A Week on Ynys Enlli

 

Ben Porter, a good friend of mine and fellow Zoology student at the University of Exeter just so happens to live on a remote island off of the coast of the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales. Having lived on the Bardsey Island since the age of twelve Ben is well settled into the island life and can be rather modest about where he lives. Yet deep down Ben knows just how blessed he is to call Bardsey his home. He was eager to show me the Island’s charms and I was equally as eager to experience them, being a bit of an island-addict myself. Therefore I was ecstatic when the Porters invited me to stay in their humble farmhouse, which is nestled at the base of Bardsey mountain.

With my last minute travel booked, I took the long and winding train journey up from London to North Wales. The next day we were blessed with calm and sunny weather, seemingly perfect for the boat trip across Bardsey sound.  Despite the calm seas, boat crossings were still restricted by large spring tides. By 4pm I was finally able to hop onto the bright-yellow Benlli III. As the boat edged away from the mainland I caught my first tantalising views of the island as it gradually emerged behind the tip of the Lleyn peninsula…


The Mountain

A thin mist shrouded the top of Mynydd Enlli as we approached in the boat, concealing the peak in a dramatic atmosphere that gave the island an imposing first impression. Being just 1.5 miles long and less than ½ a mile across at its widest point, the island certainly punches above its weight landscape wise. The Islands’ mountain – Mynydd Enlli –  rises to a height of 167m. It’s no Ben Nevis, but it certainly seems high when looking up from the sea!

It’s only a short climb up and each day I was rewarded with glorious panoramic views of the Irish Sea, the Lleyn Peninsula and Bardseys’ characteristic square lighthouse which stands proudly on the southern tip of the Island. Mynydd Enlli was awash with vibrancy. During the day the lower slopes burst into a swaying sunny-yellow as the flowering hawksbeards opened their petals to the sunshine. Amongst the hawksbeards, a patch of harebells added a subtle hint of delicate purple. Climbing higher the peaks and outcrops were carpeted in a glorious mix of warm western gorse splattered Jackson Pollock-style throughout the ling and bell heather. Underfoot the ground was matted with a mix of lichens and mosses. Bardsey’s resident chough had been hard at work ripping the soft material away from the rocks to feed on whatever morsels might lay beneath. It was delightful to watch the chough on a daily basis – their cheery cheeoww call and elegant aerial acrobatics are so uplifting. On sunny days graylings, meadow browns and gatekeepers emerged in force, flopping and flitting around the slopes. Kestrels hovered on the breeze and peregrines patrolled the cliffs.

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The harebells were very enjoyable to photograph as they swayed in the breeze. The colours were fantastic!

Grey Seals

The sun was shedding its final rays of light as Ben rowed us into Yr Honllwn one calm evening. As we gazed over the sea back toward the island the water rippled warm pinks and oranges and the lighthouse stood proudly silhouetted against the sky. As we drifted into the bay dozens of grey seals were dozing in the water, heads bobbing on the surface. They appeared to smile contentedly at the tranquillity of evening. Gradually the seals awoke, curious as to the strange visitors floating towards them. The seals swam quietly towards us, slipping underwater and then emerging to get a closer inspection.  Some of the bull seals started grunting and blowing ungrateful bubbles towards us – this is our bay, keep out – so we took this as a message to leave them be. The sun had now exhausted its last rays and we returned to shore.

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Cafn, where the boats land, Yr Honllwn and Bardsey Lighthouse at sunset
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A grey seal heading towards the rowing boat

The following morning we traversed the steep east side of the island seeking more grey seal encounters. We followed a narrow path that gradually worked its way down to the rocks and sea. Eventually, we reached a small cavern where there was a human-sized hole between the rocks. This was the entrance to Seal Cave. The cave was small and gloomy inside, aside from a narrow beam of light which illuminated a pool of seawater into an inviting aquamarine-blue. The sea gently lapped at the cave walls and we sat on a platform of rock, watching and listening intently. Occasionally we could hear the echoed splashes of seals elsewhere in the cave.  Some even sounded as if they were underneath the rocks on which we sat.  Before long we noticed graceful shadows appear out of the darkness. The seals were incredibly elegant underwater, perfectly streamlined. They were mesmerising to observe as their figures emerged from the depths, swimming effortlessly around the pool. Seal cave truly was a wonderful place, somewhere I hope I will never forget.

