photo of a puffin in flight

Skomer Seabird Spectacular cruise

Landing on Skomer for the day (or longer) is only half the story. Yes, you get close to puffins, and you can spend all day watching them. But there is so much more to see and learn.

Several times a week, from May to July, an evening boat trip takes you to see the island, and its birds. More importantly, it takes you to see the Manx Shearwater, the most numerous bird breeding on Skomer and the one you don’t see when visiting Skomer during the day.

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The Dale Princess leaves Martin’s Haven at 7pm, with up to 30 passengers, a guide, and two crew.   A crew member gives a safety briefing as we leave the jetty – ending with ‘your emergency exits are  . . . . . ‘ as he points in all directions except down.  We pass Marloes Deer Park – a promontory walled off in the 18th century in anticipation of keeping deer there, but the deer never arrived.  The National Trust look after it now, managing the grazing to provide short turf for chough to probe into for leather-jackets and other mini-beasts.

photo of an island
Jack Sound and Skomer Island from Marloes Deer Park.

Beyond the Deer Park, the water opens out.  To the south is Jack Sound, a fast-flowing channel of water with rocks sticking out at low tide.  Many a boat has foundered here in the past.  A ridge of rock underwater causes quite a lot of rough water when the tide is running. 

Photo of a shag and a cormorant
Shag and cormorant in breeding plumage (the size difference is exaggerated in this photo)

Cormorants sit on the rocks, and ‘holding their wings out to dry’ – not so much their wings as their body feathers which aren’t very waterproof, and need to dry between fishing trips just to keep the birds warm.  If having non-waterproof feathers seems odd for a waterbird, it actually means they don’t keep so much air in their feathers when they dive, they aren’t so buoyant, so making it easier stay underwater to chase fish. The disadvantage is that they get waterlogged and cold after about 15 minutes.  Someone asks about the difference between cormorants and shags – shags are smaller, sleeker, blacker, narrower bill, and no pale patch on the throat (though young birds are paler on the underside, and a bit more difficult to separate without a good view).

Razorbills and a guillemot

Now we are seeing auks as well.  Puffins, razorbills and guillemots sit on the water or fly past, often coming in low and close.  The differences are obvious in close-up – puffins with their multi-coloured bill and orange feet, razorbills are black and white with a large beak the shape of an old-fashioned cut-throat razor, while guillemots are brown and white with pointed bills.  Questions come non-stop from the passengers, and they learn that seabirds are long-lived – thirty or forty years or more, don’t breed until they are several years old, mate for life, and only have one egg per year.  But they might get divorced!  If they have a couple of failed breeding seasons, perhaps it’s better to try with a new partner next time.  Puffins breed in burrows, razorbills nest on small ledges and in rock crevices, while guillemots believe in safety in numbers, choosing ledges where they can mass in their hundreds. 

Kittiwakes on the water below a small cliff where they nest

We chug along the ‘Neck’, the bit of Skomer Island with no human interference, look through the Lantern – a cave that runs underneath the island and out the other side, then the boat slows so we can hear the kittiwakes calling – kitti-wa-ake – at a small colony low on the cliffs.  These small and pretty gulls are hanging on here, despite having virtually disappeared from the Pembrokeshire mainland, and from other colonies further north.

Sometimes this journey throws up a real gem, and back in 1996  the skipper saw a couple of fins in the water just about here.  We went to investigate, and realised it was a fifteen-foot basking shark – just a young one really – and we were looking at the back fin and tail fin, and the shadow of its body under the water.  The boat got quite close before the shark dived.  It came up again a few yards away, but soon went under again and disappeared.    Basking sharks often come up through the Irish Sea, but mostly they are on the Irish side.  Probably less than one a year is seen on the Welsh side, and this is the only one I saw in twenty years of guiding these trips.

Guillemots on the cliffs in North Haven

The Princess moves into North Haven and the skipper cuts the engine.  The silence is wonderful!  The steep grassy slopes are seabird cities.  Rock ledges crammed with guillemots. Thousands of burrows, each with a puffin standing outside.  Yet there are still enough puffins to form a flying wheel – they fly circuits, apparently each bird more or less level with its burrow, and all the time birds are joining the wheel while others drop out and head for their burrows.  Then you begin to realise it isn’t really silent.  Apart from the whirr of countless wings (beating up to ten times per second), there are growls of puffins, gargles from guillemots and razorbills, the raucous cries of gulls, and even the songs of wrens nesting in scrub on the cliffs. 

photo of a puffin carrying fish
Puffin carrying sand-eels back to the nest

The relative quiet makes it easier to talk about the history of this island, 2-5000 years of human occupation, and farming that continued until the early 20th century.  It has been a nature reserve since 1960, owned by the Natural Resources Wales (successor to the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Council for Wales), is managed by a committee that includes various local organisations, and is administered by the Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales.

