It was quite a start to our bird watching trip to the island of Skomer, off the western seaboard of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.
As we waited to board the tiny Island Princess at the remote rocky cove of Martin’s Haven, a dashing peregrine falcon detached itself from the cliffs of Haven Point opposite and swooped above us in furious pursuit of a collared dove.
“Wow! That’ll take some beating when we get to the island,” said one highly professional-looking and camouflaged birder, weighed down with a telescope, camera and tripod draped around his neck. “Perhaps we should stay here!”
Thankfully we didn’t, because despite a grey, sunless day shrouded by sea-frets, Skomer didn’t disappoint. As we stepped off the boat at North Haven, the island’s main port, after the 15-minute boat trip from the mainland, clouds of clown-faced puffins were zipping in and out of their burrows around the harbour, or floating in dense “rafts” out at sea. Later, as we waited to board the boat for the return journey, we were showered by dirt from a bird excavating on the slopes above us.
Although puffins may be the stars of the show here, the wildlife comes in all shapes and sizes. As we set off up the steps for the four-mile stroll around the island, a grey seal popped up on the rocky shore of The Neck opposite. While flora and fauna of the island enjoys special protection as a National Nature Reserve, the often-stormy waters around the island also enjoy special treatment as one of only two Marine Nature Reserves in Britain (the other can be found around Lundy island in the Bristol Channel).
During May, the interior of Skomer is literally swathed in dense carpets of bluebells, ragged robin and red and white sea campions, with cushions of pink thrift decorating the cliff-tops. It was like walking through a child’s paint-by-numbers landscape.
As we headed west on the Welsh Way, through the South Stream Valley, with its chattering, but unseen, sedge warblers, we passed the escarpment known as High Cliff. There were wonderful views of the dramatic sea stack known as the Mew Stone, home to nesting cormorants, from the South Plateau promontory, a short, 10-minute diversion from the round-island path.
The Wick Valley, which demarcates the promontory, is the site of an Iron Age village, dating from a time when the island supported a population of as many as 200 people, mainly occupied in farming. Today, the foundations of the circular huts are scarcely visible, requiring what archaeologists call “the eye of faith” to see them.
Reaching The Wick Ridge, we had our first view of the mighty, 300-foot cliffs of The Wick inlet. The vertical cliff opposite looked for all the world like a high-rise apartment block for the guillemots and razorbills that nested on its tiny, horizontal ledges. Volunteers from the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales had a conveniently-placed tripod-based telescope trained on the cliff, and one pointed out the difference in the nesting habits of the two elegant seabirds.
The razorbills, with their parrot-like beak and white-barred wings, were, he explained, the “Johnny-no-mates” of the seabird world, nesting in isolated cervices well apart from one another. The guillemots, on the other hand, with their monicled eye stripe and chocolate-brown backs, preferred to nest cheek-by-jowl with one another in raucous colonies. They filled the air with their throaty, rolling “rrrrs”, sounding like a West Country yokel growling in appreciation of another glass of cider.
But it was the puffins everyone had come to see, and they became even more numerous and almost under our feet as we sat on the north side of The Wick. I’ve heard of a pelican crossing, but the path skirting the cliffs became a virtual puffin crossing as the plump little “sea parrots” landed and scuttled across to reach their burrows, some carrying neatly-stacked sand-eels in their gaudy, black, red and yellow striped bills.
And they posed –that’s the only word for it – like cat-walk models for the many camera lenses that were being trained on them. Stretching their wings, scratching behind their ears and generally preening themselves, they seemed to be enjoying the attention every bit as much as Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell.
Over 10,000 puffins nest in the grassy banks on top of Skomer’s cliffs during April, May, June and July, when they mysteriously disappear out to sea. Until recently, no one knew exactly where puffins spent the autumn and winter, but I was told that a recent experiment had fitted some with satellite tracking devices, aimed at solving that longstanding avian mystery.
The path up to Skomer Head and around the north of the island was littered with the sad remains and scythe-like black wings of Manx shearwaters, the bird which is Skomer’s main claim to fame in the world of wildlife (along with the unique Skomer vole). Skomer supports the largest colony of Manx shearwaters in the world, currently estimated at 120,000 pairs, which nest in underground burrows throughout the island.
Despite their numbers here, the shearwaters endure a precarious existence on the island, preyed on by the mercurial great black-backed gulls. These evil-looking, turkey-sized predators are impressively unfussy eaters and one even tried to share our picnic lunch near the inlet known as Bull Hole on the north side of the island. We had been warned by a Wildlife Trust naturalist when we landed not to step off the paths for fear of crashing through onto the shallow underground nests of the shearwaters.
Like puffins, Manx shearwaters often utilise old rabbit burrows for their nests. Locals call them “cuckee” or “cuckles” because of the strange, otherworldly cries they make as they return en masse at dusk to their burrows. Their weird, mournful calls are said to echo the dying cries of drowning sailors.
Further round on the north coast, we had a grandstand view of a colony of about 20 grey seals basking and occasionally picking fights on the rocky skerries at the eastern end of the massive pyramidal sea stack called the Garland Stone. Just off-shore, gannets plunged headfirst into the sea in search of fish, and in the misty western distance, we could just make out their guano-topped home, the island of Grassholm, where an astonishing 30,000 breeding pairs nest each year.
How the seals ever manage to get ashore in the roaring currents swirling around the skerries remains a mystery. But it was fascinating to watch as a great bull tried to pull up on a rocky outcrop and was constantly rebuffed by a non-responsive female. Perhaps the rushing currents had given her a headache…
Our path now turned inland through knee-deep fields of bluebells and bracken and past piping, clown-like oystercatchers and parachuting meadow pipits fluttering down over a group of small cairns that mark a prehistoric burial ground. We headed towards the 19th century Old Farm, which occupies a site in the very centre of the island. The farm has been the subject of a major rebuilding project by the Wildlife Trust, and now offers toilet facilities and self-catering accommodation for overnight guests in a previously derelict barn.
It was then a short step back to our waiting boat in North Haven, past the enigmatic and possibly prehistoric standing stone known as the Harold Stone, as well as the 19th century lime kilns used by the last Skomer farmers for fertilizer and building mortar.
As the island disappeared from view and we headed back to the mainland, I reflected that there were few places left in Britain where a description coined a thousand years ago could still be applied today. The description of Pembrokeshire as gwlad hud a lledrith – ‘land of mystery and enchantment’ – made by the anonymous author of The Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh folk tales, has never been bettered. And it certainly still applies to Skomer, one of the most important wildlife sites in north-west Europe.
Boat trips to Skomer are organised by Dale Sailing. Tel: 01646 603 109. www.dale-sailing.co.uk. They also run boat trips to Grassholm, Skokholm (currently for staying visitors only), and a Seabird Spectacular cruise into St Bride’s Bay. Thousand Islands Expeditions have sole landing rights to Ramsay from St Justinians. Tel: 01437 721 721. www.thousandislands.co.uk