Life as a Skokholm Island Volunteer : Part 3

October 19, 2019

It was with a heavy heart that I left Skokholm Island at the start of the month, and I still feel at a loss now I’m back on the mainland. They call it ‘Dream Island’ for a reason, and I couldn’t have imagined before I arrived how true this is. You might think it would get dull spending 3 months on an island just a mile long and half a mile wide, but it still remained just as fresh and exciting on the last day as it had the first. It’s a combination of being surrounded by the ever changing and sometimes raging Celtic Sea, in blissful self-imposed isolation from the troubles of the world, living simply and appreciating the rhythms of nature that are so often missed in day to day life. Being able to see a sky full of stars at night, an endless horizon and the sun rise and set every day, and spending the time with like-minded people who are interested in and care about birds and conservation. Its all of this and so much more, a totally immersive experience, and this last post is about everything else that happened on the island besides the seabird work. 

I’m lying down comfortably on a bed of sea campion with my eyes closed, the sun beating down on me, listening to the sounds of the sea crashing into the bay below. I can also hear rock pipits chipping, echoing up off the walls, gull chicks peeping incessantly, begging their parents for food until they fly off irritated, and the guttural greetings of the fulmars returning back from their fishing trips. A pair of chough fly in squawking overhead. It’s my afternoon off after a frantic morning cleaning the kitchen and the toilets for a guest changeover, and I’m having a brief nap at Twinlet Bay on the rugged North Coast. It's the location of one of my fulmar productivity plots and the best napping spot on the island - I tested a few! Voices approach and I open my eyes slightly to see the 15 guests standing on the cliff opposite, looking down at the fulmars as part of their welcome walk. Richard, one of the island wardens, does this talk twice a week, priming the new arrivals with a history of the island and the birds which call it home. Not wanting to look like all us volunteers do is laze around I scurry back up to main path, say a quick hello to everyone and head off back to the observatory for a coffee.

The guests are an essential aspect of life on Skokholm, and with only 2 boats a week in the peak season and accommodation for no more than 20, it never feels crowded. Guests can stay for 3, 4 or 7 nights and having them on the island for this time means that you really get to engage with them, living communally and having interesting conversations with first timers and regular visitors alike. There are those there for a getaway, researchers, ringing groups, ex-volunteers, photographers, artists, poets, university groups and work party volunteers. Every one of them adds to the richness that is life on Skokholm and I made a lot of new friends and connections whilst I was there.

As I go back to the observatory I walk past the surreal hummocky landscape created by the combined burrowing of the manx shearwaters and the rabbits. The rabbits on the island are much tamer than on the mainland, lacking predators apart from the opportunistic great blacked-backs. The lack of predation has resulted in traits being expressed which you wouldn’t normally find on the mainland, with some of them looking like they’ve just come straight from a pet shop. The extremely furry ones we’ve even given names to, such as Fluffy Roger, Wooly Pete, Floofy Steve and Hairy Mike. Perhaps three months was too long to be away?

Onwards next past North Pond, a large body of water when I arrived but dried up as the summer has worn on. Once a large gull and oystercatcher roost, at various points I saw black-tailed godwit, redshank, ringed plover, knot and green sandpiper on the pond as well a short-eared owl flying around it for a few evenings. Now just a few dunlin probe the edges and meadow pipits bathe in the pools that remain. We spent a few afternoons digging out the pond when it had almost dried out, and it has since filled in a bit with a heavy downpour. Another landscaping project involved the expanding of Orchid Bog, making scrapes for waders and shoring up its banks so it could hold more water. The Bog became a favourite hangout for snipe and water rails later on in the season.

Finally I get down to the observatory. The original buildings from Ronald Lockley’s time (the man who founded the Bird Observatory in 1933) still remain, and after being bought in a state of disrepair in 2010 by the Wildlife Trust were lovingly restored. His cottage and the surrounding farm buildings provide accommodation and facilities for the guests, with original features such as timber plundered from the wreck of the Alice Williams still intact (the ship ran aground on the island in 1928).

The primary aim of the observatory is to record and ring resident, visiting, and migrating birds and to conduct research on them. On a day to day basis, birds are mostly caught in the Heligoland traps or in mist nets on calm days. Named after the German island of Heligoland where they were developed, the traps are large mesh structures which funnel birds through which have flown in to the vegetation growing within. Walking through them pushes any birds to the end where they can be caught, and this is done throughout the day. Mist nets are put up across areas where birds might be passing through, and are checked regularly, with birds extracted by experienced individuals. All birds are taken back to the ringing hut for processing and then released. Although I had virtually no ringing experience before I arrived, I got involved as my confidence grew and by the end had ringed a total of 24 species on the island. Seeing any bird in the hand is a privilege, but some of my favourites have to be the tiny 5 gram goldcrests with heads aflame with highlighter orange, a male stonechat we caught using tape lures and a perch trap, a wheatear caught in the Heligoland traps and the robins which look just as vibrant in the hand as they do singing from the tree tops.

