PART 2 – A GLIMPSE OF ISLAND LIFE
VIEW FROM THE PUBLIC HIDE TOWARDS THE FARM ACCOMMODATION
Welcome to Part 2 of my account of a recent stay that I enjoyed on Skomer Island. I was assisting with the annual Shearwater Week, an opportunity for the general public to stay on the island for a few days to experience the beautiful and iconic Manx Shearwaters ‘up close and personal’. In Part 1 I described some of the activities that we experienced specifically related to the shearwaters. Now I will tell you something of the other activities that we got up to, more about general life on the island and include some of the other species that we saw.
THE ‘DALE PRINCESS’ BRINGS MORE VISITORS TO THE ISLAND
All visitors to the island arrive from Martin’s Haven on the mainland and land at the cliffside landing steps in North Haven. Strong northerly winds make this a hazardous operation and under such conditions the boat will not sail, to the disappointment of would-be sailors. During the summer this arrival of human cargo would be carried out under the watchful gaze of many curious sea birds, including puffins, razorbills, guillemots and gulls, on the cliffs and in the air, but all was quiet as we climbed the steps from the boat to the mustering point. All the auks had already left their nest burrows and cliff ledges for the open sea to spend the winter far from land and the shearwaters would soon be following. Our arrival was watched from a distance by a group of seals on a rock in the middle of the bay and by a large group of ravens, their harsh ‘cronk – cronks’ echoing off the surrounding rocks.
A RELATIVELY CALM SEA IS REQUIRED TO LAND SAFELY
OUR ARRIVAL IS WATCHED BY A NEARBY GROUP OF GREY SEALS
When any new groups of visitors are due to arrive, Island staff gather at the landing to make preparations. Leaflets and maps to help people get to know the island and details of how to keep humans and wildlife safe, binoculars for hire, etc. are available and an introductory talk is given to all. This will explain what they can expect to see on the island and where they might find certain species, do’s and don’ts while on the island, what wildlife of interest has been seen recently, how to contact staff in the event of an emergency, and, importantly, where the toilets are (and how long people should allow to get to them from more remote areas!). Trying to relieve oneself in the exposed terrain of the island can be an embarrassing business when there are so many people wandering around with binoculars, telescopes and cameras!! Visitors are also reminded of the arrangements for meeting the returning boat to take them back to the mainland and the consequences of missing it!
NATHAN, THE NEW WARDEN CHECKS THAT ALL IS READY
Listening to this talk carefully and taking it in is crucial as it is of great importance that visitors understand the risks that can be incurred when walking round the island. This includes not only the dangers of steep cliffs and uneven ground to themselves, but also the dangers that they could bring to the wildlife through carelessness and ignorance. With such nationally important populations of burrow nesting puffins, Manx shearwaters and storm petrels scattered all over the island, the risk of a random human foot collapsing burrows and crushing adults and chicks is a very real one, particularly as many birds nest so close to paths. In addition, many other species of bird and animal are nesting or sheltering in the vegetation that covers much of the island and disturbance must be avoided. As a result, all visitors are required to remain on official paths, some marked by white painted stones, at all times and not to be tempted into stepping off them under any circumstances. It should also be remembered that puffins in particular are feeding chicks (pufflings) in season and over-keen photographers should avoid standing between them and their burrows and delay their return with food.
ALL VISITORS RECEIVE AN IMPORTANT INTRODUCTORY TALK
Although the islands are much quieter at this time of year since the departure of many of the sea birds, there is always something of interest to be seen. During the annual migration of birds from the UK and further north to and from their southerly over-wintering grounds, these migrants often use the Welsh islands as stop-over, resting points. On our arrival we were told that three marsh harriers had been seen over North Valley earlier in the day and that it was possible that they were still around. Short-eared owls had also been seen in the same area and shortly before we were due to leave a wryneck was seen skulking in bushes in the farm ‘garden’. I, of course, kept a sharp look out for sightings of any of these national rarities while I was carrying out my Shearwater Week duties, but, true to form, whilst others saw them, I was always in the wrong place! I did manage to get good views of chough, sparrowhawk and kestrel though.