Grey seals jostle for position on a rock exposed at low tide

The boat engines start up again, and the journey continues along the north coast of the island, stopping at the Garland Stone so we can appreciate the grey seals – come August, they will start dropping their pups on the beaches here and about 250 will be born by the end of the year.  

Porpoises are relatively small and unobtrusive

If the seabirds haven’t been spectacular enough so far, the real adventure is about to begin.  The skipper steers away from Skomer, and out into the open sea of St Bride’s Bay.  We aren’t going far out – keeping well within sight of land.  But now is time to keep our eyes peeled.  There is a good chance of porpoises – small dolphins that don’t really show much of themselves except a fin as they surface to breathe.  And just maybe there will be a pod of common dolphins – more rarely something really special such as a bottlenose dolphin or even a Risso’s dolphin.  But what we are really here to see are the Manx shearwaters.

Manx shearwaters tend to fly low over the water surface

Manx shearwaters are medium-sized relatives of albatrosses, and the Pembrokeshire Islands (Skomer, Skokholm and Ramsey) are home to about 400,000 pairs, or about half of the known world population.  They are the most numerous bird species breeding on Skomer, but the chances of seeing one alive during the day are slim.  They are very clumsy on land, and in order to evade predators (large gulls mostly) they nest in burrows and come to land only at night when the gulls are asleep.  On most nights, a few birds get caught out at dusk or dawn, or by moonlight, and the island is littered with corpses, testimony to the success of the gulls.  The numbers killed are, however, a minute proportion of the total population.  So the best way to see them is on a boat trip like this in the evening when the birds come back from the feeding grounds and form vast ‘rafts’ floating on the water, waiting for it to get dark.  The Manx part of their name is because the first ones to be described scientifically were taken from the Calf of Man – a small seabird island on the southern tip of the Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea.  Few live there now, because that island became overrun with rats, which predate ground- and burrow-nesting birds.

Anyway, we start to see small parties of shearwaters on the water and the skipper steers towards them.  They are flighty at first, especially if the numbers are small.  On some trips we see only a few dozen, but on a good night, usually in June and July, there can be thousands, even tens of thousands.  One parent will be out on an extended fishing trip – perhaps for three or four days – before returning to the nest with food for the chick.  The other parent will be with the egg or the chick (at least for a few days after it hatches) and then will go on short fishing trips.  So on any night, up to a fifth of the population could be waiting to come ashore.

Manx shearwaters coming gathering just offshore, waiting for it to get dark

Although they are black and white, like many other seabirds, they are quite distinctive with their long straight wings, gliding over the water surface, taking lift from the slightest breeze and from air currents over the waves.  A flock seems to move as one all showing their black uppersides, then turning to show their white undersides, then back again.  They fly so low that their wing tips seem to touch (shear) the water surface. They flap only when they have to, and this energetically economical form of flying means they can cover vast distances quite rapidly with very little effort.

As the numbers build up, the birds fly close to the boat, even those on the sea may allow the boat to drift in closer.  Care is taken to avoid extra disturbance – this is an internationally important population of this species.  Having heard about the habits of these birds, the passengers start firing more questions -how long do they live (the oldest known individual was at least 55 when last seen), how far do they travel (down to the coast of Argentina), where else do they live (the Calf of Man, Rhum in the Scottish Hebrides, on some of the islands around the coast of Ireland, Iceland, and a few are even in the mountains on Madeira – see here for a full map. )  What do they eat (small fish, squid, other small sea creatures that they catch underwater having dived from the surface.)

How do they find their burrows in the dark?  Come to that, how do they find their island homes when out in the middle of the ocean?  Like any migrating birds, they seem to have a built-in compass, but also an acute sense of smell that picks up the scents on the air currents helping them home in on the colony.

During the day, the birds are pretty silent – we rarely hear anything from the boat – but as it gets dark, and they fly to their burrows, it gets very noisy.  They have a very raucous call (listen here), with a rhythm a bit like ‘a cup of caawwfeee’, which is individual to each bird.  We can tell the difference between male and female calls, but they can tell the difference between individuals.  So as they get closer to their burrows they are listening out for answering calls from their mates or chicks.  The noise is so incredible that the Vikings refused to land on some islands because they thought they must be haunted.

Are they affected by oil spills?  Now there is a question!  The last big oil spill here was the Sea Empress in 1996.  Fortunately for our seabirds, this spill happened in February, before the birds returned to islands to breed.  Otherwise, they would have been sitting ducks – floating on the surfaces amid the oil, diving down and coming up through it, feeding on fish that may have been affected – the oil would have destroyed the air-trapping features of the feathers, so the birds would have got cold and waterlogged and died – as nearly 5000 others did, birds (mainly common scoter) that were wintering in the area.

There are more general questions about the area, the island, and the seabirds.  Then one young lad put his hand up. When are we going back? There was a shocked silence at his temerity.  Fortunately, he could be reassured that we were already heading back to Martin’s Haven – the evening was getting decidedly chilly.  I welcome the short but steep walk back to the car park – a chance to get the body moving and warmed up after two hours of sitting still on the boat.