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A grey seal comes closer to inspect Mark’s GoPro.

 

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One of my favourite shots from seal cave. Although the water wasn’t crystal clear that day, it was still stunning for photography.

Creatures of the Night

I’m not usually much of a night owl, but night-time on Bardsey is arguably the most spectacular time to be awake. There’s so much to marvel over.  On a clear night, the sky seems vast and endless and the stars are so much more vivid than they are at home. I stare, open-mouthed. Starstruck.

Come midnight, the island comes alive with a cacophony of activity. During the summer Bardsey is a temporary home to around 16,000 pairs of Manx Shearwaters and their fluffy chicks. Each day the chicks wait patiently in their burrows for the adults to return under the cover of darkness and deliver a fishy meal. Walking along the paths it’s difficult not to stumble over these birds, so ill-adapted for life on land.  One evening we set up mist nets to catch Manx shearwaters and storm petrels. Although fairly common, storm petrels live rather mysterious lives, and relatively little is known about their breeding ecology.  We lure them to the nets by playing their strange purring, clicking call out to sea. If it is not their charming face, delicate legs and white rump that make them so alluring, then it’s their sweet, musky scent. Given the opportunity, I would never turn down a stormie-sniff.  Storm petrels have an incredible sense of smell and can recognise their partners by scent alone. They may even choose their partners depending on their perfume. Furthermore, the storm petrels acute sense of smell enables them to detect oils and fats floating on the ocean surface. This may indicate a valuable source of food.

That evening we catch a steady stream of storm petrels and shearwaters. One of the Manx shearwaters we catch is over 30 years old, first ringed in the 1980’s: although that doesn’t beat the Bardsey record over 50 years old! The storm petrels have trouble gaining lift again due to the onshore winds and they climb up our shoulders to use as launch-pads. They flutter – wings trembling like moths – before finally disappearing into the night.

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The Bardsey Gang

 

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Into the Spanish Mountains

I recently spent a week on the south-eastern coast of Spain as my friend Ted and his family kindly invited me on holiday with them. Although much of the time was spent relaxing by the sea, we did make a couple of trips into the nearby mountains. Here are a couple of accounts of our days bird-watching in some beautiful locations.

Ronda

We gradually made our way along the road as it wound its way higher through the mountains. The landscape of holiday resorts and new-build apartments vanished behind us as the landscape transformed into an expansive of steep rocky valleys, cork forests and high peaks. The road cut its way through vertiginous mountain passes and eventually the road stopped climbing and the mountains opened up, giving way to an expansive vista of plains. Out of the barren, scrubby landscape rose the El Tajo Canyon, upon which sits the ancient city of Ronda.

As we entered the city these views vanished behind church walls, restaurants and gift shops. However, we walked north through the town, on a pilgrimage to the Citys’ most impressive feature Puente Nuevo –  New Bridge. Peering over the side of the bridge the landscape once again opened up. The views instantly filled me with a rush of awe and adrenaline. The precipitous landscape below was both unexpected and incredible. Puente Nuevo is one of three bridges that cuts across the El Tajo Canyon, which was carved out by the Guadalevín River that flows 120 metres below. Steep cliffs rise up from the edge of the river, and these create perfect nesting habitat for birds. In a similar way to coastal cliffs, these precipices are rather inaccessible to the hungry mouths of predatory mammals, making them a relatively safe haven for eggs and chicks.

