Famed for its bird and marine life, Skomer Island, off the coast of Pembrokeshire was the first stop on my travels around the UK
The trip had been superbly organised by a lovely group of friends who call themselves The Hambledooners. The name comes from Hambledon Hill in Dorset where they have worked, amongst other places, for several years on conservation projects.
We set sail after loading all our rucksacks and well sealed bags of food on board ship. No mice or rodents are permitted on to the island due to the large numbers of ground nesting birds, so checking our luggage was properly closed is vital.
Skomer is remote, totally off grid and normally attracts day visitors. We organised to visit and stay over with the bird researchers during Manx Shearwater week, a very special time of year as we were soon to discover, with the largest colony of Manxies, as they are affectionately known, in the Universe!
Manx Shearwaters are unassuming black and white birds, related to Albatrosses. Not as well known, pretty or colourful as the puffins who also share the island earlier in the year, but just as fascinating. Most people never see a Shearwater because they nest in burrows underground, fly out before sunrise to go sea fishing and their young fledge and learn to fly on Skomer at night. Finally they migrate all the way to Argentina and hang around in the sea down there.
The island warden greeted our boat on arrival and used a tractor to transport mountains of food and bags to our rather lovely farmhouse accommodation complete with running water, electricity and even flushing toilets. Luxury! After a quick debrief we were free to explore “our” island.
Over the next two days we had the privaledge of sighting Porpoise and Grey seals with pups, with more than half the world’s population living around the coast of Britain. I saw my first ever Short-eared owl at sunset and learned in a very hands on way about Shearwaters. We were given an evening talk and guided walk by a researcher for Oxford University. This is when things got really exciting…
After dark Skomer comes alive with thousands of baby shearwater chicks calling and stretching their wings; racing, running and tumbling down footpaths transformed into run ways and clambering up walls which become launch pads. They are fearless and so walking becomes a tricky business to avoid squashed shearwater.
Shearwater chicks aim for the highest point they can find to practice learning to fly. On the first night I lay flat on the ground and a Shearwater chick climbed up my leg and sat on my buttocks. Quite an experience! The second night we headed for a stone wall. This proved to be a brilliant idea. By sitting on the wall we became large rocks and soon we had chicks climbing up our legs and arms and sitting on our heads, practicing wing flapping and launching themselves into the air. I had several birds sit on my hands and could feel their soft feathers and heartbeat. At one point it was a bit like pass the shearwater. As a group we stood next to each other and one determined bird happily clambered over all six of our heads and back again. It was the most bizarre sight I have ever seen and an amazing experience with a wild animal.
To top the whole stay off we were invited to help the island researchers weigh the young shearwaters, this is part of an important study into how birds navigate using the sun. The work involved sticking your whole arm down a burrow and grabbing onto a beak or body and pulling out the bird. They were so calm and didn’t seem to mind. The whole visit was brilliant. Memories I will always treasure.