The Seabird Spectacular cruises can be booked on-line through Dale Sailing, and run several times a week (depending on suitable weather) from May to July. By the end of July, most of the puffins, razorbills and guillemots have gone out to sea for the winter.

In August and September, Dale Sailing run a different Pembrokeshire Islands Safari on a fast boat (protective clothing provided) that includes Grassholm Island where there are nearly 40,000 gannets nesting.

If you are staying in the St Davids area of Pembrokeshire, Thousand Islands also run similar seabird trips, though I have no experience of them.

The Dale Princess

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A must-have book if you are looking at sea-birds in general
Fascinating book, but a lot of research has been done since it was published
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I think I need to add this to my collection
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There is just SO MUCH information here, gathered by a former warden of the island.
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Life as a seasonal volunteer on the island.

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More ideas for nature-watching in Wales

Environmental volunteering

Environmental volunteering is a great way of getting to know more about a place or a species. It can be done quietly on a local level, or by joining a working group or a vacation.

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Botanising on the Great Orme

The Great Orme isn’t quite an island, the town of Llandudno occupies the low-lying land between this spectacular limestone headland and the main part of north Wales.

The word Orme is thought to derive from a Norse word meaning a sea serpent, and this lump of rock apparently resembles the head of the creature. Perhaps that depends on which direction you approach it from. The photo below was taken from a boat to the west. 

The geology of the Great Orme is distinctive and affects the habitats found on the headland. These habitats support an abundant, varied and unique flora and fauna, and so most of the Great Orme has been designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). It is also managed as a Country Park and Local Nature Reserve by Conwy County Borough Council’s Countryside and Rights of Way Service to ensure that all of these natural elements can co-exist successfully with the thousands of people who visit the area each year. 

There is a nature trail, and a visitor centre on the top, with a cable car and a tram to take you there from the town. The Marine Drive (top photo) is a drivable narrow road (one-way system) all the way around the edge. For the history buff, there is evidence of neolithic burial chambers, a bronze-age mine, Roman and Medieval enclosures, as well as a Victorian-style resort and a modern interpretive centre. 

Personally, I just went for the flowers! 

The botanical delights of the Great Orme

For most of the summer the dominant colour in the grasslands is yellow. This is due mainly to the flowers of the common rock-rose Helianthemum nummularium. There is another helianthemum – hoary rockrose H. oelandicum on the limestone pavements, though this is much less conspicuous.

There are several very rare (in British terms at least) plants on the Great Orme, described here, but either I’ve not been there at the right time, or I haven’t looked in the right place! Probably the former, as there is a small botanical garden containing some of the rarer plants so they are easier to see.

Common rock-rose is the foodplant of the silver-studded blue butterflies on the Great Orme. See below.

The limestone grassland on the Orme is made up of various grass and sedge species, and a wide variety of wildflowers. It is of great botanical importance, and is one of the reasons for the Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designations on the Great Orme. Grasslands are maintained by grazing and browsing sheep, rabbits and goats. 

Limestone Cliffs The Great Orme’s cliffs are home to some very rare wildflower species. Smaller rocky outcrops and scree patches associated with the cliff habitat support small flowering plants and mosses. 

Bloody Cranesbill Geraniuim sanguineum provides splashes of colour along the Marine Drive – from the flowers in summer, and the leaves which turn bright red in autumn. Wild cabbage Brassica oleracea is a speciality of limestone and chalk sea-cliffs.

Although not strictly a plant of the limestone cliffs, small pockets of common butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris can be found where water keeps the soil wet in shallow hollows in the cliffs. This was along the Marine Drive on the shady north tip of the Great Orme. This carnivorous plant has slimy leaves to catch the insects on which they feed.

Limestone heath forms swathes of purple (heathers) and gold (gorse) in late summer. It usually occurs where there is a layer of clay over the lime. Like the grassland, it is an internationally important habitat because there are few places with the specific conditions it needs to survive. It requires cutting to boost regeneration, and to maintain the structural diversity of the shrubs.

Bell HeatherErica cinerea

Western GorseUlex gallii
Where horizontal limestone strata are exposed to the elements, it develops into limestone pavements. This is made up of grykes, the cracks within the rocks, and clints, which are the rocks surrounding these cracks. Leaf-litter and other debris accumulate in the grykes and other crevices, eventually breaking down to form soil. The buildings on the horizon include the visitor centre.

Seeds germinate, but as the soil is relatively shallow, there isn’t much nutrition for growth. Trees such as this yew Taxus baccata (right) do their best, but between the lack of nutrients, and the lack of shelter, they rarely manage to poke their heads above the level of the rock. Grykes are home to ferns and woodland flowers, whilst the clints are important for mosses and lichens (the orange and grey bits of rock surface in the photo). 

Spring sandwort Minuartia verna is a dainty, often downy, mat-forming perennial that likes dry rocky and sparsely grassy places. Wild Thyme Thymus polytrichus also likes dry grassy places, though not confined to limestone. It will find a foot-hold in a small crevice with a little soil in it. Some areas of pavement have been fenced to exclude grazing animals to see what will grow.

