I have to thank Justin Hawkins for a fantastic day at the best nature haven I've ever visited!
No, not 'The Darkness' lead singer, but a fellow local nature lover who messaged me asking if I wanted to go with him to Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire, South Wales! As I've always wanted to visit Skomer but never had the opportunity, I jumped at this chance and quickly accepted! The only downside was that I had to be at his house in Weston Super Mare at 3am on thursday morning to make sure we got to the crossing point by 6am!!
Boats running to Skomer operate on a 'first come, first served' basis, so to guarantee a place on the first boat we had to get there early, and it's a good 170 mile drive!
He picked up another of his friends, Alvin, and we went on our way. The good thing about leaving so early was that the roads were empty almost for the whole journey and we shaved a good half an hour on the journey time as a result.
We arrived at the Lockley Lodge visitor centre, where you get the boat crossing tickets, well before 6am and there were only 5 people in front of us in the queue. Justin and Alvin kindly waited there whilst I went off with my camera, climbing the hill towards the sea cliffs looking out towards Skomer Island. The hillside here was full of little bushes and heathland in nature, and as the sun came up I got some great shots of little birds such as Whitethroats, Linnets, Stonechats and Wrens.
However, the greatest moment came as I neared the short grass near the cliffs. There in the distance was a 'Crow' that didn't look quite right. Using my camera and 150-600mm lens as a telescope, I could see that this bird was in fact a Chough!! It came as a huge surprise, I'd never ever seen one before. Shortly after seeing it, I saw another! They cosied up together on the side of the cliff and it was obvious they were a pair. A Raven 'cronked' and flew across the headland, then I saw a male Wheatear feeding on the short grass! This bird let me get really close, and I soon noticed that it was collecting insect food for 2 or 3 fledglings that were sat in bushes nearby!
Wow, the Pembrokeshire Coast had already seduced me, and I was falling in love with every step and every time I raised my camera to photograph the wonderful bird life here!
I walked back to the Lodge and met Justin and Alvin who had bought the tickets and confirmed a 10am crossing. We all had something to eat and put plenty of sun lotion on as it was already getting extremely hot! Luckily I had bought a hat also, to give me a little shelter from the glaring sun, as there were no trees on the Island to shelter from, and only a few buildings on the farm in the middle of the island!
We loaded our rucksacks with food and plenty of drink, then before crossing I took Justin back up onto the cliffs to show him the Choughs. I think he was as chuffed as I was to see them!!
We stopped at the toilets on the way back and I photographed a Swallow on it's nest by the urinals. A guy coming in after me said I'd better be careful taking photos in loos!!
Then it was time to board the boat. 50 people cross at once, and the boat was very small!!
Let's just say that everyone became very closely aquainted during the 10 minute crossing! Rucksacks and cameras adding to the lack of space! I took 2 cameras, my Nikon D500 with a Nikon 70-300mm VR lens, and my Nikon D7200 with a Sigma 160-600mm lens, that had stopped working on my D500 for some reason! I was soon to discover that this was a wise decision!
The cramped boat trip across was both amazing and frustrating! There were seabirds all around, and they increased in number the closer we got to the island, but I could hardly turn in the boat to photograph them! A Gannet went over, and I managed a pic of it, which was lucky as it was the closest one I saw all day! As the boat pulled up to the disembarking point, I saw a Seal slide off a rock into the water just a few feet away! This was my first ever sight of a wild seal!
Puffins were everywhere, in the water, flying past with beaks crammed full with Sand Eels, and also on the grassy cliff slopes where they nest in burrows. There was a steep climb up about 80 steps on leaving the boat to the point where one of the Island reserve staff gave a talk on the do's and don'ts on the Island, plus pointing out the different coves and best places to see certain bird species around the island on a map. I listened, but just wanted to photograph the Puffins flying right over our heads and landing at the base of their burrows nearby!! There were also very close views of Guillimots amd Razorbills here. I honestly didn't know where to point my lens first!! I was like a kid in a sweetshop! What an incredible sight and sound Skomer offered up straight away on arriving!
We climbed to the open moorlandy tops and made our way across the island to a point on the other side where there were even more Puffins. It struck me how open the island was, covered in low bracken and pink flowers, it was a gorgeous sight. Away from the cliffs it was much quieter, but there were still noisy Oystercatchers and lots of Gulls, including Great Black Backs!
We reached the main Puffin point and were amazed at how close they were.... they were literally too close for my camera to focus on at times!! There were a constant stream of Puffins flying in with Sand Eels, and I attempted to photograph them in flight, but my Sigma 150-600mm lens started playing up and I couldn't get a focus!! Time for my quicker Nikon D500 and the shorter 70-300mm lens!
I managed some nice shots with this combo and was able to use a faster shutter speed to freeze the action! I even got my mobile phone out and did a short recording of a close Puffin, who promptly went on an amusing little walk right past me, down onto the path and past peoples feet...;
Also here were hundreds of Guillimots and Razorbills nesting on the dark cliffs, and Fulmars wheeled effortlessly in the thermals. I must've taken hundreds of shots of Puffin here alone, I didn't want to leave, but time was passing quickly and 4 and a half hours on the Island quickly disappears! Justin suggested we went for a walk to explore and find somewhere to sit down and have something to eat. We stopped at the top of a cliff and sat down. It was now 1pm and extremely hot!!
In the distance I could see the 'White Island'..... this was Grassholm, about 8 miles further out to sea, and the white was actually thousands of nesting Gannets!!
Down on the rocks we could see more sunbathing Seals, and they were making some eerie calls that echoed around the bay. It was at this point that we learnt from another visitor that we were about as far away from the boat as it was possible to be, and were walking in the wrong direction! Justin had bought a guide to the island but had left it in his car! We ribbed him about this constantly during the walk back across the middle of the island!
We had hoped we might get lucky and see one of the resident breeding Short Eared Owls, but it wasn't looking good as we stopped briefly at the farm then took the final path back to the boat, I guessed it was too hot for the Owls, but all of a sudden, in the distance I spotted an Owl low in flight, that banked then dropped into the bracken, out of view! I managed a shot with my shorter lens....proof we'd seen the Owl!!
Unfortunately the only Manx Shearwarters we saw were dead ones....the remains of Gull attacks. They were dotted all over the island! Skomer is actually home to half the worlds population of these secretive seabirds, about 330,000 pairs!!! Like the Puffins, they nest in burrows underground, but spend the day far out to sea, only coming back to the island under the cover of darkness. Apparently it is a magical experience to spend the night on the island and witness them coming and going! Would love to do that next time!
Finally, lining up on the steps above the cliffs waiting to board the boat for the brief return trip, I took yet more Puffin in flight shots, along with the Guillimots and Razorbills posing on a rocky outcrop close by.
What an incredible day!! As the boat made it's way back to the mainland and the calls of seabirds faded away as the sun continued to beat down on us, I grinned to myself. The heat, discomfort and aching muscles were all worth it. The long trip back was all worth it. Getting up at 2am was all worth it!
Hands down, this had been my best nature experience ever! Thank you Justin Hawkins!
Skomer Island is really 'Growing on me'... ;)
Below are pics from the day. Enjoy!