Seabirds and Potatoes 2: Skomer

      At 3 am the next day, Friday 12 April, I woke with a headache and with the knowledge that I wasn’t going back to sleep – hours of tedium and breakfast in the dark.  I very rarely get headaches and when I do it’s usually dehydration that’s the problem, so I drank plenty of water and substituted instant coffee for my usual espresso type. No change.

       You can’t reserve boat tickets for Skomer and to catch the ten o’clock boat used to mean a two-hour wait at the dock in Martin’s Haven. Now the wait is for the welcome hut and ticket office to open at 8:30. No queues though – the boats only started running a week ago. The ticket office is a 10 minute walk from the camp site, so I take binoculars and my Sony RX10 IV bridge camera, get my ticket – free for us members of the Wildlife Trusts – and set off round the headland again to see if the rising sun has changed the wildlife. It’s cold and I still have a headache. The Choughs are in the same area as yesterday so presumably are nesting nearby. No dolphins, one gannet, no seals, but again hundreds of Greater Black-Backed Gulls drifting past. I’m still puzzled by the numbers.  Somewhere in this area they have a huge food resource, and a part of that has to be the bird colonies  on Skomer and Skoholm. The Guillmots and Razorbills on the cliffs are so densely packed they can quite easily defend their young, and the Manx Shearwaters and Puffins are tunnel nesters. Hm.

       On the boat the man in charge – a Valleys man by his accent – is a joker.

       “I have to apologise for the weather today. It’s not what you expect here.” – it’s flat calm. The usual speech about safety is made memorable by his humour and obvious enjoyment of his job. I’m waiting for a gag about the crotch strap, but it’s all in the best possible taste. He joyfully tells us that the puffins are arriving in good numbers – 500 a day until they reach:

“Thirty thousand and one. If you don’t believe me, count them!”  Here Puffins are flourishing whereas in Scotland they are in steep decline – another puzzle.

       When we arrive at the welcome point, I ask one of the young wardens if, having heard it all many times before, I can skip the lecture but he patiently explains that it’s part of the safety rules. He keeps it brief and instead of immediately heading south for The Wick, which is Puffin Central, I sit down with my flask of coffee and a snack and wait for the others to disperse. I like to be alone so I decide to go to the much less visited north coast – a mistake. It’s still late winter here – no bluebells, no campion, and apart from the odd wheatear, meadow pipit and the ubiquitous gulls, only rabbits – hundreds of them. Of course! They are the missing link in the food chain for the gulls. 

       When, walking anti-clockwise along the cliffs, I reach the west side, the sun has gone, the cold wind is fierce and my burden of cameras, long lens, binoculars, flask, water, lunch, monopod and sundry essentials is making my headache worse. After several false starts I sit down in the lee of a rock only a few yards from the cliff edge to eat my sandwich and drink the rest of my coffee.  Below me is a colony of Auks, and I enjoy watching their constant movements.

       Heading south towards the Puffins I’m feeling better. It’s warmer, and I think I know what’s causing the headaches. I spot a bush alive with recent arrivals: Willow Warblers.

       A few of the first swallows slide up over the cliffs, whisk across the island at ground level and are gone – over the sea to the north. Better still I’ve timed my arrival at Puffin Central perfectly and the crowds have gone.

       Now, to work: I have to get the elusive flight picture. Although Puffins on land have an engaging child-like waddle, they are fast swimmers and even faster fliers. Age has done nothing for my reaction times and it takes dozens of misses before I get something I’m relatively happy with. The pairs have not seen each other since the autumn and I’m delighted to record their greetings, and the gathering of nest material.

       On the way back I spot my first Redstart of the year, and a seal “standing up” in the water and then doing a headstand as if looking for applause from the onlookers.

       It’s a different micro-climate on the way down to the harbour. Below us is a big raft of Puffins, and I’m fascinated to see how they land on the water. Most water birds land feet first, but Puffins make an undignified head-first half-dive.

As we process down the steps to the boat I’m delighted to get some close-ups of Guillemots and Razorbills.

       Happy but feeling strange and exhausted when I get back to the camper, I soon find why I’m getting headaches. I’m four days into a new prescription intended to deal with anxiety and belly-ache, so I look up the side effects: there it is, right at the top – headache. The cure is worse than the disease.


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Seabirds and Potatoes 1: Martin’s Haven

       The headland beyond Martin’s Haven in the far west of Pembrokeshire, is called the Deer Park. There is a stone wall across the isthmus, built  to keep the deer enclosed, but where there was once a tall grand gate there is now an ordinary field gate, just high enough to contain the Black cattle that now graze the peninsula. The deer have long gone.

       Walking straight on, the path leads to  some steps up a steep slope and into a bright sun low in the western sky.