As autumn migration kicked off more birds began to pass through, such as willow warblers, sedge warblers, chiffchaffs, blackcaps, whitethroats, spotted and pied flycatchers, a couple of reed and garden warblers, redstarts, goldfinch, skylarks, common rosefinch, linnets, pied and white wagtails and thousands of swallows accompanied by the odd house or sand martin. A stunning firecrest was with us for a while and survived a patch of extremely rough weather, and we all ran to catch a brief glimpse of a turtle dove, an increasingly rare sight in the UK. We also had the luck of having two wrynecks with us at various points. Buzzards, peregrine, sparrowhawks and kestrels are also regular visitors and residents, with a red kite and a marsh harrier gracing us with their presence on other days.

Autumn also saw the birth of seal pups in Skokholm’s sheltered coves, with one mother this year having twins, an extremely rare occurrence. Although worried that she would not be able to raise two pups, after much observation we saw her feeding both of them, and they still appear to be doing well! On the rocks below, turnstone pick amongst the seaweed at low tide, and cormorants and shags dry themselves, lacking the more waterproof plumage of other seabirds. Further out from the shore, especially on stormy days, the seas are alive with birds, and sea watching was another thrill of island life. Gannets stream past the lighthouse going to and from Grassholm, an island capped with the white of tens of thousands of breeding birds. Manx shearwaters and fulmars power across the waves effortlessly, whilst kittiwakes flutter in the distance. I managed to see a few bonxies (great skuas) and an exciting glimpse of an Arctic skua.

As evening arrives the birding ends and everyone gathers for dinner and the evening bird log in the cottage. With a fire going on cold nights it gets quite cosy and is always a highlight of the day. After careful checking on the forecast for the night, we would sometimes put out the moth trap. The variety of species we caught over the few months was astonishing, and it was always exciting seeing what we might unearth in the morning. Some of the highlights included a rare migrant bedstraw hawk moth from Europe, convolvulus hawk moths, hummingbird hawk moths, burnished brass, autumnal rustic, campion, Setaceous hebrew character, antler, garden tiger and orange swift, but the list is extensive and I could go on for a while!

Although it felt like a lifetime the months flew by so quickly, and the last few days became a mad rush to try and and make the most of the island before we left. The last day was gloriously sunny and calm in what had been a rough few weeks of delayed boats and stranded guests - Skokholm isn't a bad place to be stranded! - and although it was the 2nd of October it felt like July again. Having packed and cleaned the day before, the morning was spent with the mist nets open, ringing migrants passing through as the hours slipped away before our departure. Before we knew it we were down at the jetty for a swift turn around and a final emotional farewell. As we waved goodbye and the boat powered away, the buildings and landmarks we had come to know so well slowly started to disappear. It was time to get back to mainland life. Everything was strange at first - a dachshund walking down to the jetty at Martin's Haven, trees, cars, roads, tall buildings. After a few weeks I feel re-adjusted but am still feeling like something is missing.

Life on Skokholm is endlessly varied and exciting, and anything short of a book would undoubtably fall short of describing it all. I only had three months there, and so missed the spring migration and early seabird season, so there is still so much more to be seen and am already planning a return trip! You also never know what is going to turn up - we saw a great white egret in my very first week, a first for the island! Unfortunately, I missed out on the laughing gull and American golden plover before I arrived, and a red-eyed vireo just last week. There were countless moments that took my breath away and I couldn't quite believe how lucky I was. Ringing storm petrels under shooting stars, seeing tens of thousands of manx shearwaters take off from the sea all at once, gannets over Grassholm silhouetted against the setting sun, glorious mornings with thousands of migrants passing through, the joy of finding out that our fulmar chicks had fledged. It's the people that make the whole experience special as well, and everyone involved with the running of Skokholm does an amazing job, especially Giselle and Richard, who have run the island since it reopened in 2013. I can't thank them enough for the opportunity and I feel privileged to have been a part of it all, if just for a short while.

Don't miss out on part one and two of this series if you haven't already read them! You can find more information about Skokholm Island including volunteering opportunities and booking your own visit here.

1 comment

  1. Thank you Will for all your hard work, enthusiasm and for being such a pleasure to have around. You have Bare tekkers apparently.


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