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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