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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
At just 9cm long, the goldcrest is the UKs smallest bird.
Delicately placing the ring on a goldcrest.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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!
On Saturday I set out with fellow young wildlife photographers Danielle Connor, Will Hawkes, Max Thompson and Ben Porter to the Lizard, hoping to catch the stormy weather as it battered the coast. With our tripods, cameras and binoculars at the ready and layered up with raincoats and woolly hats we headed onto the cliffs to embrace whatever the weather could throw at us.
The first port of call was the wonderful Kynance Cove. The wind here was brutal. Whipping, bracing and forceful, it was churning up the sea, producing mighty waves that crashed against the cliffs, sending up gigantic splashes. The sea was tossed up and foaming angrily. Sea spray and foam was caught up in the gusts and constantly drizzled down on us. Up on the cliffs the wind pushed and tugged at your body. Walking in a straight line an impossible task. It was important to place your hat firmly on your head, as I found out after having to chase mine as the wind carried it along the cliff top! Above the waves, Herring Gulls and Greater Black-Backed gulls soared on the currents effortlessly, gliding and swooping. Shags had more trouble battling the winds, wobbling and wavering, before taking refuge on the rocks. Down in the water, a grey seal was dwarfed by the waves, it’s head occasionally surfacing in the wash. I wondered if it was enjoying itself or was absolutely terrified – one or the other, surely?
It’s safe to say that photographing in these conditions was a challenge. For a start, the sea spray was a total nightmare, making wiping down your lens a futile task. Secondly setting up a tripod for a steady picture was a risky business. We resorted to using rope to hold onto our tripods as we balanced them precariously the cliff edge!
After taking in the scenery, we walked down to the cove. The usually idyllic, sandy and spacious beach was was almost completely engrossed by the waves. We clambered along the rocks to the sea edge, the sea roaring right in front of us. A couple of large waves came rolling in towards us, smacking the rocks below our feet. The sea reminded us of its power with a suitable drenching.
In the afternoon we headed to the Lizard Point, which was just as dramatic, if not more dramatic than Kynance. We took refuge in a derelict hut looking over the vast ocean. With a large open window, this offered little shelter against the winds, but still gave us the opportunity to take a few more photographs. On a small area of sand, a group of turnstones kept getting caught out by the waves. Every time a wave hit they tried to run away, their little legs barely keeping up with them. It was very entertaining to watch them make the same mistake time and time again.
However harsh the conditions were; they were nonetheless awesome. Standing up on the cliff edge, being attacked by the wind and watching the waves smashing against the enormous and beautiful rocky landscape filled us with adrenaline and awe.
Finally, after two years of hard work my A-Levels were finally over. I sighed a massive sigh of relief. Now a wonderful summer lay ahead of me – over 12 weeks of freedom and adventure. In two days time I was already off for my first trip. My mum has been walking the coast of Britain for many years now, but after an operation on her foot a couple of years ago, and because I have a growing interest in walking and exploring the outdoors, I said I would accompany her. We chose to walk the North Norfolk Coast Path. Flat terrain which was good for my mum and fantastic wildlife for me.
Day 1: Hunstanton to Thornham
Arriving in Hunstanton on the first day of the walk, the sky looked dark, gloomy and fairly foreboding as it stretched far into the distance. This was definitely not what I had hoped. I put on my raincoat in preparation and then we set off down the path. Within minutes, I started to feel faint, cool drips on my skin. The drips stopped as soon as they had started. A sigh of relief. It warmed up again. The darker clouds seemed to fade to a paler grey. Skylarks rose and sang over the dunes, oystercatchers called far out of the mudflats and gulls soared on the breeze – all seemed dandy. But then again, the clouds moved back in, this time with vengeance. The cool drops were followed by faster, colder, larger drops, that battered down on the sand. The oystercatchers flew back inland, the small birds dashed into the cover of the bushes. All went quiet apart from the spattering of the rain and the howls of the wind. It was an exhilarating start to the walk: powerful, memorable and very, very wet. During the rest of the afternoon the weather cleared up a little. I observed the surrounding wildlife more closely. In a pool in front of us, a Shelduck family with 5 little chicks were venturing out of cover to feed. As I sat in the pub that evening, over the first pint that I’ve ever brought for myself, I was extremely eager for the days that lie ahead.
Day 2: Brancaster Staithe to Wells–next –the–Sea.