 

It was interesting to see red-billed chough nesting on the cliff-face, just meters away from me. I’m so used to seeing choughs braving the cold and windswept Cornish coastline, but here they were enduring the searing heat miles away from the sea.   Hundreds of common and alpine swifts, joyful and energetic, whizzed and screeched passed us. Fast and agile, swifts truly are masters of the air. I will never cease to be amazed by the fact that swifts may remain on the wing without touching terra-firma for over nine months outside of the breeding season. Occasionally I notice swifts launch themselves from the cliff edge. I ponder – do they enjoy resting their wings while they nest, or do they revel in every moment spent in the sky?

 

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Red-billed Chough perched near one of the viewpoints. 

 

There were plenty of kestrels nesting on the cliffs, too. The cliffs make a great vantage point from where kestrels can hunt for small mammals and passerines in the surrounding plains.  It wasn’t the common kestrel we had come to see though. Lesser kestrels, the common kestrels smaller sister species, also nest here. We checked each kestrel carefully as they soared effortlessly below us. The lesser kestrel can be distinguished from the common kestrel by its plain rusty upperparts and a blue-grey panel on the upper-side of the wings. Lesser kestrels have a different hunting strategy to common kestrels, feeding mainly on large insects. After a lot of searching we finally glimpsed a lesser kestrel, way down in the canyon, a great conclusion to the day’s birdwatching.

Caceres

Time for another pilgrimage into the mountains. Up at the viewpoint, we were treated to panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Huge feathered figures stood hunched on the rocks – like statues overlooking the valley. The sun was breaking through the thin hazy clouds and the air was warming up rapidly. The birds heaved themselves off of the rocks, climbing up with a few heavy flaps and circling towards us. These were griffon vultures, truly hefty birds with a 2.5-meter wingspan. Griffon vultures are gregarious birds preferring to congregate in groups, relying on each other to find carrion on which to feed. Over a dozen birds soared almost effortlessly over our heads. It’s impossible not to feel insignificant when such magnificent birds, the flying carpets of Europe, are glaring down from just meters above. There were booted eagles here too, which were dwarfed by the vultures. Who knew eagles could look cute?

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Just look at that wingspan!
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A booted eagle – it was dwarfed by the vultures!

We took a short walk into the hills. Griffon vultures continued to soar over the peaks and in the distance an Egyptian vulture joined them. Up close Egyptian vultures look somewhat comical, though in a rather sinister fashion – with a spiky white hair-do but a pointy and bare-yellow face.  I feel blessed to see so many magnificent birds. Although there are fairly large populations of griffon and Egyptian vultures in Spain, as well as booted eagles, all are under threat from issues such as habitat loss and persecution.  I hope that they can thrive in the future and still put on such spectacles in years to come.

Scotland Field Course – Highlights of the Highlands

I have recently returned from a trip to the highlands of Scotland. This was part of the Scotland Field Course, run for second-year students at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus. The trip is run Safari style and aims to immerse and educate students about Scottish wildlife from the mountains and forests of the Cairngorm’s National Park right up through the endless flow country into the far North West. The trip was jam-packed with views of iconic and charismatic species and some unforgettable experiences. I thought I’d share a few of those experiences with you.

 A Windswept Isle

Torrential drizzle soaked us as we followed otter tracks that pitter-pattered across the soft golden sand-dunes of Handa Island. The Scottish weather was being true to its word and the short crossing over the Sound of Handa had left us feeling a little brass-monkeys. We sought shelter in the small visitor centre and stared out into the weather-beaten expanse. Handa Island is situated off of the far North West coast and a breath-taking vista of craggy mountains stretched out beyond the grey, foamy sea. The wildlife here is built to cope with conditions that would leave any Southerner feeling noticeably shaken. A group of female eider ducks congregated in the bay, their superbly thick layer of downy feathers keeping them warm. A smart red-throated diversleek and streamlined ducked effortlessly into the depths after its prey. As we walked around Handa we encountered barrel-chested, heavy-set, formidable birds with a forcible personality. Great Skuas are in charge of Handa Island, using their brute force to bully other birds into forsaking their latest meal. Bonxies are also skilful hunters, capable of tackling birds much larger than themselves.  Their classy cousins – Arctic Skuas – have slender wings, tapered tails and sleek black sheen. But don’t let that fool you. They too are experienced pirates, using their aerial prowess to chase their unlucky victims until they drop their food. Luckily the Skuas didn’t bother us as we sat overlooking the seabird cliffs, taking in the raucous collection of kittiwakes, fulmars, razorbills and guillemots nesting on the mighty stacks.

