It's (Not) All About The Puffins
Getting onto Skomer is a bit of a lottery. The ferry tickets are only available online and you have to book them weeks in advance in peak season. This is actually an improvement on the previous 'turn up and try your luck' system, particularly as there's literally nothing else to do at Martin's Haven where the boats leave from. Then there's the Welsh weather. Not only do you have to have a bit of luck with the sun, if the wind is blowing from the wrong direction the boats don't even go. This happened the day after we went, which would have been a huge disappointment!
In the end we came away from the island with some of the best wildlife photos I think I've ever taken, thanks to great conditions, great equipment and easy and photogenic subjects.
But we'd got all of our ducks - or should that be puffins - in a row on the July Tuesday morning when we drove up from Tenby an hour away. They say be there an hour before departure and so being Pages we were there 90 minutes early. Sharon had booked the tickets 6 weeks in advance and gone for the earliest boat.
Unless you spend the night on the island you get a non-negotiable 5 h slot. Not entirely sure what happens if you miss your allotted boat and have to take a later one, but we didn't want to abuse the system.
Heading over on mill-pond-like seas we were wondering how easy it would be to find the birds, which parts of the island would be best to visit, how close would we be able to get for photos. All completely unnecessary as it turned out. Pulling into North Haven we already spotted individual birds dotted on the water. As we pulled into the quay there was virtually a raft of them covering the sea.
The Girl Child's (20) first comment was how small they were. Apparently she'd been expecting something penguin-sized, whereas in reality they're smaller than chickens. Disembarking you have to climb some steps to a first assembly point where the Rangers explain the rules of the island, impressing upon you the need to stick to the paths and be prompt for the return boat. The path up to the assembly point runs right through the first puffin colony, rendering the questions that we'd been saving up for the occasion redundant.
The Ranger started her spiel by urging people to put their smartphones and cameras down to listen to the announcements, much as you'd expect in an airplane. But it was so hard. We were surrounded by literally hundreds of the cutest birds that I'd ever seen, and they didn't seem at all phased by our presence.
We decided in the end to do the complete island circumnavigation, starting from The Farm and working our way anti-clockwise around the coast, finishing at The Wick. As we made our way north from the centre of the island we disturbed a first curlew and then a fledgling gull, who must have run away from us along the bracken-bordered path for the best part of a kilometer. Why the stupid animal didn't dart off into the undergrowth I'll never know.
We had some rain walking between the Garland Stone and Pigstone Bay, but never enough to warrant our rain coats. What was troubling, though, was the number of dead birds we spotted on the way, almost all of them Manx Shearwaters. At first we suspected the island peregrines as they're known to predate birds. As the number of corpses increased we feared that the bird flu infecting the northern parts of the British Isles, but talking to a Ranger later revealed that the culprits were most likely the lesser black-backed gulls. The shearwaters are incredibly ungainly on land, making them easy prey. With a breeding population of over 150,000, however, the number of corpses is a drop in the Irish Sea!
Stopping for a few minutes at Bull Hole to look out to sea I was thrilled to see a gannet skimming over the waves. Gannets are one of those ugly-yet-photogenic birds, not unlike lionfish, another favourite photographic target. The first time I'd seen them was on a university trip to the island of Arran off the Scottish coast, diving into the water from the cliffs. Must go back again some time.
As we turned the corner round Skomer Head into The Wick we came across our second large colony of puffins with burrows left and right. We had been concerned about how close we would be able to approach the birds for taking photos. Even with the massive 100-400 mm lens you need to get relatively close (<10 m) in order to get a decent close-up. I needn't have worried. This bird had a burrow right next to the path and was happy with us getting within a couple of metres.
As we reached the top of The Wick where the parents were landing with freshly caught sand-eels one landed close to the path and patiently waited for the small crowd to part to allow it to waddle over to its nest. It didn't seem phased at all by all the attention it was getting.
The next parent wasn't so lucky, landing within range of a fledgling lesser black-backed gull who rushed up to snatch the fish directly out of the beak.
To say that puffins are elegant birds in the air would be a massive understatement. To take off they basically jump up and throw themselves off the cliffs, gliding down to the water where they basically cannonball. Coming back to land they backpedal furiously in the air before plonking down on the deck.
In all we spent about 5 h on the island. When shooting wildlife I tend to shoot in short bursts in order to maximise my chances of getting some shots absolutely in sharp focus; even with the best equipment this can be a little hit and miss. With birds in flight I shoot even more using the Olympus ProCapture mode. This resulted in me taking over 3,000 images that day. Editing notwithstanding, just sorting through this many photos took longer than we spent on the island and ate up 89 GB of card space (I mentioned in the last post that I was reaching the limits of my cards). On the one hand this is complete overkill, but when I look back at the results I think it was worth it.
Tracking birds in flight is definitely a skill I need to work on. Sure I got some decent shots, but even with the OM-1 target tracking I was getting a lot more misses than hits, both in terms of focus and framing. This wasn't helped by the small size of the birds and their jerky flight patterns. It was a matter of standing in a position and anticipating the flight paths of incoming birds.
Leaving the island I wanted to get to the shoreline to take some photos of the birds on the water, but we weren't allowed past the assembly point so I had to spend the time shooting the birds coming in to land.
Back on board we hightailed it back to the mainland passing this marine mammal seeing us off. Skomer definitely gets our seal of approval (see what I did there?). We plan to be back.
Coming in to Martin's Haven we were bombarded by three herring gulls which had obviously been fed on previous occasions, even landing on people's heads on the boat. Having them glide over us was a gimme, shooting the stationary birds from right below.
A few technical details; all photos shot with the OMDS OM-1 with the Olympus M. Zuiko f/5.0-6.3 100-400 mm lens using the OM-1 bird subject recognition. Sitting shots were taken in silent sequential, birds in flight in ProCapture mode.