Butterflies

Silver-studded blue butterfly - female
Silver-studded blue butterfly – female. The silver studs are not always as obvious as in this photo

Common rock-rose is the foodplant of the silver-studded blue butterflies on the Great Orme. The subspecies here also differs from other Silver-studded blues by being smaller, and the females more colourful.

Like many other blue butterflies, the caterpillars depend on ants (in this case black ants) for protection while they grow.

The Kashmir Goats of the Great Orme

The feral Kashmir goats with their white, shaggy coats and impressive horns are the most spectacular mammals on the Great Orme. They are descended from a pair of goats from the Windsor Royal Herd, acquired by Major General Sir Savage Mostyn around 1880. The herd flourished and was released on the Great Orme 20 years later. The goats have been roaming wild ever since. 

The goats are useful for conservation grazing as they feed mainly on scrub such as gorse, brambles and hawthorn. Keeping these shrubs in check enables the less competitive wildflowers to flourish, and because of their climbing ability, goats can also graze in areas that sheep can not reach. However, by 2002 the number of goats had increased dramatically with the herd consisting of over 200 individuals. Many of the nannies (female goats) have been implanted with progesterone (a birth control hormone) over the last few years. The effect of these implants lasts for up to three years, therefore helping to decrease the birth rate. By 2008 the total number of goats recorded on the Great Orme was down to141 – well on the way to the target population of around 100 animals. 

As a result of the goats grazing on the Great Orme, a huge number of wildflowers thrive there including spiked speedwell, thrift and common rockrose, so the goats are actually important for the silver-studded blue butterfly, too.

Incidentally, these goats gained considerable notoriety during the first Covid Lockdown in 2020. With no visitors to the Great Orme, and few people out and about (only locals – no tourists), the goats came down into Llandudno and explored the streets and gardens.

The Great Orme Tramway provides an easy route from the town to visitor centre.

Birds on the Great Orme

The Great Orme isn’t really the place to go if you just want to watch birds. Yes, there are seabirds, mostly concentrated on the cliffs under the lighthouse, but you only see them from a distance. We did see fulmars and choughs on the cliffs along the Marine Drive, and a scattering of birds elsewhere over the Head. But really, you’d be better off at RSPB Conwy reserve to the east, or RSPB South Stack on Anglesey to the west.


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Resources

Website – Great Orme Country Park

Website – Visit Wales

Website – National Trust – owners of the farm on the Great Orme

Website – Llandudno.com – local tourist information

Website – Plantlife – some important plants on the Great Orme

This video by David Lewis on YouTube will give you more idea of the scenery.


photo of a puffin in flight

Skomer Seabird Spectacular cruise

A seabird spectacular cruise offers an alternative (or an addition) to landing on Skomer Island – and a great chance to see the Manx Shearwaters that are hidden in burrows, or are out at sea during the day.

Environmental volunteering

According to Wikipedia:
Environmental volunteers conduct a range of activities including environmental monitoring (e.g. wildlife); ecological restoration such as revegetation and weed removal, and educating others about the natural environment. They also participate in community-based projects, such as improving footpaths, open spaces, and local amenities for the benefit of the local community and visitors. The uptake of environmental volunteering stems in part from the benefits for the volunteers themselves, such as improving social networks and developing a sense of place.

Participation in such projects can be at a local level (even your backyard), or you can travel to the ends of the earth.  You can put in a lot of time and energy, or just a little time or energy, and you can do it for just a few hours, a few weeks, or for a few hours a week or month for several years.

Volunteering may mean getting close and personal with wildlife – perhaps a bit of radio-tracking work, behavioural observations, etc – but more often is about the interface between people and wildlife.  The bears in the photos are two of about 70 in a sanctuary in Romania where volunteers support local staff, allowing them time to do educational work and to rescue more bears.   

Other projects may involve the restoration of habitat, or building facilities so that visitors may enjoy and learn about wildlife.

But it is also possible to volunteer on your own, collecting data in your own time and at your own pace. Data that organisations can use chart changes in numbers over time, which can then be used to influence environmental policies.

Here are some examples of volunteering that I have been involved in, and some guidance from responsibletravel.com who advertise selected eco-volunteer holidays on their website.

This information is inevitably UK based – other countries will also have volunteer organisations and schemes.


Local volunteering – citizen science

Volunteering on long-term surveys such as a butterfly transect provides data for monitoring the distribution and population both common and rare species – the small tortoiseshell has declined in the past ten years.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is the largest organiser of bird surveys in Europe.  Through the efforts of volunteers participating in BTO surveys, the bird populations of the British Isles have been monitored more effectively and for longer than those of most other parts of the world. This has produced a uniquely rich and detailed body of scientific work. This will help us to understand the complex challenges facing wild birds at a time of great change in the environment. 

