Saturday 23 June 2012

Puffins are not the only auks

Razorbills and Guillemots also took up photogenic positions on our recent visit to Skomer - mostly on the steep steps which lead up from the landing stage at North Haven. Sometimes you are looking straight down onto them, but with a bit of manoeuvring it is possible to get a better angle. If you get puffined out it's worth heading back to the boat early for spend some time here.





This also seemed a better place to capture auks in flight - my efforts at doing so at The Wick where the Puffins are at point blank range ended dismally. Here though you have plenty of time to see them coming, and with acres of clear blue sea below the autofocus has a better chance of locking on without being distracted.

Sorry - another Puffin

...and another

Last one. Promise.

Fulmar - this one taken at The Wick

Great Black-backed Gull - the Puffin's enemy on Skomer
Oystercatcher also breed on Skomer, as does Short-eared Owl thanks to the presence of the Skomer Vole. We narrowly missed a family party of Oystercatchers though this adult bird was unusually approachable.


Kittiwake in flight

Kittiwakes loafing at The Wick

George shows just how close you can be to Puffins at The Wick

Thursday 21 June 2012

Puffin portraits

A few more Puffins from the recent family trip to Skomer:

Skomer landings

Tuesday 6th June 1944 saw the D-Day landings in northern France. The same date in 2012 saw the Moore clan failing to land on Skomer and having to settle for a Dunkirk-style small boat trip around the island. Saturday 9th June, our last day in Pembrokeshire, presented one last opportunity to set foot on the island. Not quite D-Day, but military style preparations were still necessary: mess tins were filled the night before to allow for an early start, camera barrels polished and primed, and the troops shaken from their bunks at 0600.

Weather and deception were key to the success of the Normandy Landings. And so it was this morning: we arrived at Martin's Haven at 0730, the tension building as we waited to discover whether conditions would be good enough to launch an amphibious assault. They were, but even the early start was only just enough to secure tickets for the first boat, which left shortly after 0900. As for deception, I had to lie about the time, the journey and the destination to get my private army in position for the early boat. 'This isn't the beach', complained a bleary-eyed but perceptive 5-year old as he was bundled over the gunwhales of the Dale Princess.

Fortunately, all was forgiven a few moments later as we stormed the quay at North Haven, kicking auks off our boots as we went. Resistance was futile. Many were taken. Photographs, that is. A selection of my favourites below. If you get bored of their little faces, look for the subtle variation in bill shapes - the curves at the base and top of 4th bird down are particularly ornate compared to the others - or click to enlarge the 8th and 9th pictures from the top to see to see lines of Puffin-botherers reflected in their eyes.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Coming out

In a break from recent tradition, this weekend was spent not birding, but in the company of some old friends (and some new ones) at a luxurious country house in the top bit of Gloucestershire. I took bins and camera, more as a deterrent to anything good turning up than in hope that it would. During the festivities (a 40th birthday party for the lovely Anji), the birthday girl outed me as a bit of a twitcher. I feared that scorn would follow, especially from the football-loving, red-blooded males present, but politeness intervened on my behalf and instead there was a short Q&A about birdwatching.

After some straightforward ones we progressed to 'How do you know the birds are going to be there?' At this point, emboldened by drink and the fact that the initial reaction had been one of surprise rather than derision, I brandished my RBA 'Xstream' pager - perhaps unwisely, as I then had to explain how it works: we phone in news at our own expense so that our hero Dick Filby can sell it back to us for a profit, which he can spend travelling the world seeing birds we can only dream of. Which, when put like that, does make us sound like mugs. That said, the quizzical glances between couples which I noticed at this point may have had more to do with the smart-phone generation just not getting the idea that anyone would be seen dead carrying a pager in 2012.

Warming to my theme and with a captive audience, I relived some memorable twitches, foolishly revealing in front of my wife some of the dark arts employed to make them possible. I think they were bemused by my recent day trip to Yorkshire to see a Roller, and hopefully amused by my tale of staying sober at a wedding in Buckinghamshire so that I could twitch a Scops Owl in the middle of the night in Oxfordshire after the other guests had gone to bed worse for wear ('No, no, you have a drink, love, I'll drive tonight...'). They were possibly disgusted (I even disgusted myself) by my apparently generous offer to drive to Dorset from Kent to fetch my mother-in-law shortly after the birth of my first son, which was really a ruse to get out of the house for the first time in three weeks and tick a Least Sandpiper at Tring en route.