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Great Skua – also known as Bonxie – on its territory
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Arctic Skua showing off its sleek outline and pointed tail streamer.
The sheer cliff faces of Handa Island
The sheer cliff faces of Handa Island

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Minibuses act as handy portable hides. We edged slowly around an expansive loch, eyes peeled for a certain shy mammal that makes its living hunting in the dark and chilly waters at dusk. For the first hour or so there was no sign, although we had good views of eiders, red-breasted mergansers and a great northern diver. McGowan’s group caught a faint glimpse of an otter, but by the time we arrived at the spot the beast had vanished. We waited, we watched, we waited. Slowly but surely daylight edged towards twilight. Just as the incessant annoyance of midges was becoming unbearable and all hope of seeing one was beginning to dwindle, we suddenly heard a blunder of muffled excitement through the radio. McGowan’s group had driven out of sight, far around the other side of the Loch. Surely they hadn’t seen another otter, not now?  We braced ourselves and buckled up. We weren’t missing another opportunity. As we wound our way closer around the Loch, more excitement buzzed out of the radio. After what seemed like an eternity, we pulled up at the vantage point where McGowan was pointing frantically. We hopped out of the van quickly and stealthily, binoculars clasped firmly in our hands. Below were three dark and shadowy shapes swimming smoothly through the shallows of the Loch. A mother otter and her two cubs were journeying along the Loch edge, purposefully but playfully –  ducking, bobbing and diving. The air was still and silent, aside from the faint calls of cuckoos toing and froing. Time seemed to stand still as we watched the otters before they eventually faded off into the distance.

Haliaeetus albicilla

On our way back down from Durness, we wound our way along the North coast and then headed back inland toward the Cairngorm National Park. On the way, we made an impromptu stop at a remote and beautiful coastal loch to look for eagles. We climbed up to a rocky outcrop with some seriously stunning panoramic views of mountains, moorland, forest, loch and sea. Our eyes were on the skies and patiently, we waited. Suddenly the cry went up. ‘Eagle… WHITE-TAILED EAGLE!’  Swooping across the ocean was the unmistakable beast. Huge barn-door wings and bold, bright tail. It was gone as soon as it arrived. A mythical beast? Eagerly we waited. Again it came. Distant, but certainly a sight to behold. The UK’s largest bird of prey with a wingspan of over 2 metres, the white-tailed eagle is unmistakable. Also known as the Scottish sea eagle, these huge birds were tragically persecuted to extinction in the 20th Century. Recently re-introduced, there are now around 40 pairs breeding in Scotland. What a privilege to see!

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Watching for eagles

Tursiops truncatus

The Moray Firth is renowned as a place where bottlenose dolphins put on a superb wildlife spectacle. Usually being a more tropical species, Scotland is at the Northern limit of the bottlenoses’ range. Seeing them would, therefore, be a real treat. A large congregation had gathered with hope and anticipation, undeterred by the brisk buffeting wind and the dark clouds looming overhead. Excitement built as a pair of dolphins were spotted far out in the mouth of the Firth, zig-zagging their way back and forth. Soon a larger pod began working their way into the Firth, surfacing at regular intervals. Suddenly a gasp came from a group of spectators and people started rushing to the edge of the shore. A mother and calf had surfaced extremely close, no more than 20 metres away. Every time they surfaced was truly breath-taking, you could make our the fine shapes and details of their perfectly streamlined bodies and even their contented-looking smiles. The calf stuck close by its mother’s side as they used the rushing tide to catch fish that were getting pulled in by the flowing tide. We all watched in awe as the rain pelted down on us, hoping that we could watch them all day.