Despite the absence of the rain, the second day was freezing. It felt like February: not the middle of June. However, there was a long walk ahead so, layered up, we set off along the path. For the mornings walk, the path ran alongside Scolt Head Nature Reserve. The marshes were extensive, stretching out far into the distance. Channels of water twisted and wound their way through the sandy mud, creating a complex system of pools and creeks. This was a haven for wildlife. The bird life was utterly fantastic. My ‘twitch list’ was growing fast throughout the morning. Curlews skulked along the waters edges, their mottled brown plumage camouflaging them against the mud and marshland plants, and their evocative calls resonating through the expanse. Avocets were scattered across the landscape like salt and little chicks, their beaks not yet fully upturned, followed their parents across the mud in the distance. Linnets, Pipits, Goldfinches and Reed Buntings flitted across the pathway, which was bordered by bright yellow rape. A glowing line lead into the scene ahead.
By lunchtime, we had reached Burnham Ovary Staithe, where a good rest was certainly needed before the afternoon stretch. During the afternoon the path headed into the sand dunes of Holkham Nature Reserve, and followed close the sea on one side and a large coniferous woodland on the other. Walking on the sand was quite hard-going, and the various paths created by hundreds of walkers criss-crossed and overlapped like a network cables. By the time I had reached Wells-next-the-Sea I was exhausted – but thrilled by the awesome day that I had just had. Eating Dutch pancakes upon a ship in the habour, I totted up the ‘twitch list’ for the day – 40 birds in total!
Day 3: Blakeney Point Seal Trip and Wells-next-the-Sea to Blakeney
In the morning we caught a Coasthopper bus to Morston and took a Beans Boats seal trip to Blakeney Point. The weather quickly turned warm and fine. Perfect for the Grey and Common seals to do what they do best: chill on the sand and bob about in the water. Alongside the seals live 4 species of tern: Common Tern, Arctic Tern, Little Tern and Sandwich Tern. It was somewhat difficult to identify each species of tern, as they are quite well camouflaged against the shingle and the boat was swaying on the gentle waves, making it hard to focus with the binoculars. Even so, I could tell the Sandwich terns by their arrow-like streamlined shape and the dash of yolk-yellow on their beaks, and the little terns by the racing stripe across their eyes.
That afternoon we took the bus back to Wells-next-the-Sea and continued the walk. The walk still appeared to be far inland, as the mudflats and marshes stretched underneath the massive blue sky. It may not be as breath-taking as the dramatic cliffs and rock formations that my mum is used to on her walks, but it is amazing to think that whole large area is Nature Reserves.
Day 4: Cley to Sheringham
Cley Nature Reserve was somewhat spectacular. Before I even got to the hides, I knew that it was going to be a treat. Through my binoculars I watched a Reed Warbler sing its heart out: a loud, long and complex song. It appeared to be ventriloquizing some its notes. A moment later, in the tree behind the Reed Warbler, a Sedge Warbler perched, curiously observing. Its dark eye stripe and slimmer physique distinguished it from the Reed Warbler. Two warblers: one field of view. Perfect!
Onto the hides. A treat awaited. Stood in a row, like a line of white bowling pins: Spoonbills. 9 of them! They were resting, their bills hidden behind under their feathers, and their legs bent in a somewhat ungainly fashion. It wasn’t long before one revealed itself. That long, black, smooth, rounded orange- tipped bill – CORR!
Before I even had a chance to take this in, a bird with large, broad dark wings flew overhead. A few gentle wing-beats carried it over the scrape and it soared over the reeds. A gorgeous Marsh Harrier, looking for a meal. Then something unexpected happened. A kamikaze bomber, a fast jet of a bird raced towards the harrier, swooping up and then dashing down. It was a Lapwing. Others joined. Avocets had a go too. Arial battles of the David and Goliath. The Harrier had learnt that chicks provide a good food source. The Harrier had learnt to double-bluff. The Harrier had learnt that by heading towards the avocets and lapwings, they would take flight and leave their chicks to mob her. Once the birds had dispersed, this would allow the harrier to go in and take her prize.
Other highlights of Cley included a Ruff – which I wrongly identified as a ‘scruffy lapwing’ (How could I be so rude!?) and a Ringed Plover on the beach. Watching the Plover as it ran along the shingle was like playing hide and seek with a master of disguise. They blend in so incredibly well.
The walk in the afternoon was fairly exhausting. Long shingle beaches are a challenge to walk on, and wear you out in no time. The walk finished upon the cliffs of Sheringham, which seem to tower over the rest of the flat landscape. I sat down on a bench at the top, knackered. I looked back across the ocean and down along the coastline I had just walked. 40 Miles and 58 Bird Species. I was sad that my walk was over, and already thinking about where I may walk next.