I was spared any unimaginative jokes about tits (smart crowd, this), though peckers proved irresistible, and who among us is above a Chough gag? There were nods of recognition for my argument that birding had been very good for me, not least as it had for many years kept me out of the pub and other forms of trouble, and contributed to my physical and mental well-being. And the general consensus was, I think, that I was a bit odd, but not hopelessly so: several of the mums said 'well, I think it's nice he has a hobby' - touching, even if said as if I was (i) 8 years old (ii) not actually in the same room.

It was such an enjoyable weekend that I did ponder for a moment whether I could still be happy if I couldn't go birding for whatever reason. But only for a moment. I also questioned my priorities when I caught myself moaning on the way to Gloucestershire about how far it was. The house was quite near Chipping Norton, which I visited 3 times last winter to get a decent photo of a Rufous Turtle Dove: funny how I could grumble about travelling that far to renew old relationships with members of my own species, but not bat an eyelid at going the same distance to see a complete stranger from another. It's not like I share a lanaguage, culture, history, a love of ale and a limitless appetite for birthday cake with Rufous Turtle Dove, is it?

Of course, all this anthropocentric musing comes easy knowing that I didn't really miss any good birds this weekend during my brush with normality, as the pager 'mega-alert' stayed mercifully silent. Had a Snowy Egret turned up at Lodmoor this post would now be full of photos of it and a confession about how I had to feign illness to con the entire family into leaving a happening party early to get there. (Only joking Anj. I don't need Snowy Egret).

The country house hired by my high-flying, non-birding friends with their selection of sleek new motors outside. Mine is the battered old blue Peugeot 206 on the right, ruining an otherwise perfectly good Sunday supplement photo. And they said birding was for losers! Pah!

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Bosherston to Broad Haven

The forecast for last Thursday 7th June was pretty dreadful so it was afternoon by the time we made our way to Bosherston Pools on the South Pembrokeshire coast. By then it had brightened up enough to walk from the Pools to the beach at Broad Haven, admiring the famous lily ponds on the way. This is a good spot for Otter early mornings, so we were surprised to see a pair in the middle of the day with plenty of people around.
With my back calling for respite I am sometimes temped to leave the camera behind when heading for the beach, but with Chough a possibility on this coast I kept it with me. Sure enough a pair were feeding among the wildflowers around Broad Haven. Early Purple, Spotted and Pyramidal Orchids were all present, and a Painted Lady added yet more colour. Manx Shearwaters whisked past offshore making for a pretty rewarding visit.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Never mind the Puffins...give me puffinus puffinus

Of course everybody loves Puffins, but the bird I really wanted to photograph on last week's holiday in Pembrokeshire was Skomer's other speciality, the Manx Shearwater. This involved being very nice to the family so they would let me head back out after dinner for an evening cruise on the Dale Princess. Cooking the pasta and doing the washing up did the trick and leave to sail was duly secured. Unlike Skomer landings, these trips can be booked in advance (Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays). There is virtually no chance of seeing Shearwaters on land on Skomer during the day, although I did accidentally step on one about 10 years ago which had managed to mistake one of the hides on the island for its burrow!

On boarding the boat, our guide announced that due to high tides we would have to head back in earlier than usual, reducing the chances of seeing Manxies up close. Added to this, the clear, bright conditions meant that they were less likely to be rafting offshore than if it was darker and overcast. Having been cheated out of a much anticipated campervan holiday and failing to get tickets to land on Skomer earlier in the day, this was starting to feel like a slightly cursed holiday. I resolved, however, that there was no way I was getting off that boat without getting a good view! This seemed to do the trick as I was first to see Manxies in the distance and first to spot a small raft further out in St Bride's Bay, towards which the skipper was able to steer the boat. For the next half hour we were treated to very good views of these fascinating birds as they flew effortlessly around the boat. Pictures below.

Around Skomer

A cruise around Skomer last Wednesday made up for missing out on the opportunity to land on the island earlier in the day. The sheer number of Puffins was impressive - seemingly in far greater densities than on my recent trip to the Isle of May which is said to be the largest British colony. Highlights below:

Gannets fished the choppy waters between Skomer and the mainland

The huge gannetry of Grassholm could be seen in the distance 

Guillemots on Skomer's north coast


Guillemot in flight

A typical view off the coast of Skomer

The Dale Princess went close enough to photograph Puffins on the rocks

Puffin in flight

Puffin taking off

The Puffins generally swam away as the boat approached but one or two were bolder

Puffin with sandeels



Razorbills - a very smart bird in summer plumage

Grey Seal just off Skomer