The Wetland Bird Survey requires a day a month of counting birds on estuaries, lakes and reservoirs, while the Garden Bird Survey only needs you to look out of your window a few times a week.  Monitoring bird nests requires a little more skill (easily learned) and effort, while bird ringing requires a lot more time and dedication to learn the necessary skills before you are allowed to go and practice on your own.  See the website for the full list of surveys to get involved with.

This kind of voluntary work – which ultimately involves gathering data – is known as citizen science.  Other organisations such as Butterfly Conservation, the Botanical Society of the British Isles and British Dragonfly Society, also rely on members and enthusiasts to gather specific data to use for scientific or conservation purposes.  

An example of a short-period citizen science is the Bioblitz.  Organised at sites all around the country, these may be days when “expert enthusiasts” get together to find as many species as possible on that site, or they may primarily function as events to introduce the general public to nature.  

Sign up now!

How the information is put to use

Citizen scientists help uncover mysteries behind House Sparrow population declines

Although House Sparrows are conspicuous birds and can still be found cheeping away in many areas, their numbers have fallen sharply in recent years, leading to their inclusion on the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List. Declines are greater in urban than in rural areas, and in eastern and south-eastern Britain than in other parts of the country (where the population is stable or increasing).  A new study by the BTO has used data collected by volunteers participating in Garden Birdwatch (GBW), the Nest Record Scheme (NRS) and the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) to investigate possible reasons underpinning these trends.

The research focussed on measures of breeding performance.  In keeping with population trends, GBW data showed that annual productivity was highest in Wales and lowest in the east of England, but that there was no difference between rural and urban areas.  The regional difference in GBW productivity was mirrored by NRS data, which revealed that House Sparrow clutch and brood sizes were significantly lower in the east of Britain than in the west.  The number of breeding attempts per year and post-fledging survival did not differ between regions, so are not thought to contribute to the differences in population trends.

The results suggest that the processes driving regional differences in House Sparrow productivity are likely to be complex and operating over a large-scale (e.g. climatic processes), but interacting with local factors (e.g. habitat changes). The absence of productivity differences between rural and urban areas suggests other factors contribute to the varying population trends in these habitats, for instance, differences in food availability affecting adult survival.  This work demonstrates the importance of large-scale datasets collected by citizen science projects in understanding drivers of population change, which is vital for implementing effective conservation measures.

More information about this and other science results on the BTO website


Germany, 1973

In order to maintain the heathland and its unique flora and fauna, trees have to be removed.

There were eleven of us – two Irish, one Norwegian-American, three German, three French, one English, one Turkish.  We did not have a common language though everyone spoke at least one (and mostly two) of English, German or French. We were all students, aged between 16 and 23.  None of us had any idea of what we were going to be doing – or any experience of eco-volunteering.

We were collected from Cologne railway station, and driven for a couple of hours to a forested area near Munster.  A large corrugated tin hut was to be our home for the next three weeks, and that – the leader pointed to a ramshackle assortment of logs and tarpaulin – was the washroom.  The toilets were two huts over pits in the ground.  By mutual consent, we hastily rearranged the bunks and cupboards in the hut so that girls and boys were in separate sections.  And then found a spare blanket to hang in front of the showers give some privacy from the rest of the “washroom”.

Looking back, our mission was clear.  We were clearing trees that were threatening to take over an area of heathland.  At the time, however, we were just following instructions.  I learned the names of trees in German before I knew them in English – Eiche, Birke, Kiefe (Oak, Birch, Pine).  I learned to use a machete and an axe – but was more than happy to leave the chainsaw to the boys.

This camp was one of many organised by the IJGD which was set up after WW2, and is still running camps today. The ethos of the organisation is based around getting young people to live and work together, organising their daily lives as a group (we had to organise our own shopping trips, do most of our own cooking etc) and undertaking ecological or social work under the guidance of a local leader.  We had one leader (who spoke only in German) for the forestry work, and another (who also spoke English and French) who was probably more of a liaison person with the local town council.  

The town council arranged various excursions for our spare time – we “worked” only an average five hours a day.  One day we had afternoon tea in the town hall, and a tour of the premises; another day there was an evening of music in a local tavern; a helicopter ride from the local army base; a ride in a small plane; a pony and trap ride; an afternoon of cycling to explore the countryside; a visit to a brewery to see how the local beer was made; etc.

But that was 1973 – I don’t suppose today’s economy would allow so many luxuries!


Skokholm, Wales, 1988-2018

Skokholm – the Wheelhouse in 2010 above, and 2014 below. Just some of the renovations carried out by volunteers for the love of being on this ‘Dream Island’.

Skokholm Island lies a short distance off the coast of Pembrokeshire.  Until recently there was no running water, no electricity, no telephone, no television.  I visited twice in the 1980s as a paying guest, and maybe twenty times since then as a volunteer.  Volunteering can be as simple as a day helping the wardens get themselves and their food and equipment to and from the island at the ends of the season, or it can be staying on the island to work.

