Thursday 19 June 2014

I hope you like Puffins 17th June 2014

Having seen the Short toed Eagle on Monday, I made a delayed departure for Pembrokeshire at 4am on Tuesday morning to meet Terry, near to a small village called Marloes and then the two of us would take the boat to Skomer for five hours of seabird action. Skomer has always been one place I vowed I would get to at least once and now it was imminent. Mind you it is no easy task as you have to start queuing to get a ticket at about 6.30am to be certain of getting on the first boat and the first boat does not go until 10am. The ticket office only opens at 8am so it is a long wait on a first come first served basis. The boat sails three times in the morning, at hourly intervals, each with 50 passengers and the number of visitors to the island is restricted to only 150 per day. You get five hours on the island and then have to get the boat back. For us the return boat would be at 3pm. Fortunately Terry was already there, staying on a camp site so he heroically got in the queue first thing to make sure we got tickets whilst I was still driving down the M4 for our rendezvous.

In complete contrast to yesterday the sun was shining full and strong and accompanied by a gentle north wind by the time I paid my £6.40 at the Severn Bridge to get into Wales. In light traffic I by-passed Cardiff and the industrial stain that is Port Talbot, and was soon entering the green countryside of southwest Wales. My Satnav previously announcing everything in English now suddenly for no known reason started to announce the place names in Welsh. At least it tried to but to me the pronunciation was as incomprehensible to me as the language so I just followed the bi-lingual road signs. I traversed Haverfordwest and soon was turning off into a very rural environment, driving down sunken lanes barely wider than my car with high banks on either side. It was not unpleasant following these country lanes as the banks were obviously strangers to herbicides, verge trimmers or any other modern day contrivances that control the natural environment. Left alone they had formed a continuous, living Impressionist painting of waving summer grasses liberally sprinkled with random splashes of colour - purple foxgloves, white umbellifers and moon daisies, pink campion and yellow catsears. It was quite lovely. After some while I  came upon the National Trust Car Park and my mood of benign calm was abruptly terminated. A car park jammed full of cars greeted me but there was room for me to park after being relieved of £5.00 for the pleasure.

National Trust Car Park
I called Terry who was still queuing for the tickets and after a little wait he joined me in the car park. Another £11.00 left my pocket for the boat trip and landing on Skomer. It was still only 9am and the boat did not sail for another hour so we walked away from the cars and people and made for the nearby headland. Peace and tranquility enveloped us and we were alone walking out on the short clifftop turf. The scene before us was breathtaking in its beauty and with an early morning freshness permeating the air we could view for miles over a blue, calm sea sparkling in the sun, to the distant welsh coastline both to the south and north. A family of Choughs were feeding on the springy green turf, their plumage shining iridescent blue and purple in the sun. They flew to some cliffs calling cheerily amongst themselves.

View from the Headland
A Northern Wheatear flirted its white rump and flew to a rock, curtsying in anxious movements as we trespassed on its territory. The reason for its anxiety became apparent when a juvenile followed, still showing scaly feathers on its breast. It was quiet here, just the sound of the distant sea came to us from below and the occasional bird call, carried on the breeze. I found a very strange plant growing on the verges and banks by the footpath which I later learnt, courtesy of Wayne Bull, is Navelwort. It was really weird and exotic looking, almost reptilian amongst the more usual plants and grasses.

We headed back to the car park and thence down to the landing stage to board the boat with our fellow passengers. We were packed onto the boat like sardines, crammed into every space available. It was a tight fit to get fifty people with all their cameras, rucksacks and other paraphernalia accommodated on such a small craft but in the end everyone was on board for the ten minute crossing.

The boat to Skomer
We crossed on a calm and gentle sea, ultramarine at first turning almost oily green in certain still and tranquil patches. The dispersing, frothing white water from our bow wake seemed to glide over these patches rather than disturb them. The sealight was bright, shimmering off the water, almost too bright for the eyes to absorb. Reluctantly I dissolved the harsh sunlight into bearable intensity through my Raybans. 

As we neared Skomer more and more auks flew or swam by the boat, mainly Puffins but with some Guillemots and Razorbills amongst them. The Puffins, tiny, rotund and looking big headed with that enormous, preposterous beak. Never was the name Sea Parrot more appropriate. Some sat on the sea whilst others whirred away from our presence on narrow wings.

We left the boat at North Haven and ascended the steep steps up to an open area where we were given a compulsory twenty minute talk by the assistant warden.

The top of the Landing stage at North Haven
This told us about the birds on the island and how the whole place was riddled with burrows and held the biggest Manx Shearwater colony in the world with half the world population breeding here and on nearby Skokholm. It was a place of superlatives. Eighteen thousand Puffins made their home here and the island during the daytime is dominated by their presence. The Manx Shearwaters are nowhere to be seen during the daytime, either being out to sea or deep in their nesting burrows. No daytime appearance for them is safe as the Greater Black backed Gulls on the island would kill them without hesitation. We were told to keep strictly to the footpaths at all times to avoid crushing the shearwater burrows and were also told what to expect to see on the island and where to go to see it. Twenty minutes later we were on our way, free to wander where the fancy took us as long as we stuck to the paths.

A Manx Shearwater burrow right in the middle of the path
We made for The Wick which is where you can get very close to breeding Puffins and when I say close I am talking very close, down to inches in some cases. We made a steady climb up to the top of the island through shining green, sour scented bracken and drifts of Red Campion, then made a gentle walk through short grassland dotted with clumps of white Sea Campion and sadly the remains, mainly wings, of predated Manx Shearwaters, before we eventually came to The Wick.