      It is 6:03 pm and normally I would be preparing a meal in the camper which is in its usual place at West Hook Farm camp site. I’m a frequent visitor for the little harbour is where the boats to the islands of Skomer and Skokholm dock. This evening though I want to walk round the peninsula and will eat later. From the campsite there is a footpath winding along the cliff tops, now vivid with a heady alignment of deep yellow gorse and white blackthorn flowering together. The  first bright fresh heads of the Campion which, with Bluebells, will turn Skomer into an undulating sea of blue and pink in a few weeks’ time.

       This is National Trust  land and there is a large car-park. It’s a popular place and the paths round the peninsula are wide and well worn. The crowds of people don’t seem to bother the Choughs, who high-step around the cliff-tops probing with their long scarlet beaks. Only when you are within a few yards do they slide off down the cliff-face calling “chack.”

I walk into the sun along the southern side. A pair of Canada Geese fly inland. Above me and out to sea there is a slow steady movement  eastwards of the  Greater Black Backed gulls which are a constant threat to any unguarded young amongst the big colonies of seabirds – Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins and Manx Shearwaters – on the two islands. These, the largest of our gulls, are in their spring plumage. Their upper wings and back are a dense glossy black, neatly edged in white, which makes a startling contrast with their white heads and underparts and their bright yellow beaks.

At the point, and to the north there is another steady movement of Herring Gulls in twos and threes, small groups and long lines, some at wave -top, some at cliff-top height. Just to stand here watching the sun sink over Skomer and the gentle drifting movement of the gulls is food for the soul.

       From the look-out hut at the highest point of the peninsula I can see a dark brown field, furrowed like corduroy, and 4 tractors working the furrows. This is where many of the Pembrokeshire new potatoes come from, and they are planting this year’s crop. The fields  may be small and traditional looking but this is a highly mechanised operation using specialist machinery – almost certainly contractors. There’s money in spuds.

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The hidden worlds of nature

They continue to elude me, those hidden worlds, and particularly those of birds. This year’s big resolution was to spend as much time as I could in this locality (the Towy Valley, Carmarthenshire) to really get to know its non-human inhabitants. I now have at least 8 promising sites where I can watch and record, but it’s been cold and wet. I know there is nest building going on, but have only been able to record one pair of dippers carrying nest material. The only mammals I have seen are Fallow Deer and Grey Squirrels.

Today I set up my portable  hide at the Red Kite’s nest site I have been watching for several years. Then I climbed inside, set up the camera and tripod, sat on the uncomfortable little fold-up stool, unzipped a window and looked out at the nest. In the space of 45 minutes the only movement was the piece of frayed orange baler twine hanging from the edge of the nest. Kites like to include bright coloured things in their nests and have been known to steal washing from the line and  pick up bits of plastic. There was one kite around but it kept  out of sight during my stay.

The old bridge on the Towy is another favourite haunt, and on Friday I set up a trail camera where I think there is a Dippers nest. This morning I retrieved it and looked at the images, but the only animate being recorded was – again – a curious squirrel.

Another favourite area has a lake and a few acres of rough  grassland with trees. Another has a lake with a boardwalk all round it and some coppiced woodland nearby. Each had 2 Canada Geese in residence and a few mallards.

Nothing worth photographing, until back home, at the end of the afternoon some Siskins arrived at the bird feeder. They and the goldfinches love the tiny Niger seeds I put out and I got some nice pictures through the window.


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A Difficult Month

At the end of a personally difficult and frustrating month, the weather gets silly. Well, it’s been a silly year in politics so why shouldn’t the weather join in? Does a few days of summer in February tell us anything? Yes I believe it does, but to most of us it’s a welcome break from the rain rather than a frightening indication of what’s to come. I’m almost past caring what happens on Brexit day.  It’s all such a monumental waste of time.

My great camper van project has turned into a long string of monstrous garage charges as more and more things go wrong with the clapped out vehicle I was stupid enough to buy 2 years ago. Now the back doors have  jammed shut. It’s taken 3 weeks to find someone able and willing to sort it out, and I’m still waiting for the parts to arrive.

There were some good things. The snow at the beginning of the month made for some dramatic landscapes further up our valley. This is the Dinas RSPB reserve – where I first made a connection to this area back in the 70s.

Birds are scarce here in the winter, but there is a ravens’ nest high up on the crags. They didn’t seem to be nesting yet at the beginning of the month, but February is when they start so that they can feed their chicks on all the baby birds hatching in April.