Work usually includes scrubbing and painting the buildings at the start of the season in preparation for paying visitors, and then cleaning and storing stuff at the end of the season to keep it safe from the damp and the house-mice.  But it has also included upgrading the accommodation.  

For any place to accept paying guests, there are certain hygiene, and health and safety, requirements.  One year (early 1990s) we were told that food could not be cooked in the same room as it was served, so suddenly we had to convert the larder into a kitchen, and a small storeroom into a new larder.  The work was done by volunteers – one of whom was so keen to get started he was pulling walls down and creating dust before we’d finished washing the breakfast crockery – and by a group on a government youth opportunities program.  I was cooking that week, and had an assistant who insisted on putting either garlic and/or lemon in everything.

More recently, a considerable amount of work has been done to conserve (in some cases rebuild) and upgrade the accommodation.  Most of the work has been done by volunteers, although professionals have been brought in where necessary – where health and safety issues were concerned (eg roofing, and rebuilding the landing stage), or specific skills required.  

The island now has electricity, thanks to the advent of solar PV panels.  The buildings now have running water – previously it was pumped by hand from the well into plastic containers, and taken to the buildings by wheelbarrow.  The kitchen has a hot water supply thanks to solar panels, and the hot water supply has now been extended to the bedrooms, which also have a piped waste system (previously it was a bucket under the sink), and there are composting toilets which are much more pleasant to use (and to empty) than the old chemical toilets.

Puffins are one of the charismatic seabirds of Skokholm Island, along with razorbills, guillemots, Manx shearwaters and storm petrels.

All this work has been enthusiastically undertaken because people consider the island is a wonderful place to be.  In summer it is teeming with seabirds, in spring and autumn migrant birds of all sorts can turn up.  Despite the living improvements, it still retains its air of isolation and remoteness.  The weather is unpredictable,  the boat can’t always come and go on a regular schedule – often visitors have to wait a day or two to get on, and maybe have to leave a day early (or even stay an extra week) because the weather is bad.

We spent three weeks there in April 2012 – it was wet, windy and horrible a lot of the time.  On several days I found myself preparing vegetable soup for lunch wearing several layers of clothes, topped with waterproofs, wellies and a woolly hat.  

Conversely, we had a week there in September 2018 – a glorious week of wonderful weather, bird migration was slow, but there was a wryneck on the island.  One team of people were cleaning and painting the lighthouse, another team built a new hide overlooking North Pond.  Bob and I were part of another team on a long-term project to transfer all the island biological data from hand-written logs onto spreadsheets.

It’s an amazing place with amazing people.  There is nobody actually in charge, but a group of people who are here because they love the island.  They all have different skills, appropriate to the jobs this week.  There is a list of jobs that need to be done, and when anyone has finished what they are doing, they tick it off on the board, and pick another job to get on with.  And the amount of work that is being done is just amazing.  (Skokholm volunteer, 2012)

Skokholm Island is owned by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. There is accommodation and facilities for researchers, ringers, and for people who just want a quiet holiday on a lovely island. There are more opportunities for volunteers on the nearby Skomer Island.

The Friends of Skomer and Skokholm organised the work parties with help from local companies such as Dale Sailing.

The island has now regained its status as a bird observatory, and has full-time wardens –  See the island blog.

Skokholm accommodation and library block, with new roof and solar PV panels for lighting (no more gas or oil lamps). Comfort for volunteers, as well as for the paying guests that come to enjoy the puffins and other wildlife on this island. (2010 top and 2014 below)

Conservation and wildlife volunteering 

Article from Sarah Bareham of responsibletravel.com

With an ever-expanding array of volunteer opportunities available it can be increasingly difficult to understand which projects are of genuine value to conservation efforts,  which are having little impact and worse, those which work against community and conservation aims. However, with the right preparation and research well-intentioned prospective volunteers can ensure their time and effort will not go to waste, or cause harm.

Responsibletravel.com’s main advice to any traveller looking for volunteer opportunities is to ask questions, and plenty of them. To be truly sustainable a project should be driven by the needs and expectations of the host community and for a conservation or wildlife project to be successful in the long term local people need to see the value in supporting it, they should be the ones which own and lead it, with volunteers providing support to help them meet their aims. For example, through its close work with local people this brown bear conservation project in Romania has started to change attitudes towards bear welfare among the general public, with more and more realising that capturing wild bears for entertainment purposes is not only a betrayal of animal welfare, but of the country’s own natural heritage. 

We encourage prospective volunteers to speak with their placement and find out what the long-term aims of the project are, and how their work will fit into this. Volunteers should have a clear and defined role, and should undergo a selection process that matches their skills to the opportunities available. It should be possible, upon questioning the potential placement, to find out more about the project’s history, how it is monitored, where your payment goes, what role the volunteers play and to be able to speak with previous volunteers to understand more about their personal experiences.