Manx Shearwater remains courtesy of  a Greater Black Backed Gull
Sea Campion
It is a truly amazing sight that greets you. The narrow path is roped off from the Puffin burrows on either side but the Puffins are to all extents heedless of our presence and just go about their lives.

Puffins and admirers at The Wick
When seen close it is apparent how small they are, no more than 18cm  and it is hard to imagine them living far out at sea, as they do, throughout the entire winter, enduring storms and gales and anything else that the elements impose on them. Puffins were arriving at regular intervals on the 50m high cliff edge with  beakfuls of sandeels, the fish alternately and neatly arranged head and tail in their bill. How do they do that underwater? How do they do it at all? They stand, looking quizzically at us waiting for us to move out of the way so they can cross the path to their burrow. Many of the burrows have little white posts next to them with numbers on. We move out of the way and the Puffin crosses the path and goes into its burrow to feed its chick. I turn gently and find another Puffin waiting patiently for me to move, yet again, as I am in its way. Other Puffins are not so advanced with their breeding schedule and pairs just stand about or go in for some bill touching. I keep getting the image of portly gentlemen in dinner dress, slightly at a loss as to what to do, standing round waiting for the gong to announce that dinner is served. The Puffins are generally silent although the occasional low growl comes from a burrow.

Puffin tenement with adult Puffin about to descend into its burrow 

Billing - a part of pair bonding when often a third bird will join in!

The two distinct grooves on the bill indicate this is an adult

Note the tiny narrow wings in relation to the body a compromise for use in
both swimming fast under water and for flying

Everywhere you look there are Puffins as far as you can see, standing by their burrows or flying out to sea or returning back from the sea. They land clumsily, looking a little sheepish as they crash land beak first onto the cliff top then right themselves with as much dignity as they can muster on bright orange webbed feet. I take lots of pictures but often the birds are too close to get in the frame. Nearby on a little rise is a colony of Lesser Black backed Gulls and given half a chance they will eat the eggs and chicks of Puffins or steal fish from the incoming Puffins. I chat to a volunteer warden who tells me that when there are no visitors standing near the puffin burrows the birds are absent or remain in their burrows. When the visitors arrive the Puffins suddenly appear. The wardens have a theory that the Puffins know they are safe from the gulls whilst there are visitors present and that is why they are so close, out in the open and apparently relaxed. I kind of hope it is true. 

I also learnt that Puffins are not adult until they are four or five years old and that last winter's wreck of Puffins involved mainly young birds but the colonies on Skomer are unaffected. I also note to myself that the intensity of colour in the Puffin's feet and legs varies from bright orange to a paler yellow. Maybe this has something to do with age and breeding condition. One of a pair of Puffins had strange coloured eyes. Normally they are hazel brown but this bird had greyish eyes and was the only one as far as I could ascertain that showed this feature.

Puffin with grey eyes, normally they are hazel brown
Puffins also have a specially adapted inner toe and claw on their foot to facilitate digging burrows. The claw is curved inwards and is very sharp. If it were vertically placed as with the other two claws it would soon become blunt with wear against the rocks and ground but lying laterally on its side the sharpness is preserved.

Curved inner toe and claw for digging 
We must have spent over an hour here but slowly the number of people increased and I got to feeling crowded and hemmed in with all the other people taking photos and generally just looking. This is the most popular part of the island and inevitably gets overcrowded. We move on, happy with our time in Puffinland and walking back we turn onto a small track through the bracken that takes us to the Old Farmhouse, the central part of Skomer 

A pair of Chough fly over us and a juvenile European Stonechat gets very agitated at our presence. Sedge Warblers and Common Whitethroats sing from rough patches in the bracken as we walk along. The sun shines on and the breeze increases in strength, cooling and refreshing as we sit on a bench and have our light lunch. It is heavenly.

We decide to go back to the landing stage at North Haven to take some pictures of Guillemots and Razorbills, the latter being one of my particular favourites. The landing stage is the only place on the island where you can get close to both species. In the bay below countless numbers of Puffins swim, wash and generally float about on the azure blue sea. The sea's surface is in constant turmoil with birds coming and going. Every so often a swarm of Puffins hurtle from the green slopes above the cliffs and wheel in unison out over the sea, whirling around with rapidly vibrating wings and then returning back to the slope.Why they do this is unknown to me but is probably a communal alarm at something. It is certainly spectacular.

Puffins relaxing 'off duty' on the sea
A young Jackdaw joins us. It has quickly learned that visitors mean food but sadly we have nothing to give to it and it soon gives up and flies off 

We spend another hour photographing the Guillemots and Razorbills. I love the dapper looking Razorbills and the attitudes and postures they adopt as they sit on the precipitous rock ledges. They open their bill and reveal a golden yellow gape and often their eyes are closed as if they are dozing or shielding them from the sun's midday glare off the rocks. A Guillemot shelters her newly hatched chick under wings held slightly akimbo as we look down on her.


Common Guillemots
A pair of Razorbills start fighting on the surface of the sea. They go for each other with their formidable bills, wings flapping wildly. I expect it to soon be over and one bird to flee but it does not happen. They appear to be evenly matched and go at it non stop for over ten minutes, flapping and lunging in the water. I am briefly distracted and when I look back they are gone. I will never know the outcome.

Razorbill fight
Eventually I grow tired of taking pictures and just sit in the sun having found a secluded corner overlooking the now turquoise sea and watch the constant comings and goings of the seabirds. Another magical hour passes. My mind is stilled, lulled into a dream like state. Serious thought is banished and I idle, content with the joy of all the life going on around me and the natural beauty of my surroundings 

The spell will be broken when I have to get back on the boat and rejoin the world and ways of the human race but for now, just for a quiet moment, I leave life's problems behind and the world becomes a much more simple and pleasant place.

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