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Occasionally the dolphins would show off their tail flukes.
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The cheeky little face of a bottlenose calf

The week was filled with plenty more amazing wildlife. I’m sure everyone will have their personal favourites including the mountain hares, black grouse, puffins, ospreys, ring ouzels, red squirrels…or the endless banter produced by our lecturers, of course! It was by far the best week of University so far… roll on the Costa Rica field course!

The Sounds of Skomer

Morning

Soft light pours into the murky darkness of my bedroom as I open the door on my first morning on Skomer Island. The air is crisp and cool and the sky a bright, monotonous white. Standing bleary eyed in the doorway, I look across the island out towards the sea. At first I hear an eerie silence, the sort you don’t seem to get on the mainland. The dawn chorus is different here to at home. There’s no noisy chattering of sparrows or electric clicks of starlings. There’s no great-tits chanting or blue-tit’s chirping and it’s unusual to hear the luscious song of a robin. Here, the sound of the mornings are more subtle. The cry of gulls is carried through the clear air and blends into the background. The first bird to greet me as I stepped outside was a pied wagtail, busily flitting around the farm. Their friendly tail-bob and chirping ‘chi-litt’ became a regular morning greeting.

Day

Spring was slowly but surely underway. The wind was still bitingly cold at times, but the warmth of the sunshine was gradually building up strength. Drifting on the wind, the true heralds of spring had arrived –  swooping, streaming and glossy wings glinting as they passed. The hurried chattering of swallows is an uplifting sound, one which welcomes the summer months to come. Over in North Valley, bluebells carpeted the ground in a subtle pastel blue. Rising high above on their fluttering wings, skylarks announced themselves gloriously with an impressive and seemingly endless recital of trembles, scratches and trills, before tumbling and falling back into silence.  Regularly passing overhead, oystercatchers liked to make themselves known – uttering a loud peeping ‘kleep-kleep-kleep’, which rather suits their gregarious character.

 

As you approach the cliffs the soundscape transforms into something wilder, more urgent. The Wick is an impressive cacophony –  a true spectacle to behold. The calming sound of the expansive sea is overpowered by the tremendous disharmony rising from the cliff face. The cliff appeared to be groaning and screeching, for is covered in guillemots and razorbills. They jostle for space in in densely packed conditions, chatting to their neighbours and mates. Edging too close to the colony, a raven is an unwelcome visitor. Kittiwakes pour off the cliff in frustration, starting an exaggerated uproar of ‘Kitti-waaake, Kitti-waake!’ The raven appears unperturbed, passing by with nothing more than a ‘crunk’.

Night

As darkness cloaks the island at night, an eerie sound begins to crescendo. Walking through the dark as the noise intensifies is a truly surreal experience. The island comes alive with manx shearwaters uttering haunting coos and shrieks. Occasionally there’d be a heavy rush of air and then a soft thud, as birds came to back to earth to enter their subterranean world of burrows. The experience is overwhelming, especially when you remember Skomer is home to over 500,000 of these precious seabirds – half the world’s population.

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Back at the farm, under the warmth of my duvet I listened to the muted cries of the shearwaters and the howling wind just outside my door. For early settlers of Skomer these were ghostly, frightening sounds. But these are the sounds that make Skomer so special and make me long to spend more time on this wild island.

