My week as a Skomer Vole

Well that was a blast! Super seabirds, seals, strong winds, surveys and some sweat and toil were just a few things (beginning with s) that made my week volunteering on Skomer Island unique and incredible.

The adventure began when the B&B owner dropped myself and Danielle Connor off on a narrow country lane. But ah, it was about a mile away from the boat. Laden with camera bags and suitcases stuffed full of a week’s supplies, by the time we reached the sea we were already exhausted.

On boarding The Dale Princess my binoculars were out,  ready for their own adventure. I would soon learn that the second rule on Skomer after ‘DON’T WALK ON THE BURROWS!’ was ‘HAVE YOUR BINS OUT AT ALL TIMES!’ On getting my first glimpses of guillemots, gannets and a gulls I knew that my binoculars certainly wouldn’t be put down any time soon.

After settling in to the accommodation, and meeting all the people I would get to know that week, it was off to work. When the island has day visitors, the volunteers are split into two groups; those on boat duty and those on island patrol. That afternoon I was on island patrol, giving me the opportunity to explore for the first time. Sheer sea cliffs covered in rocky ledges, tiny ponds and streams, a few trees, and burrows absolutely everywhere. (I mean everywhere. With ~250,000 pairs of manx shearwaters, and bunnies hopping all over the place, you have to keep to the paths for a reason!)

Each day leads up to a Skomer ritual known as Bird Log. To any outsider, this would certainly be a strange experience. If broadcast on the radio, Bird Log would surely fit nicely alongside the shipping forecast. But whereas the shipping forecast looks ahead, Bird Log looks back on everyone’s sightings for the day. Some parts of bird log always play out the same; ‘Pheasant?’ ‘Present!’, ‘Lesser Black-Backed Gull?’ ‘Everywhere!’ Some parts of Bird Log are frustrating; ‘Warblers?’ ‘Oh, erm, I had 4 chiff-chaffs. Or were they willow warblers? Erm, chillow-whiffs perhaps?’

Some parts of Bird Log unveiled that days birding highlights, of which I had many. I had some lifers including a female hen harrier, chough, short eared owl, manx shearwater and a little ringed plover. I enjoyed watching migrants such as wheatear and blackcap, although I’m really annoyed I missed the ring ouzel! I loved watching the fulmars as they rode effortlessly on the updrafts. It was great fun showing visitors one of the magnificent ravens nests perching amongst thousands of  guillemots and kittiwakes. A shoveler threesome was somewhat interesting. And of course, the puffins were fabulous!

A fulmur effortlessly soaring in the evening light
Male Wheatear

It wasn’t all birding galore though. Assistant warden Jason Moss made sure we worked mighty hard. Sunday saw us path widening and fire-wood-chopping in freezing 50mph gusts. On Monday we crossed back to the mainland on a rib, hauling gas canisters along with lots of research equipment – thanks Ros! On Friday, we chipped the rust off a boat trailer and some old wheelbarrows and coated them in tar. (Or was it water-proof paint?)

Aside from all the hard labour, the volunteers carried out a variety of survey work. The reptile and amphibian surveys involved checking under sheets to see what creatures were keeping themselves warm underneath. It’s safe to say our first survey was somewhat disappointing; right up until that last sheet that is! Underneath was a little bundle of ginger fur. Four Skomer voles, endemic to the island, were packed tight into a fuzzy ball. We had just enough time to delight in their cuteness before they burrowed away. Our second survey was better; turning up a whole heap of slow worms, some palmate newts, common toads and lizards and some Skomer voles too of course!  Out on Skomer Head, a rocky outcrop to the west of the island, we carried out our cetacean survey. It started off slowly, with only a few harbour porpoise being sighted. It soon picked up pace though. By the end of the hour we had counted 154 harbour porpoise surfaces. Not amazing, but a respectable count none-the-less!

This slow worm tied itself into a knot
A little bundle of vole

However, by far the biggest survey of the week was the whole island puffin count. Tuesday was a beautifully sunny day, and an absolutely mega day for Skomer’s Puffins. All the wardens, volunteers and researchers took part in the count. The plan seemed simple. Divide the island up, and assign small groups to each section. Then divide up your section into manageable chunks. Then count every single puffin in your section: on land, sea and in the air. Simple huh? Well, my section, between High Cliff and The Wick, contained 2,283 puffins. Not so simple. Especially when the puffins are little black-and-white blobs in the sea, mixed in with other black-and-white blobs that aren’t puffins, all moving around! The count of my section pales into insignificance though, considering the total count. A whopping 22,575 puffins. Blimey, Skomer’s biggest ever count!

A puffin standing proudly, with The Wick as a backdrop.

It was sad packing our bags on Friday night. None of us wanted to go the next day. We were wishing the wind would keep us on. And our wishes came true – the boat couldn’t sail! My last day was the strangest. I was dressed as a banana, lifting up hatches, sticking my hands down holes and getting covered in mud. This strange behaviour is regular for Oxford University researcher Sarah Bond. She was checking the manx shearwater study burrows ready for the breeding season ahead. We found 5 birds, and it made my week getting to hold them. Feeling their feathers between my fingers and seeing them in so much detail during daylight is incredible.

My week on Skomer was full of experiences I will never forget. I would especially like to thank Wardens Eddie and Bee and Jason and also the other volunteers Lynn, Berry, Karen and Danielle for a fantastic week. Hope to see you all again next year!


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