A SPARROWHAWK DISAPPEARING OVER THE BRACKEN
A PASSING RAVEN KEEPS AN EYE ON THE HUMAN INVADERS
Shearwater Week participants and day visitors were soon spread over the island looking for wildlife, finding places to sit to take in the view and refreshments, and do whatever else they came to the island for, before the afternoon’s chick weighing and the evening’s night time walk to see the returning adult ‘Manxies’ and any chicks that have emerged from their nest burrows.
A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER TEAM SEA WATCHING NEAR THE MEW STONE
A CHOUGH SURVEYS ITS WORLD
Always expect the unexpected on an island! On passing a water tank near to the warden’s accommodation I was intrigued to see a lone worker staring into the opening and seeming to be talking to herself. I approached and suddenly a red bucket appeared out of the darkness supported by a hand! The reason for this strange tableau was soon given when a head followed and explained that a leak had been discovered (of the water rather than the vegetable variety!) and they were having to drain the tank to find and fix it. There is always something that needs doing on an island so one has to be a ‘Jack of all Trades’!
‘THING’ FROM THE ADDAMS FAMILY NOW LIVING ON SKOMER??
NO. IT’S JUST ELLIE ASKING IF SHE CAN I COME OUT YET, PLEASE?
Somehow one doesn’t expect game birds on an island but there are several pheasants to be seen strutting around and calling from the bracken although they are pretty secretive and don’t stay around long when approached.
A HEN PHEASANT MAKING FOR COVER
Rabbits on the other hand are more amenable. They are everywhere and are an important food source for the raptors and great black backed gulls as well as providing amusement for human visitors. They pay no regard to signs however, proving either that they cannot read or that they are thoroughly disrespectful of our human instructions!
EVIDENCE EITHER THAT RABBITS CAN’T READ OR ARE REBELS!
As the day drew to a close and the sky changed from blue to pink, purple and yellow, birds were returning to their night roosts and the Shearwater Week participants started to anticipate the excitement of the night’s torchlight walk. A skein of Canada geese filled the air with their honking, a wild sound that awakened primitive feelings in the stillness of the evening as we made our way to the staff accommodation overlooking North Haven.
CANADA GEESE RETURNING TO THEIR NIGHT TIME ROOSTS
Before the night walk, Joe Wynn, a research student, gave us all a fascinating and detailed talk on the history and natural history of the island’s shearwater populations.
JOE GIVING HIS SHEARWATER PRESENTATION
This talk was attended by all the Shearwater Week participants as well as the current and new wardens and was followed by the traditional nightly Log conducted by the warden, Ed Stubbings, where all present reported on their day’s sightings and species counts. This information, collected every day throughout the year when staff are on the island, provides invaluable data on the presence, abundance, and location of wildlife on the island which together builds up a picture of the year to year health and status of the ecosystem.
WARDEN ED STUBBINGS CONDUCTS THE NIGHTLY BIRD LOG
GREY SEAL AT MARTIN’S HAVEN ON OUR RETURN TO THE MAINLAND
I was delighted that this visit to Skomer gave me an opportunity to meet the new wardens, Nathan Wilkie and Sylwia Zbijewska, who were due to take up their duties at the beginning of October. Hailing from Dover and Poland respectively, they both have extensive experience of environmental work including island life. Ed Stubbings and Birgitta (Bee) Bueche, the wardens who have been in post for the past several years and have done so much to protect and promote the island, are moving on to Norfolk in early October, prior to which they are sharing their experience and knowledge with Nathan and Sylwia to help them to ease into the job.
I would again like to extend my sincere thanks to the Skomer Island Wardens (both past and new), Sarah Purdon (Skomer Visitor Officer), Joe Wynn (Shearwater researcher) and to all the other staff and volunteers who made our visit so informative and enjoyable.
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Please note that all photographs are Copyright protected. Prints in various sizes of any photographs used in the articles can be obtained by contacting the Author.
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David Gardner, Environmentalist and Photographer
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