Falmouth’s Rockpool Wonders

As the moon pulls at the sea, the tide retreats on Gylly beach. The splashing waves withdraw, revealing the hidden rockpool world. Soon the pools are still and calm, smooth and clear. Sunlight seeps into the shallow water. Seaweeds, gently suspended, paint the rocks a myriad of colours. Luscious greens, soft pinks and deep, warming reds. Iridescence catches the eye. Painted topshells, delicately brushed with silver and purple, glint and shimmer. Rainbow wrack glistens as it catches the light. A strawberry anemone, speckled with green, slowly reveals it’s swaying tentacles.

 

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A gorgeous February evening spent rockpooling at Gylly Beach.

 

Beneath every barnacle brazen rock there is life to be discovered. Flipping each rock is like unwrapping a birthday present. You brim with anticipation, eager to discover what’s underneath. Sometimes, as the sediment settles, you’re underwhelmed. At first glance, there’s no movement – just more limpets and periwinkles. But you’re hopeful, and carefully examine the rock surface. Nestled next to a limpet’s turret is a neat grouping of small star ascidian. These tiny colonial sea-squirts lie so flat against the rock they almost appear embedded. A spiny starfish edges gradually along. A slow-motion hunter, looking for its next meal.  Its spiny surface looks brash and unfriendly, but up close a wonderful landscape of texture and colour revealed. Slight movement catches your eye. A grey topshell wobbles. When you pick it up, the shell seems unoccupied. A relic of a lost owner, perhaps?  Gradually a pair of striped claws emerge. Beady eyes and antennae follow, nervously. Disguised and protected, a common hermit crab has claimed this shell as his home.

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A common hermit crab emerging from its stolen shell.
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Under close inspection the surface of a spiny starfish is mesmerising.

Quite often, the bigger the rock, the better. A surge of thrill runs through you when there is a thrash of movement in the water. A velvet swimmer thrusts its claws forward in anticipation of an attack, its piercing red eyes glaring forward. It’s back legs, well adapted for rapid movement, paddle it to safety. The sound of splashing grabs your attention. A dark fish wriggles in the shallow water. As you reach down it briskly slips between your fingers and into the open. It’s a 5-bearded rockling, identified by its slender inky black body and five delicate facial barbels. The fish is nimble and knows where to hide. It darts into a crevice, offering you a fleeting glimpse.

Occasionally, some rocks will uncover exceptional treats and unexpected surprises. This may be something undeniably beautiful, or something entirely new to you. It’s usually both. A feeling of privilege and wonder fills your heart when you find something you’ve never seen before. Yesterday, I had this experience. Firstly, Ted pointed out a dahlia anemone – well hidden between the fronds of red algae. Then, a two-spotted goby emerged into full view.  This is a subtle beauty of a fish, mottled with browns and creams and flecked with azure-blue spots down its flank. Finally, I glimpsed a bright, lime-green juvenile Ballan wrasse, perfectly at home amongst the sea-lettuce.

 

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A two-spotted goby with its shimmering blue spots.

 

Eventually, the waves return. Water sprays, splashes and trickles into the pools. Soon Falmouth’s seashore kingdom is hidden once again.


Rockpooling is a fantastic way to spend a few hours. If you live in Falmouth, or anywhere else near the coast, I urge you to go and explore. Who knows what rockpool wonders you might discover?

 

 

Post-exam ramblings

Last Fridays exam finally marked the end of four months of a crazy amount of university work. Last term I made the (somewhat mad) decision to do five modules, so walking out of that exam hall was a huge relief. This week has been the first in a long while that I haven’t had bundles of lectures to be attending and coursework and revision to be getting on with. Free from responsibilities I have spent this week doing three of things that I love best: walking, birdwatching and taking photographs.

I am lucky enough to study in Falmouth, and my uni home has some great nature reserves and a beautiful stretch coastline just a stone throw away. This term I have much more spare time, so with a bit more luck I’ll get out a lot more and have time to put my blog to good use!

