Lisa G Saw
I returned to Pembrokeshire in West Wales for a second time in the summer of 2018 with my friend Sarah, who’s another keen photographer. There were two things we wanted to see, the first were the puffins with sand eels in their mouth as they return from the sea to feed the young pufflings that would be eagerly awaiting the food inside their burrow. The second was to see the northern gannets, the largest seabirds in the North Atlantic, diving into the water for food, which is something they are especially adapted to do, allowing them to dive much deeper than most other airborne birds. They can dive from a height of 30m and reach speeds of 100kph! To witness both these spectacles was going to be amazing but to actually capture images would be extremely challenging, as they’d be moving very fast.
The drive to West Wales from West Sussex is over five hours and so on our way there we decided to break our journey with a stop off in Llanelli at the WWT Wetland Centre. Since it was a Thursday and not during the school holidays, we virtually had the place to ourselves with only a dozen or so other people also meandering around. Despite the fact it was late June, we were surprised to see so many young chicks, as most of the ones at our local Wetland Centre in Arundel are quite large now and no longer cute little fluff balls. We had great fun photographing the various birds and chicks, in particular a family of moorhens that were nesting at the base of a tree trunk. There were four little black chicks that couldn’t have been more than a few days old. They’re the cutest things I’ve ever seen!
Before continuing on with our journey we had some refreshments in the café, a delicious slice of cake and some water. The reason I mention this is because I was thrilled to discover there is a new company that is selling water in a can: CanOwater (you can buy still or sparkling water). It’s resealable (it doesn’t have the usual ring pull at the top), it can be refilled and its recyclable. Plus, aside from being lightweight, the aluminium can keeps the water cooler for longer. In fact, we reused our cans for the rest of our trip, so they really came in handy! Since the problem of plastic pollution is a major issue today and we must all do our bit to reduce how much plastic we use, why not check out their website or better still, ask your local shop to consider selling canned water. It’s infinitely better for our environment than plastic bottles! To find out more go to: www.canowater.com/about
On our first day down in Pembrokeshire we planned to visit Skomer Island and lucky for us not only was the sun shining but the waters were nice and calm. Having been to the island earlier in May, I knew the set up at Lockley Lodge, Martin’s Haven, which is where you get the boat across to the island. You can’t book in advance, you have to queue on the morning you want to visit the island. During the peak times of the year they run a maximum of 5 boats over to the island to limit the number of daily visitors to 250. If you want to guarantee getting a ticket you need to be there before 8am when it opens. In May, I’d been able to go at about 8am and I always got a ticket for the first boat trip at 10am, but we’d been forewarned that you should queue much earlier in the summer and at peak times. So, at 6am we were there and fourth in the queue. Since there were two of us, it was great, as only one of us had to queue whilst the other went for a wander around the Deer Park and Wooltack Point, which overlooks Skomer Island. The sun is already up by then and it’s a lovely time of the day to get some photos and look out for birds. We got chatting to the others in the queue around us (the first couple had been there from 5.15am!) so the time passed by quickly and there was a lovely friendly atmosphere. It didn’t take that long for the queue to extend down the hill and around the corner. Some sensible people had bought books and little fold out stools with them. But, for those of you not good in the morning, I’m pretty sure even those people who rocked up just before 8am still got tickets on the later boats. But, remember, it’s busier on the weekends and during school holidays. Some people do complain you can’t book in advance and comment that this is an antiquated system, however, there are reasons they do things this way. I think the main reason is that if you book your ticket and the boats can’t go on a given day due to the wind direction (north winds affect landing on the island) or high wind speeds, then you can try again on subsequent days, if you’re staying long enough. But, if people were able to pre-book, the places would likely be fully booked and so you’d miss your window of opportunity.
We had a fabulous day on the island and were thrilled to see the puffins with the sand eels in their mouths. At The Wick, one of the popular parts of the island where you’ll see thousands of puffins coming and going from their burrows, they sometimes stand around on the ground with the sand eels in their mouths. This is quite rare as there are usually various gulls to dodge as they try to steal the fish from them. The golden rule on the island is always to stay on the footpaths so you don’t collapse any of the fragile burrows that are all around. You also have to watch where you’re standing as the puffins might want to cross the path to reach the cliff and take off. These gorgeous little birds really are full of character and great to watch and I would highly recommend a trip to the island to see the 31,000 strong puffins that inhabit the island. Around the country the puffins are in decline but on Skomer Island they seem to be doing very well! We tried to take photos of the puffins flying around and it was as challenging as we had suspected. It’s very hard to keep the focus point on the small puffin as it flies at great speed through the sky. One trick we learned was to follow a puffin that does a ‘fly-by’ and doesn’t come in to land on the first attempt. You follow it closely as it goes out to sea and circles back around again, tracking it as it comes in for either another ‘fly-by’ or to land. You have to take a lot of photos and if you’re lucky, you’ll get one in focus!!!
