Wales’ second largest island sits a couple of miles off Martin’s Haven on the west coast. Skomer is a 15 minute boat journey from the mainland but with little infrastructure and a limit of around 250 visitors a day it feels like a hundred years away. I first went to visit around 10 years ago but managed to miss the last boat and contented myself with a walk over the headland. Fast forward to yesterday and I secured a place on the small boat and found myself squeezed in with 49 other people for the short, undulating journey back in time to arrive at North Haven. Puffins were flying in all directions as we entered the natural harbour and climbed the endless steep steps up to the briefing point. After a quick run through the rules (‘stick to the paths or you may fall into rabbit burrows’ and the classic ‘the island is flat with no trees or bushes and everyone has binoculars or a long lens, so its best to use the toilets’) we were off.
My mission was to get some photographs of the puffins in flight, preferably with a beak full of fish or eels. At this time of year the young have hatched and are being fed by their parents. There are 10,000 breeding pairs of puffins on Skomer so the chances of catching one or two were good. Of course, I’d done my research (including a visit in May) and I knew where I wanted to be.
The Wick is a natural inlet formed by a geological fault which has left a sheer cliff on one side and a spectacular sloping slab on the other. Along the cliff edge, puffins have made their homes in old rabbit burrows. As I arrived, I could see clouds of birds all milling about. The frantic flapping of Puffins as they tried to avoid the more lazy, soaring gulls and Chough. And on the vertical cliff face, hundreds of Guillemots clinging to their precarious perches, squeezed shoulder to shoulder to take advantage of every inch of ledge.
Puffins fly well, but their take offs and landings are a bit rubbish. I watched several attempt to land gracefully in the sea only to give up at the last minute and either drop into the water or hit the surface at too sharp and angle and partially submerge. Here, with as many eels or fish crammed into their beaks as they could managed, landing was even more random. Some managed a reasonable hover-and-drop while others just crunched in, raising a small cloud of dust. If they were carrying food, they had to be careful as the gulls were trying to mug them.
Photographers lined the path. It was like being in an open air camera shop. But this meant that for the puffins whose burrows were on the other side of the paparazzi, their way was blocked. While the puffins weren’t bothered by our presence, they were too polite to push past us and we had been warned that they would wait patiently until we moved to allow them space to cross the path. Quite soon after I got there, a heavily fish-ladened Puffin landed close to me and after I’d taken a few photos, I put the camera down to watch it. It took a few steps towards me then stopped. I took this to mean that it wanted to cross the path where I was, so I stepped back. It took a few more steps towards me so I stepped back some more.
This turned into a game. Every time I backed off, it would come towards me again. I took more and more steps back and each time, the Puffin advanced to stop at the same distance from me. By now I was beginning to think I was being chased in the slowest, most polite way possible. I walked backwards some more and the Puffin darted off the path. But now, from the way the bird was searching up and down the side of the path it was clear that it wasn’t sure where it’s burrow was. I watched as it waddled back and forth before finally deciding on a particular hole and diving in.
I took hundreds of photos of the Puffins, trying to catch them in flight. Focusing was difficult; I’d been having problems with one camera during my visit in May and so I’d taken a different one this time, Although it should have been better, I think a combination of poor technique on my part (keeping the birds in frame was hard) and a difficult background (the sheer rock face gave little contrast between bird and rock). My focus hit rate was less than 60%. Of those, the ones that had a decent composition brought the overall hit rate down to about 50%. Still, I was pleased with the images that survived my editing.
I finally managed to tear myself away from the Puffins, only occasionally looking back to see what fantastic photo opportunities I was missing. The flora and fauna on the island is many and varied. In May I watched a buzzard terrorising the gulls, who were terrorising the Guillemots. I watched a black rabbit scamper about on the cliff edge, and another rabbit get caught by a gull. I managed to see the short eared owl, who skillfully avoided my camera lens by flying below the level of the undergrowth while hunting for it’s favourite prey, the Skomer vole. This time as I walked along a narrow path bounded by tall ferns, a young rabbit popped out in front of me. It was fully aware of me only a few feet away but wasn’t too concerned. As I got close, it would hop a few feet ahead and continue eating. I was more concerned as it was nearing a bunch out fulls that would certainly attack it if the saw it. In the end I stopped, hoping the bunny would disappear into the undergrowth. It finally did when another visitor popped over the hill in front of us and the rabbit realised it had nowhere else to go.
All the while on the paths I was crossing old and collapsed stone field boundaries. Skomer was home to a farming community between 2-5000 years ago and the remains of several circular huts are preserved in the undergrowth. A standing stone, the Harold Stone, overlooks North Haven and may have been a navigational aid for boats coming to the island. More recently, a single farm occupied most of the island with the main buildings now forming the visitor centre and limited accommodation. The farm was built in the 19th century and ceased working in 1949. In 1954, the roof of the farmhouse was blown down in a great storm and the buildings now house shelters for visitors in bad weather.Nearby a lime kiln survives as another shelter. Limestone was burnt here to provide lime for fertiliser and building mortar.
Day visitors have five hours in the island and although that seems like a long time, it goes in a flash. As Puffins flew overhead to and from their fising grounds, and the inevitable gulls tried to catch them, we boarded the Dale Princess for the short journey back. Between the islands, the tide was swirling and rushing and the boat bounced and twisted through the busy water. From within the crush of passengers crammed in the boat, someone explained that this was very much like deep sea diving off Durban.