Skomer’s birds, and how I found out I don’t want to be a wildlife photographer

The wildlife on Skomer island is amazing. I love the landscapes and the wildflowers, and (most of the time) the stripped-down lifestyle, but a large part of the magic for me is being able to walk out of the front door and see a small-eared owl hunting over the heathland, or hear a curlew calling from one of the ponds.

24021In fact, wherever I go, whether it be the coast of California or my own back garden I am drawn to the living world, from humpback whales to red admiral butterflies. So it makes sense that I should seriously consider concentrating on wildlife photography, right? As it turns out, wrong. Having bought a large lens (Canon 100-400mm II) plus a 1.4 extender, and a weatherproof storm cover I realised a basic design flaw. In me, not the lens I hasten to add.

This is hopefully the only thing I have in common with Donald Trump but I have very small hands. And my camera (a Canon 5D mk iii) plus lens plus converter, is heavy and cumbersome. After two days of using this combination more or less non-stop, my thumbs and wrists had the equivalent of shin splints. I am considering swapping to a super-telephoto compact but they all have very small sensors – apparently you can either have a full-frame sensor OR a big optical zoom but not both (unless you know differently in which case please let me know!)

 

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Puffin (Fratercula arctica) with sandeels in its beak, taking them back to its chicks in one of the burrows on the cliff top at The Wick.

In addition, I am a really impatient person. My undying admiration goes out to all those who perch motionless on a ledge for five hours, or even stay down crouching or on one knee for longer than a few minutes. Neither my body nor my mind can cope. Muscles start creaking and I get bored and wonder what I am missing out on elsewhere. 

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Grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) hauled out on the rocks at the Garland Stone.
Meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis) on bramble stems, Skomer Island, Wales.
Meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis) on bramble stems.
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Great black-backed gull (Larus marinus) among the wildflowers: red campion (Silene dioica) and bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta (syn. Scilla non-scripta). 

I also like context. I like including the landscape, the habitat, a sense of place in my wildlife images but it seems like that doesn’t work well for ‘proper’ wildlife photography which is all about the creature close-up, particularly for small repro in social media or even this blog.

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Large colony of guillemots (Uria aalge) with a few kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), nesting on the cliff ledges at High Cliff.
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Puffin (Fratercula arctica) sticking its tongue out next to burrows on the cliff top at The Wick.
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Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) perched on the remains of a drystone wall guarding a nest nearby. Red campion (Silene dioica) in the foreground. 
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Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) with grubs in its beak, perched on a rope and post at The Wick.
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Razorbills (Alca torda) in the sea and on the cliff at North Harbour. A puffin (Fratercula arctica) oversees from higher up the cliff.
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I’m coming to get you: Puffin (Fratercula arctica) walking next to burrows on the cliff top.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, I like discovering new places and exploring different cultures. So the defining moment for me came when we boarded the boat back to the mainland. We met a guy disembarking, loaded down with heavily camouflaged gear. ‘That looks like serious intent,’ I said.

‘I’m looking for the Skomer vole,’ he said. The Skomer vole is notoriously difficult to find apparently, living in the heathland undergrowth which covers the island and only emerging for brief scurrying.

His wife chipped in resignedly: ‘I really, really hope he finds it this year. This is his seventeenth attempt. Then maybe we can go on holiday somewhere else.’

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Skomer Island: so much more than a rock in the Irish Sea

Sunset through the sea thrift, Skomer Head

puffin flying above the sea

I hardly ever revisit places. I love discovering new landscapes, meeting new people, seeing everything with fresh eyes. So the fact that I decided to return to Skomer, a tiny island just of the south-west coast of Wales, must mean that I think it’s pretty special.

We first visited last autumn, on a two day guided trip to get up close and personal with the large Manx shearwater colony, and I was so blown away by the place that I vowed to go back in the late spring to photograph the island’s most famous inhabitants, puffins. What I didn’t realise was that the bleak windswept heathland would be awash with wildflowers, the sun would be shining (we were lucky), and the whole place would be an oasis of calm.

sunrise over Skomer and its wildflowers

The island is a National Nature Reserve managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. It is an important site for seabird breeding, home to colonies of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars, as well as the Manx shearwaters and puffins. As such it is protected from development and just a few hardy souls live here full-time: the warden and his partner and a couple of staff, supplemented by researchers at various times of year, and volunteers who clean the hostel and undertake monitoring tasks in exchange for the chance to be in this unique place.

Stepping onto the little jetty is like stepping out of the modern world in the best possible sense. No roads, no motor vehicles apart from one tractor to take luggage up to the Old Farm, no TV or internet –  so no bad news -no distractions apart from the business of living in the moment, right here, right now.

little girl walking the grassy pathways of Skomer

At the end of May grassy pathways wind through carpets of wildflowers: red campion, bluebells,  thrift, even the occasional foxglove. All inland paths lead to the Old Farm in the centre of the island and this is where you stay if you’re an overnight visitor. Most people stay for two nights but I wanted to have the best chance of at least one dry photographing day so we opted for three.

The Old Farm at bluebell time, Skomer

The Old Farm, Skomer

 

 

 

 

 

There are very basic facilities here. You need to bring all your food and drink with you, although there was a box of Tunnocks tea-cakes in the communal lounge for the severely sugar-deprived. Bedrooms are basic and can be damp and chilly. You are advised to bring a duvet cover for the supplied duvet or a sleeping bag; I brought both and layered the sleeping bag over the duvet. I am a cold soul. The whole island is off-grid and power is solar; water in the shared bathrooms gets hotter as the day goes on, more so if the sun is shining. Power sockets are few and far between, just three in the whole building, so if you feel bereft without your devices bring a backup battery. I hold my hands up to needing my phone at all times, if only to feel like I can talk to the rest of the family if I need to (which my daughters will confirm that I very often do.)

This ‘hardship’ – my daughter calls it first-world-problems – was easily outweighed by the sense of peace which descended on me as I walked up the path on the first morning. It was like the weight of my day-to-day problems – and those of our world – just rolled off my shoulders, leaving me free to breathe for the first time in months. Admittedly my shoulders were pretty sore again at the end of each day but that was due to carrying half a hundredweight of camera and lenses on my back. 

Sunset through the sea thrift, Skomer Head

The silence, filled only by the wind, waves, and sound of bird-calls is healing. The beauty of nature, whether it be mad puffins doing a courtship dance ten feet away, the sweeping view of hills across the bay from Trig Point, the highest point on the island, or a rich sunset off Skomer Head, all these make Skomer a really special place.

puffins in a courtship exchange
puffin with sandeels, SkomerThe stars of the show are, of course, the puffins. When we were there, they were just getting into the breeding season, taking possession of the burrows they use for nesting, and a few even had chicks, or pufflings as they are so cutely known. These were hidden away but evidenced by a few adults starting to carry back sand eels in their rainbow beaks. There are spots on the island where you can get really close and other parts where you can watch their antics from further away – they waddle like diminutive penguins on the ground but fly like little torpedoes, albeit with very flappy wings. They are fast!

puffin landing, skomer island

But it’s not just puffins that are the wildlife draw – there are short-eared owls hunting, oystercatchers and curlews crying, and black-backed gulls marauding like pirates, on the lookout for hapless chicks or shearwaters. All this amongst rolling heathland, little sheltered valleys, and never-ending views out over the crashing Irish sea. I may just go back again.Bluebells on the cliffs near the Garland Stone, Skomer

Next up – Skomer’s birds and how I found out I don’t want to be a wildlife photographer