That afternoon we went over to Marloes Sands Beach, at low tide, which has some stunning sandstone rocks. There’s also the coastal path that runs along the top of the cliffs and affords great views of the bay. As we were walking back towards the car park, along the cliff top we bumped into a couple looking through binoculars and they’d spotted gannets that were diving into the water, just off the beach. I couldn’t believe it! Frustratingly, I had neither my binoculars with me nor my telephoto lens so I had to be content with just watching the spectacle, which was amazing to see, even at some distance. Ironically, it turned out the couple we met were also from Worthing!
We spent most of Saturday at sea! In the morning we’d booked onto the Grassholm Gannetry boat trip with Dale Sea Safaris and in the afternoon/evening we did a workshop with professional photographer Andy Davies, which included spending 3 hours on the boat at the end of the day, in the lovely soft evening light. The gannets were flying around Grassholm in droves, more than I’d seen last time. In fact, as we approached, it was like a tornado of gannets in the air as they circle around. It was amazing. Even the boat driver said this wasn’t a common sight. With so many birds on the island, it’s hard to pick out the behaviour of any one bird or pair, especially trying to lock focus onto one as the boat was bobbing up and down on the water. But, I was lucky enough to spot one fluffy white gannet chick amongst the masses of adults. Sadly, we didn’t see any diving gannets, but it was still a wonderful memorable experience.
In the evening, on the boat once again, we got to witness the rafts of Manx Shearwaters that are waiting for the sun to go down before flying back to their burrows on Skomer Island. They would have been out at sea fishing all day but have to return under the cover of darkness as they can’t walk very well and they need to get to their burrows without being attacked by the great black backed gulls that predate them. Skomer Island is important for the shearwater birds as there are over 600,000 that nest on the island, which is more than half the global population! So, there we were at dusk, close to three large groups of shearwaters, just resting on the water. It was unusual to see them forming rafts so early in the evening. However, it was our good fortune, as it made it easier to photograph them, though not easy at all! Every now and then, the whole mass of birds take off and there’s a frenzy of wings flapping as they all lift off the water, moving to another spot. When we were done photographing them we headed back to land whilst the sun was setting. It was the perfect end to the day.
The following two days were lovely and sunny but the winds prevented us from doing any more of the boat excursions that we had planned. This was a little frustrating as we wanted to put into practice what we’d learned on the workshop. However, we filled our days easily, enjoying some bird watching and walking around Bosherston Lily Ponds. One evening, we sat chatting at Wooltack Point, whilst hoping that some gannets might fly by, which they did, but better still, we saw a lesser kestrel just hovering at our eye level very close to where we were sitting. Its wings were constantly flapping and it seemed happy to hover just long enough for us to get plenty of photos and then it flew off. It can’t have been more than 10m away from us. Brilliant! But the highlight came the following afternoon when we returned to Marloes Sands at low tide once again. I was experimenting with my wide angle lens and some neutral density filters that allow you to slow down the motion of the water. I was in the throws of doing this when Sarah spotted half a dozen gannets flying around the bay once again. She was busy snapping away, but I’d left my telephoto lens once again in the car! It really goes pay to carry all your camera equipment all the time and be every ready – despite the fact it’s really heavy! I tried to get a few shots with the lens I had with me, but to put it bluntly, it was pathetic! At this point we’d been waiting for a call to find out if the boat trips were going, so I wasn’t sure that I had time to go back and get the long lens, and of course there was no telling how long they’d stay there for. I had to chance it though, so, despite the hot weather, I did a quick power walk back up the hill to the car park and straight back again, which must have taken about half an hour. Luckily, the gannets were still diving and this time we stood near the water’s edge and had an amazing experience watching and photographing their diving behaviour for well over an hour. They’re so striking with white bodies and black wing tips and glide so effortless through the sky. This really was a treat!
We were supposed to head home in the morning of Tuesday but instead we decided to stay for one more attempt at a landing on Skomer Island. We had it on pretty good authority they would happen, but we definitely needed to be on the 10 o’clock boat, so once again it was an early start and we were queuing from 6am. I felt I was making some better progress with photographing the puffins in flight that day, but the highlight was the unexpected surprise of seeing a puffling emerge from one of its burrows! Apparently, it can get really hot down there and so the puffling comes out to cool down. One of its parents was nearby making sure it was safe whilst it came out to flap its wings and have a look at the big wide world that is awaiting it! It had a good look around and must have been quite surprised by all the people that stood nearby and the noise of all the cameras taking photos. It seemed curious but not phased and eventually retreated back to the safely of it’s burrow. It was the perfect end to a fabulous five days!
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Skomer Island and Pembrokeshire Coast, South West Wales