At Dinefwr Park the vegetation is at its lowest level and the deer need to be fed. I’ve been monitoring their behaviour, and find quite different patterns from what my reading had led me to expect among wild Fallow deer. In the wild the bucks keep away from the does in winter, but here, although the males stick together, they do also mix with at least some of the does. This is the interesting bit: is there a group of does who keep to the south-western part of the park, the sanctuary area where there is no public access? I’m fairly sure now that there is and that they are more wary of humans than the other group who mix with the bucks and live closer to people. It’s been difficult to get an accurate estimate of the total numbers  in the park, so when I was helping Rhodri with putting feed-beet down for them I took some pictures . This is the only time the entire herd can be seen together and the results were surprising. According to the conservation plan there should be 130 deer. I printed off two pictures in monochrome, divided them into sections and carefully counted each section before adding them up for the total. One picture showed 191, the other 193. This means that there are at least 60 too many deer for the size of the park.

The otters, which had made my spells in the Kingfisher hide so exciting in January, seem to have gone. Apparently this is normal behaviour for otters who live a nomadic life when not breeding. They will spend a week or two in one place and then move on.

We had 5 year old grandson Arthur staying for a week which was quite a challenge! This was at Carreg Cennon Castle where some hot soup put new life into the oldies but was just another game for the youngster.

Another was the Red Kite feeding station at Llandeusant, where his short attention span persuaded me to leave  earlier than I would have wished. I got some good sky pictures but not the dramatic action shots I’d hoped for. I didn’t mind. It was his day and I can always come again.

When the warm weather arrived so did the first bumble bees. I’d bought a book on these amazing creatures so was glad to catch this shot of this Buff Tailed queen on the first spring flowers of the year. The mites are not harmful and are simply hitching a ride.

While the good weather lasted, having worked out that I had enough water in the inaccessible tank at the back of the van, I grabbed a one night trip to the west coast, taking in Ynys-hir, Newport Pembs and Teifi Wetlands. The highlight was an early morning session at the main hide at the Wetlands – this charming dabchick,

and a wonderful sunrise:




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The Otter Bus

Every time I enter the Kingfisher Hide on the little Oxbow lake at Dinefwr Park I wonder if I will be lucky enough to see an otter again. I try to manage my weekly patrol of the Deer Park boundary so that I can eat my lunch in the hide quietly watching and recording the little events which punctuate the stillness. I record the time and the weather and if there is one moorhen or two, and if the resident Mute Swan is there, contemptuously ignoring my presence as usual. In early spring I made this cryptic record:

22 March 2018
11:20 – 11:45 nothing of note.

Most of the time I’m recording the everyday life of quite common species, but there is always the hope of something different and I watch every ripple in the water. One calm September day there was a huge disturbance when, for  no more than a second a large fish broke the surface and crashed back again.

Then came this record:

31st May 2018
12:00 Warmer – sun
12:05 2 herons, otter fishing among the water lilies
12:15 Otter appears again but dives when it seem me. Jay flying west
12:25 Redstart clearly feeding young – probable nest on the far bank. He works a circuit, frequently picking insects from the lily pads.
12:45 Jay very close.
13:00 left

The laconic tone is deceptive. There is a sudden surge of adrenaline when I see the water moving. What’s happening? Could it be? YES! The tone also covers my frustration that I did not have the camera poised ready – not even for the second appearance!

One day the otter would  be back and I would be ready. It took a long time:

22 January 2019
11:35 cold, light rain and Sleet
12:00 big flock of around 80 greylag flying around the lake then landing.
12:15 Kingfisher perched on the tree opposite for a few seconds then flew off east. Moorhen. Second Moorhen converging will they fight? Group of Greylags walking up the grassland beyond the oxbow.Moorhen confrontation but no fight
12:20 2 male Teal fly in.
Advance Guard of Wigeon coming up the rise towards me
12.25 pair of mallards. Geese getting quite close now. One female Teal swimming to the right.
12:35 As I was packing up I saw movement in the water. An otter! I spent a glorious 10 minutes watching and photographing it crunching small fish before it swam off to the west.
As I walked away from the hide the geese all took off – wonderful sound.

It was a sunny day but the mid-winter sun was very low and the otter was directly between the lens and the sun – glaring highlights and deep shadows making it difficult, even after processing, to get full detail in the shadows. There seemed to be plenty of these small fish among the reeds at the edge of the oxbow. That was a significant observation, and helps to explain the title:

“You wait ages for a bus and then two come along together.”

27 January 2019
12:05 cold Still cloudy. Blue tit feeding on Rushes
12:25 four teal fly in
12:30 they fly off, but 4 more appear working the rushes from the west.
12:40 Otter! fishing all along the bank towards the east.
12:45 Cormorant fishing
12:55 Otter returns from East on this side of the Oxbow. It came very close but then must have seen me and did a deep dive.

Cormorant flew off.

This time the light was better though still harsh. The first sighting of a Cormorant actually fishing on the Oxbow is significant I think. This and the return of the otter means there are plenty of fish here at present. 

What a week!





















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