Conservation projects with long term sustainability at heart are also likely to offer education programmes for local communities and schools. Educating the younger generation as to the importance of the project, and engaging them at an early age increases the likelihood of long term success. Ask whether this is part of the work your prospective placement does. It may mean you will also be volunteering closely with local children – there are a number of issues to consider if this is the case. 

With wildlife rescue projects volunteers should be aware that the more contact wild animals have with humans, the less their chance of successful reintegration back into the wild. If the project you are considering aims to rehabilitate and release animals be aware that hands-on contact with wildlife will be very unlikely, reserved only for those with specific knowledge and skills, such as veterinarians. If you are invited to play with, interact and pet the animals it is unlikely that successful reintroduction into the wild is their real aim. The Born Free Foundation’s guidance notes on issues in wildlife volunteering, sanctuaries and captive breeding programmes for conservation are a useful resource for prospective volunteers. 

https://www.responsibletravel.com/holiday/33237/turtle-conservation-in-greece

All holidays and volunteering opportunities on responsibletravel.com have been carefully screened for their commitment to responsible tourism. We have also worked closely in the past with the Born Free Foundation and Care for the Wild, whose Right Tourism campaign holds a wealth of information on what travellers can do to ensure their work is contributing to the protection rather than exploitation of wild animals. The Born Free Foundation also has a Travellers Animal Alert system where volunteers concerned about the in poorly run sanctuaries can report the establishment for further investigation.

For carefully screened wildlife and conservation volunteer placements in Europe go to responsibletravel.com


Bookshop

These are just a few of the books based on data collected by volunteers who simply enjoy being out birdwatching, mammal-watching, moth trapping, etc. Click on covers for more information about the books


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Red Kites at Gigrin Farm

One of the most fantastic spectacles anywhere is a huge gathering of birds – especially birds of prey.  Gigrin Farm in mid-Wales probably has the biggest gathering of red kites anywhere.  And you get so much closer to them here because of the hides/blinds.

Red Kite can be seen across most of Europe – distribution map here – usually in small numbers, up to half a dozen, but occasionally dozens of them together at food resources like rubbish tips. I thought the dozens of birds floating over the rubbish tip at Reinosa in northern Spain was pretty impressive when I saw it in 1989, but that pales by comparison.

The late Mr Powell started feeding the kites on his farm in the 1980s, and the farm became an official feeding station open to the public in 1992/93.  There were six red kites regularly using the area at the start, but by 2015 six hundred wasn’t an unusual number.

The feeding station is located near Rhayader, in central Wales.  It is surrounded by mostly livestock farming – often the only viable farming in this cool wet climate, but is close to the large reservoirs of the Elan Valley (supplying water to cities such as Birmingham), forestry plantations and open hill country.

But why feed kites?  Can’t they find their own food?

Kites are basically scavengers, large but lightweight birds that float on air currents looking for scraps to eat – though they can kill small prey if they have to.  They are not strong enough to open a carcass of any size, and have to wait for a raven, crow or buzzard to do that before they can feed.

There aren’t many carcasses left on the land these days – farm hygiene and bio-security mean that such things are cleared away, buried, etc.  So young kites in particular have difficulty finding enough food, therefore survival rates were low.

Kites start looking for food when they wake up hungry in the morning.  At Gigrin food is put out in the afternoon, so any bird that has fed well doesn’t need to come here for more.  But those that are still hungry, know where to find supper.

The spectacle

Kites begin gathering over the site an hour or so before feeding time. It looks impressive then, and you can hear their long drawn-out whistling calls. When everybody is settled in the hides, a tractor appears, stops in front of the hide, the driver gets out and starts shovelling lumps of meat onto the ground. Almost immediately, one or two kites swoop in for a closer look, maybe even pick up a piece or two. The tractor moves to another part of the feeding field, and more meat is thrown out. By the now, the number of kites is increasing, and more and more are coming closer. The birds rarely land, just grab a piece of meat in passing. Sometimes one will try to grab a bit from another bird.

The spectacle lasts for 30 minutes or more. As the food is taken, kites begin to drift away, although there are usually still a few hanging around after an hour or more.

Red kites were once the cleaner-uppers of cities and countryside, until someone decided they were vermin.  Then they were persecuted until only a few pairs remained in the isolated hills of Wales.  Following decades of hard work – much of it by volunteers – kite nests were monitored and protected.  The small population meant that there was little genetic diversity, and so this protection was only half the story of their recovery.  The other half came when a bird of German origin, and probably migrating off-course, paired up with a Welsh bird and injected some new blood into the population.  Now, that has been augmented by birds reintroduced elsewhere in the UK from Spain and Sweden.

Red kites are now seen across much of Britain (they occur naturally across the whole of Europe), and I don’t need to go to Gigrin to see them (sometimes one even passes over my garden).  But it’s still worth stopping there occasionally to see this spectacle – it’s about a two-hour drive for me, so a convenient stopping place on a long drive north.