Last Saturday, I took a leisurely stroll with two housemates Ted and Prawta along College Reservoir. The 35-acre reservoir is a short walk from Penryn campus and is nestled amongst a patch of wet woodland. Having been cooped up for much of the start of January, Ted and I were keen to boost our new year bird list, so birds were high on the agenda.

The reservoir is a magnet for overwintering wildfowl. I’m always amazed at the number of coots out on the water. I always think of coots as fairly aggressive birds, but in winter they must forget their disputes and welcome migrant coots from northern Europe. Coots are also joined by large numbers of wigeon and a sizable number of tufted ducks too.

One pair of funky birds were instantly recognisable. The male has a smart racing green head and black cape draped over it’s back, contrasting with its soft and bright breast. The female chooses a more punky look, opting for a spiky brunette hair-do. Both birds sport a long, bright red serrated beak. This was a superb pair of goosanders. I wondered whether it was the same pair I saw there last year? Goldeneye and gadwall were rather nice additions too, but nothing beats a goosander!

A spot of chilly winter rain didn’t seem to bother the small passerines, which rely on the rich productivity of the wet woodland to survive the winter. I love watching the tiny goldcrests as they flit from branch to branch. I have so much respect for these little birds. They weigh just a few grams but manage to battle out the worst of the English weather. I was lucky enough to ring one at the reservoir as part of my Biology of Birds module last year. The bird felt so small and so precious in my hand. It was gorgeous, and I could feel its tiny heart racing between my fingers. That was a truly special moment.


Wednesday started off rather lazily, as Ted and I hopped on the ferry between Falmouth and Flushing. The journey takes just a couple of minutes by ferry, covering a mere 700 metres. Falmouth and Flushing are so close they may as well be touching, but for those without a boat, it’s a rather longer and far less direct walk around the Penryn river estuary. Ted and I were saving that walk for later.

Feet firmly on the ground in Flushing, we set off in the other direction towards Mylor Churchtown.  We diverted off of the main path onto the shoreline, and scrambled across the rocks in search of wading birds. Three excitable oystercathers were gossiping noisily to each-other. A little further along the shore, a curlew sat by the surf. I’d forgotten how much I love the call of the curlew. A bubbly, high-pitched and wavering sound. I could listen to it all day. The call of the curlew has also be described as lonely-sounding. This is perhaps a pertinent description, as the curlew has seen a 46% decline in the UK in recent years. It’s sad to think that one day the cries of the curlew may be lost altogether.

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Oystercatcher

The weather that day was turning out rather glorious. Calm seas, blue skies, and even a warmth to the sun. A buff-tailed bumblebee flew past on the breeze. A sparrowhawk swooped low over the path before vanishing into the hedgerow, a short glimpse of it’s gun metal-wings confirming it’s identity.  Buzzards soared above us on the warming air. Stonechats, bullfinches, goldfinches and robins busily hopped through the hedgerows. It was starting to feel like a crisp spring day.

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Common Buzzard – looking for food or just enjoying the weather?

After a well earned pint back in Flushing, we set off back towards Falmouth along the Penryn river estuary. At low tide, the estuary transforms from harbour into mudflat. A heaven for waders. The sun was beginning to get low and bright glaring off of the water and wet sand ahead of us. A pair birds were silhouetted against the shimmering water – a redshank and a greenshank were feeding busily side by side. Ahead, grey herons were joined by their sleeker and more elegant counterparts – little egrets.

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Redshank and Greenshank

Arriving back in Penryn we were exhausted, having walked 10 miles – much further than expected. We rested on a bench overlooking the estuary as the sun set and watched a common sandpiper hurry around underneath the hull of a boat. Most common sandpipers spend their winter in Africa and the Med, so this was a great sighting to end to the day! It had been a brilliant walk, and one which I endeavour to do much more often in the future.

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A view back towards flushing from Penryn

MY WEEK AS A SKOMER VOL(E)

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!

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A fulmur effortlessly soaring in the evening light
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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!

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This slow worm tied itself into a knot
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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!

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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!