Skokholm Island, situated on Pembrokeshire’s south-west tip, has to be one of the most stunning places that Wales has to offer. The island is surrounded by rich seas supporting a wealth of marine wildlife and thriving populations of seabirds. During the breeding season, thousands of Manx Shearwaters and plenty of European Storm Petrels call this beautiful island their home, often swarming in at night to feed their hungry chicks under the cover of darkness. Skokholm also plays host to a wide range of migrant birds during the autumn that often stop for a period of respite. During August, six lucky NGB members were offered the opportunity to spend the last week of the month on this idyllic island assisting the bird observatory with its daily counts and log, as well as being given the chance to take on another team of NGBs at the infamous Bardsey Island Bird Obs in a bird race over the same week. How could anyone resist such an experience? The following is an account of the week’s sightings and events…
The six eager NGBs (Craig Reed, Sophie Barrell, Kirsty Heiner, Jake Gearty, Michael Murphy and Drew Lyness), to become known as team Skok for the week, first all met together at Martin’s Haven on the mainland all geared up for what adventures day one would bring on the Island. For a few of us, this was to be our first ever visit to an island based bird observatory. After forming what was the first of many chain gangs with the rest of the island visitors to get our belongings onto the boat, we were off. We had close views of Gannets travelling up the sound from their nearby colony at Grassholm Island, and also spotted on the crossing to Skokholm was a (actually notable) flock of six Mallard, however I can safely say this was not the highlight of the trip. We arrived at the jetty to be warmly welcomed by Richard and Giselle, the wardens, along with a very friendly group of volunteers, one of whom turned out to be an NGB too, and swiftly became a valuable member of team Skok.
Following an introductory meeting and a much needed cuppa in the obs, we were given a first class tour of Skokholm by Richard and treated to some very up close and personal views of Manxie and Stormie chicks (adorable doesn’t even cover it). On top of this, day one provided a variety of wader species for the team’s ever growing list. One interesting looking wader spotted flying in off sea was later relocated on north pond and turned out to be Knot, a good island record. Little Stint, Black-tailed Godwit and Greenshank were also among the wader species gained from the day. Sea-watching also proved productive with a minimum of 63 Common Dolphin being seen offshore including a pod of over 30 with calves.
Over the proceeding few days, Arctic Skua, Arctic Tern and Common Scoter were all seen out at sea. Peregrine and Chough also became daily features for the species log, the latter of which reached numbers of up to 16 different birds! Although passage migrants, particularly passerines, still remained thin on the ground during the earlier part of the week, the team did manage to score Goldfinch, Tree Pipit and Reed Warbler. Plenty more wader movement was observed too with Dunlin and Ruff landing on the North pond. The aforementioned Knot also somehow managed to find itself a friend before swiftly departing with no assistance whatsoever from an over enthusiastic NGB. The effort put in by the team over these first few days was impressive and it seemed like very few birds passed through the island without at least one of us picking up on it.
The world’s largest Slow worms were also one of the main highlights of the trip. Being the only reptile on the island, it is known that these legless lizards lack a gut parasite which slow worms on the mainland are susceptible to. One particular individual measured in at 42cm long!
On the 27th of August during an early evening sea-watch, I was lucky enough to have some fairly close views of a passing Balearic Shearwater off the south side of the island. This would have been the sea-watching highlight of the trip if it wasn’t completely overshadowed by literally thousands of Manx Shearwaters rafting half a kilometre or so out to sea every single evening. It was a true spectacle to behold when the rafts of manxies took to the skies during a spectacular sunset to circle the island waiting for the cover of darkness to fly in and feed their chicks.
Night time on Skokholm created an entirely new atmosphere compared to during the day. It was a very surreal experience to be surrounded by seabirds whirling low in the sky around you and singing on the ground from somewhere out there in the dark. The ringers among out NGB team were lucky enough to ring a manxie or two, caught by simply picking them up from the middle of the path. It really puts into perspective how poorly adapted shearwaters are for life on land and shows exactly why these birds choose to only come in land to feed their chicks during the night. However, there were always times where we could look up in the night sky to observe lingering silhouettes of Great Black-backed Gull lit up by the moonlight, just waiting for an unfortunate shearwater to cross their path. We also assisted with weighing the chicks as part of an ongoing study on Manx Shearwater feeding behaviour.
We were very privileged to spend one night observing Storm Petrels going about their nightly business through a specialised night vision camera. It was incredible to get such an insight into the lives of these secretive birds. As if things couldn’t get any better, we were also lucky enough to hold, ring and release some adult stormies during a late night ringing session. Such delicate and beautiful birds to see close up and certainly an experience we will not be forgetting any time soon.
As the week went on, we were gifted the chance to stay on Skokholm for an extra couple of days due to the tidal swell making it difficult for the boat to dock safely on the island. This worked to team Skok’s favour as the weather conditions were changing and the winds were switching to Northerly. This allowed the team to take full advantage of the increase in migrant birds and during the last couple of days a flyover Wood Sandpiper and a juvenile female Merlin topped the highlights. However the flock of 25 Golden Plover is also worth a mention as it was the largest flock to be recorded from Skokholm this decade! Finally passerines began to make a much appreciated appearance with Whinchat, Spotted Flycatcher, Goldcrest and Dunnock all being seen. A small group of 3 Grey Wagtail feeding around the jetty just before our team got on the boat to leave the island was also a very pleasant surprise.
After a very up and down boat journey back to the mainland our highly eventful trip was complete, and what an experience it was. Overall team Skok managed to rack up a grand total of 86 species in a single week. A valiant effort from the team and it is worth noting that not a single species was seen by someone else on the island and not a member of the NGB team. Although this was not enough to defeat team Bardsey, we should certainly all be very proud on what team Skok managed to complete in the time we had. For more information on what we saw and did visit - skokholm.blogsot.co.uk (24th-31st August)
I would like to end by saying huge thank you to Richard and Giselle for having us and say that we all thoroughly enjoyed our stay on Skokholm. The trip was really made complete by the friendly and welcoming atmosphere created by the islands volunteers and staff. It wouldn’t have been the same without you. Thank you so much and we all eagerly await our next visit.
Photo credits; Craig Reed (Godwit & Knot, Jetty Sign), Jake Gearty (Sunset panorama, Choughs, Wheatear), Kirsty Hiener (Weathervane Sunset), Sophie Barrel (Stormie Chick)
-by Drew Lyness (the one in the hat)