Trip to Skokholm in July 2022 – Ann Jones

The island of Skokholm from the mainland (Photo © Ann Jones)

I’m ashamed to say that when Kenny (Cramer) opened up his invitation to non ringers to spend a week on Skokholm, Pembrokeshire, I knew very little about the island.  I had visited Skomer (not far away but much bigger) very many years ago and was delighted by the colours of the bluebells, thrift and the gulls nesting among them.  I signed up to go, then started planning the week’s food as the island is off grid, so you need to take food, but the system of communal cooking and eating for those who wanted to, kindly planned by Helen, one of the ringers, and the very well planned kitchen made it straightforward.  Skokholm is a bird observatory, so there are a number of research projects taking place and it has a magnificent natural history library and resource room.

We had a week on the island; and as many do, I left a bit of my heart there.  It’s small – just over a mile long, and beautiful.  If you have walked along the Pembrokeshire coast, then the geology of red sandstone and volcanic rock on Skokholm might be familiar, and, aligned with the lichen (including the orangey lichen in the photo below of a young stonechat – I think!), made for lovely colours.

Stonechat (Photo © Ann Jones)

As a non-ringer my interest was the wildlife and photography, although the ringing was always an opportunity to learn and see birds close up.  Being off grid there are no showers but the sun shone most of the time giving plenty of hot water from the solar panels.  I guess the stars of the island must be the puffins.  In 2021 11,245 puffins were counted  and it feels as though much of the island is covered with puffins – very attractive and at times seemingly comical birds.  In one area, Crab Bay, they’re very used to people and will often come right up and jump onto you if you sit still and pull at your shoelaces or steal your lens cap, but I didn’t take the risk of letting them touch bare skin.  Those beaks!

Grooming Puffin (Photo © Ann Jones)

I was also hoping to photograph choughs.  What magical birds! There was a family group of 4 that were often seen on Skokholm, sometimes joined by birds from elsewhere, but they were hard to photograph.  The very dark colouring plus the fact that they move around very quickly made it challenging, although often easy to find as they are sociable and noisy. Ravens also live on Skokholm and I have to say I am very fond of ravens but I didn’t get to see any of these ravens very close up.  Like many crows they hang around in family groups.

Other ‘daytime’ seabird colonies included razorbills, guillemots and fulmars.  (There are no gannet colonies on Skokholm but plenty of gannets fly past).

Chough in Campion (Photo © Ann Jones)

Greater blacked back gulls, lesser black backed gulls and herring gulls nest on the island.  The lesser backs harrass you as you walk through their colony but they don’t attack.  Some greater black backed gulls do torment the puffins, waiting near the burrow entrance and sometimes managing to catch one or a puffling or at least steal the catch that has been brought in for the young.  They also tormented and attacked the Manx shearwaters as they flew into their island burrows at night.  The number of corpses in the morning showed that coming in at night didn’t make them safe.  From my bed I could hear both the sound of the shearwaters (quite difficult to describe, but mesmerising) and the gulls – who don’t necessarily roost at night.  The estimated number of shearwaters in 2018 in an article by Perrins and colleagues (Latin name, oddly, puffinus puffinus!) was 90,000 .   I didn’t get to see these properly as I’m afraid I prioritised sleep over the night walks to visit and ring shearwaters.

Greater Black-backed Gull after feeding (Photo © Ann Jones)

The final stars of the island are the storm petrels: again I didn’t see these as you need to be up after dark. It is very hard to know what the population of nesting birds is: one of the wardens’ blogs comments on how they try to monitor and count the storm petrels: quite challenging.  The amazing wardens post a blog each day, and it is well worth reading.  Each night there is a roll call where everyone comes together to note and discuss what has been seen that day.

In terms of some smaller non-sea birds, Skokholm is full of wheatears, and there is an ongoing research MSc project by Ian Beggs who tweets about the project at @fatsnipe.  I was really happy to see so many as they are a bit of a novelty in MK, and generally only seen on migration.  Stonechats were less common but there was at least one pair.  I had never thought of wrens as island birds, but they are; and ferreting around amongst seaweed, plants and stones etc must expose many insects.  Other small nesting birds include (but are not limited to) many meadow pipits, some skykarks, wagtails and various warblers such as the sedge warbler. Swallows were nesting in one of the buildings and were amazingly successful, with two broods – I think 15 young altogether.

Swallow in hand (Photo © Ann Jones)

Wheatear (Photo © Ann Jones)

There are few mammals on Skokholm.  Rats have been successfully kept out, though mice live there and are being studied.  Rabbits were introduced centuries ago and there is still a good population, including some darker coloured ones, as different kinds were introduced at various times.  The hide in front of the lighthouse where the wardens live, is a great place to sit and seawatch.  I was not fortunate enough to see a dolphin when I was looking, although common dolphins are often seen, but I did see porpoises.  The classic book about the island, which is a great read, is Lockley’s Dream Island.  R.M.Lockley, ornithologist and naturalist lived on Skokholm from 1927 until forced to move by the war. His account of island life is delightful.

It is definitely a trip and island that will stay with me and thanks of course to Kenny for not only organising the trip but also giving me a lift so I could get there!

Ann Jones
September 2022