stockholm Island where we see plenty of Puffins, Guillemots (Common Murres), Razorbills on the water. There are a few Manx Shearwaters.

Leaving Stockhom we head toward Skommer Island and it is here that we encounter huge rafts of Manx Shearwaters. Tonight we stop and drift slowly. I think on most nights the boat would blow right past heading home. I got out my small point and shoot digital camera and took a few pictures. There are more Manx Shearwaters than I have ever seen before. They do not allow the boat to get too close before they take off and fly a short distance. This is typical shearwater behavior to raft up on the water off of the breeding area at dusk waiting for darkness.

Manx Shearwater Skommer Island

Manx Shearwaters rafted on water at dusk off Skommer Island.

Manx Shearwater rafting at dusk

Near Skommer Island we see Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills and two dead Shearwaters floating on the water. The dead birds are evidence of the predation by Lesser Black-backed Gulls. The danger of gull predation is what keeps the small Manx Shearwater from entering or leaving the burrow on anything but a dark moonless or cloudy night.

We are back at the dock by 8:45 PM. My Goretex jacket and the rubber pants lent me by the driver have kept me dry and relatively warm. I suggest wearing sandals in the boat and just letting your feet get wet.

Skommer Island - Visit
The easy on boat trip to the island takes 15 minutes. Drive from Marloe Sands hostel to the parking lot at the top of the cliff where you leave your car. Walk down the hill to the dock. If you are spending the night on the island you may drive down to unload and then go back up to park.The boat is very crowded and the short trip does not lend itself to birding. After arriving at the island you will climb up the stairs for a talk by the ranger and then can spend about 4 hours on the island on your own. Any birder will love Skommer Island and even a non-birding companion will be enthralled.

Manx Shearwaters
About 100,000 pairs Manx Shearwater nest on the island in a vast honeycomb of burrows. Only the damper areas do not host shearwater burrows. Along with the 45,000 pairs of Manx Shearwaters on Stockhom Island they represent about 50% of the world's breeding population. The island was used to graze cattle for years and ponds were constructed to hold water for the cattle. These ponds now supply water to the few residents and the Gulls which prey on the shearwaters.

My first destination was the farm house where there are overnight accommodations and a small museum with a TV camera in a Manx Shearwater burrow. You can hear the taped cry of the shearwaters and see a bird with a baby in the burrow. on the TV monitor. Behind the farmhouse is an area with many Manx Shearwater burrows. There are no birds in sight and I heard nothing in the way of calls. These were active shearwater burrows because they had that unmistakable smell familiar to anyone who has visited a penguin colony. There are many dead shearwaters to be seen and photographed. According to the rangers most shearwaters are taken by Black-backed Gulls outside the burrows. They claim the gulls help control the rabbit population.

Dead Manx Shearwater Skommer Island Dead Manx Shearwater Skommer island

Dead  Manx Shearwaters and the Lesser Black backed Gulls that prey on the small shearwaters as they come and go from burrows.

Skommer Island Lesser Black-backed Gulls on pond

Atlantic Puffins At The Wick
New England birders have probably visited Machias Seal Island and seen plenty of Puffins, but the Puffins on Skommer Island are worth another visit. Most day trippers head immediately for the cliff known as the Wick where there are enough Puffins to keep anyone happy. A bird survey from Skommer shows: Puffins (6,000 pairs), 13,900 Guillemots (Common Murres), 3,000 Razorbills, 2,000 pairs of Kittiwakes and 700 pairs of Northern Fulmars.

Puffins at the Wick Skommer Island View of the Wick from the path
Skommer puffins on path Puffin in burrow Puffin with fish Skommer Island
Skommer Razorbills

These Razorbills were close to the landing dock.

Other birds you can see on Skommer are: Peregrin Falcon, Short-eared Owl, Pheasants, Blackbirds, Dunnocks, Winter Wren, Wood Pigeons, Magpies, Carrion Crows, Pied Wagtails, Sedge Warblers, Whitethroats, Moorhens, Mallards

If you are lucky enough to spend the night on Skommer you not only have a chance to see the Manx  Shearwaters come and go from the burrow, but you can wander around during the day time looking for the above birds.  As a day tripper I had only 4 hours on the island and did not see many of the above birds.

I would not have missed this trip despite the shortness.  I have never been so close to Puffins before.  It is a photographers dream.

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