If Skomer island was a person then it would be one of those ex-military upper-class retired ‘Sir Reginald what-not’ persons with all those letters after their name, because Skomer is an NNR, SSSI, SPA, MNR (marine nature reserve) & AM (scheduled ancient monument) – impressive! Located just off of the south-western tip of Wales this medium-sized isle is wild, rugged and completely treeless; yet in the Iron-Age around 200 people actually lived there and the crumbling remains of their houses, walls and stone circles can still be seen today – it must have been a tough life. Skomer is a much better home for wildlife these days with 300,000 Manx Shearwaters (half the world population) and the largest colony of Puffins in southern Britain. Grey Seals, Porpoises, Dolphins and endless other smaller marine organisms thrive in the protected waters surrounding the island – on land however resides the rather special Skomer Vole (Myodes glareolus skomerensis) which is a subspecies of the Bank Vole familiar to most people on the mainland.
John and I went for the birds though; as I mentioned both Shearwaters and Puffins breed here in great numbers but alongside them are many Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Shags, Ravens, Peregrines, Storm-petrels and more at the height of the breeding season. Unfortunately late August is not at the height of anything so almost all of the breeding seabirds had left for the open ocean, leaving a few residents and late breeders only. Still, John and I like to make the best of things and Skomer is a great place to visit with or without tons of birds – the desolate, rocky, bracken-swathed scenery and jagged cliffs make for a bracing walk.
We set off on the small boat that ferries people to and from the island at noon, the sky was the colour of sink water after you’ve washed up the plates from Sunday lunch and rain seemed inevitable. The sea was calm and the boat chugged along steadily, a few majestic Gannets doing passable impressions of albatrosses swooped past on wings as long as I am tall – one folded up like a paper aeroplane and sliced into the slate-blue water after a fish. At the same moment two Harbour Porpoises curved their smooth dark backs above the surface, much to everyone on the boats delight. A brownish juvenile Shag slid into the waves and re-emerged coyly showing off a small fish it had caught, which it then proceeded to gulp down before vanishing once more into the sea.
We disembarked, had a short talk from one of the wardens about the wildlife we could see on the island then strode off along the southward path, well aware that time was short as the return boat was at three. After walking past some lichen-encrusted rock crags we came upon the southern shore where several Fulmars were wheeling around the sheer cliffs, upon which sat some well-developed chicks awaiting their usual meal of regurgitated fish. A few Gannets were flying low over the waves but they began to disappear into a dense wall of fog that was rapidly approaching the island. As we strode onward around the coast this mass of vapor hit the steep cliffs and rolled over them, now torn into ragged tufts the fog swept horizontally over the short cropped turf – this very fine drizzle was now getting us a little damp.
Skomer may be known for its vast number of auks and Shearwaters but right now 90% of the birds John and I were seeing were gulls. Herring gulls were present but were dwarfed in number by the Lesser and Greater Black-backed gulls, the latter of which had a brutish, huge and rather impressive presence on the isle as they were clearly the main predator here. To testify to the gulls unsavory impact on Skomer were hundreds of remnants of Manx Shearwaters lying scattered on the paths and in the bracken – only the wings and chest bones were dropped uneaten, making it clear that the gulls ate very well here.
A small thrush-like bird with a bold white rump and black edge to its tail burst up from the ground in front of us and hid itself amongst some rocks. We stealthily approached it and managed to spot it perched upon a boulder; it was a very buff-coloured autumn plumaged male Wheatear, possibly one that had bred on the island or possible one having a pit-stop on its migration south. We soon came upon the ‘Wick’ as the southernmost stretch of cliffs are known; they rose from the water as a great black wall splattered prodigiously with a season’s worth of guano. This was clearly where a large number of the seabirds had bred, but the cliffs we now looked upon were empty bar a single Kittiwake and a few Fulmars. It was hard to imagine the cacophony of noise, strong stench and thousands of swarming birds which were here only a few weeks ago. We stopped to have a lunch of sandwiches and chocolate wafers in a sort of dip in the land, to the left rose a barrier of rock that gave shelter from the prevailing winds and rain – this feature had clearly been noticed by the Iron Age peoples who lived here as the ancient stone foundations of a hut were to be seen in the lee of the rocks.
We had not walked far from our luncheon stop when four small black birds tumbled into view above the cliffs; two of them broke away and settled like dark rags onto the turf – they were Choughs. These unusual crows are specialties of Britain’s west coast, loose colonies can be seen from Cornwall north to Scotland and are widespread in Ireland. They are certainly one of the more charismatic and interesting members of the Corvidae family; being small and neat in appearance with ‘fingered’ wings and sporting a curved blood-red bill and legs. Another member of the family was very much in evidence on the island; at one point along our perambulation of the isle’s coast no less than nineteen huge, angular, glossy black Ravens were gliding and ‘cronking’ to each other in the strong wind blowing in off the sea.
The rest of our walk became a bit of a soggy trudge, with eyes on the ground and hood up to keep the cold rain out of our eyes we did not really see much. We did stop in one of the hides overlooking a small fresh-water pool but apart from a brave moorhen poking around amongst the hundreds of accompanying gulls there was not much to see. As we stood waiting for the boat to take us back John spotted a couple of very large, rotund Grey Seals lounging upon some uncomfortable-looking rocks at the edge of the bay – at least they didn’t seem bothered by the rain.