Of course, there are other birds to be seen at Gigrin.  Buzzards (above), crows, rooks, ravens, and jackdaws all regularly join in the feast.  Small birds – finches, sparrows, tits, wagtails, etc – are found around the farm, and particularly at the feeders by the car park.

Wildlife trail around the farm

In summer, there is a trail around the farm. It leads past the top of the kite feeding station to a small hide overlooking a small wetland. Then across a field or two to some high level ponds, where a path branches off to up onto the moorland. You then wind back across a couple of fields and down through a small dingle to the kite feeding hides. There is a badger sett on the farm, and polecats and otters have both been seen recently.

You may also see birds such as goshawk, black cap, dipper, hen harriers, redpoll, skylark, kestrel, woodcock, curlew, merlin and many more.

The small cafe is a good place to round off your visit – particularly on a cold winter’s day.

Gigrin Farm website – check opening times before visiting.

Other red kite feeding stations

Wales – Llanddeusant Red Kite Feeding Station

Opened in 2002 by a local partnership with support from the Brecon Beacons National Park, the Welsh Red Kite Trust and various other notable wildlife organisations and individuals. Visitors may sit in the specially built hide only feet away from diving birds and observe them competing naturally for the food provided by the feeding centre at regular times throughout  the year.

Wales – Bwlch Nant yr Arian

In 1999, Bwlch Nant yr Arian became a red kite feeding station as part of a programme to protect the small number of red kites in the area at that time. Nowadays, the red kites are fed by the lake at Bwlch Nant yr Arian every day at 2pm in winter (GMT) and at 3pm in summer (BST). The Barcud Trail (an easy access route around the lake) and the café offer fantastic views of this spectacle. There is also a bird hide overlooking the feeding area.

Scotland – Argaty Red Kites

A feeding site in Perthshire

England – Chilterns

A useful leaflet about where to see kites in the English countryside of the Chilterns (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire).

Covid-19 restrictions

Most sites now require advance booking to ensure that only a safe number of people can visit a site at a time. Details are on the individual websites, along with feeding times and details of all facilities available.

The websites of several other feeding stations are not available now, so these are no longer listed here.

If you come across other red kite feeding stations, in any European country, please let me know and I’ll add them to this page.

Welsh Kite Trust

The charity dedicated to the conservation of the red kite and other raptor species in Wales. Information about how to report a wing-tagged bird,

Bookshop

Where to watch birds in Wales – out of print – 5th edition due in 2022

Buying books through our bookshop provides us with a small commission (at no extra cost to you) to help with the cost of running this site.


Other posts about Wales

photo of an island

Visiting Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire

Photo above: Looking across Jack Sound from the Deer Park.  The first lump of land is Middleholm.  Beyond that is Skomer, with the Mew Stone to the left (south), and the smaller Garland Stone to the right (north).

Read my article here for a virtual tour of Skomer Island.

Puffin carrying sand-eels back to the nest

What you’ll see there

Skomer Island, off the tip of Pembrokeshire in south-west Wales is a true wildlife haven.  With no ground predators such as foxes, rats or stoats, the island provides a safe haven for ground-nesting birds such as puffins and Manx shearwaters, as well as for other seabirds that nest out in the open.  In the autumn is is a safe place for grey seals to have their pups.

Best time for seabirds – May – July, though fulmars and shearwaters are still feeding chicks until September

Best time for other birds – April-May and August-October migration periods when anything can turn up.

Best time for seals – can be seen in all months, but pups are born between August and November.

Best time for flowers – May – August

Best time for insects – May – September


About Skomer

Grey seals hauled out for an afternoon nap on a rock in North Haven

How to get there

It’s only a ten-minute boat crossing to reach Skomer.

2022 – The new arrangements introduced due to Covid have been continued. You now have to book in advance online. (no more waiting at Martin’s Haven at dawn in peak season). Details are here. If you don’t have a ticket, you are unlikely to get on the boat.

Parking is still at Martin’s Haven National Trust car park, so you need either a National Trust membership card, or some cash.

As well as puffins, guillemots, razorbills and Manx shearwaters, there are other species of birds breeding on Skomer – great black-back, lesser black-back and herring gulls, kittiwakes, cormorants, shags, oystercatchers, curlew (but only one or two pairs), land birds such as wheatears, meadow pipits, rock pipits, blackbirds, jackdaw, crow, raven, chough, and raptors such as peregrine, buzzard, little owl and short-eared owl.

The Pembrokeshire Islands are home to about half a million pairs of Manx Shearwaters. These birds are nocturnal on land (to avoid predation by gulls) and are most easily seen by either staying overnight on Skomer (contact the Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales) or by taking an evening “Seabird Spectacular” on the Dale Princess.

Rabbits, woodmice, common shrews and the Skomer vole (a subspecies of bank vole) all live on the island, while around 150-200 grey seals have their pups on the beaches each autumn.

Manx Shearwaters gathering offshore, waiting to return to their nests after dark

My articles elsewhere about Skomer

Watching puffins and other seabirds

Skomer in May


More about nature-watching in Wales