Visitin Skomer Island by Fabiola Forns


Visiting Skomer Island

 

The island of Skomer is located off the South West coast of Wales.  It is one of  a chain of islands separated from the Pembrokeshire coast by the waters of Jack Sound.

The island is almost 3 square kilometers, and besides being a spectacular place, it’s one of the most accessible seabirds colonies in Europe. It is designated as a National Nature Reserve and also a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

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The most known  residents are the Atlantic Puffins, nesting in burrows on the top of the island. Puffins are seabirds and only come to land to breed, staying just long enough for the chicks to be able to throw themselves in the water, where they will stay from two to fours years, until they are ready to breed themselves.

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Other well known residents are the Manx Shearwater, who are in the ocean fishing during the day and come back to rabbit burrows at night, making very loud calls. They are easy pray to the Herring Gulls, and you can see a lot of skeletons and feathers as you walk your way to the Wick, where the best backgrounds and proximity to the Puffins are.

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Getting there is not what we’d call a smooth operation. Boats sail from Martin Haven and there are few accommodations very close. They do not accept reservations and tickets are gotten via queue. And this is where it gets interesting.

Tickets go on sale at 7AM, so you need to be in line much before that time if you want to sail in the first boat. Once you got your tickets, you need to hang out doing nothing until sailing time, which is normally 10AM, unless otherwise stated when you got the tickets. Another queue takes place close to sailing time to get on the boat. We were very fortunate to have our friend Geoff Baker get the tickets for us and even pick us up at our Bed and Breakfast so we wouldn’t have to sit around Martin Haven and could rest. We are really grateful for this. We even had time to have a full delicious English breakfast, including blood sausage and other non-identified delicacies.  The bacon (more like ham than our bacon) is worth flying nice hours for. Please note that sailings are weather dependent and that you need to take rain gear for yourself and your equipment.

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Ready to rumble we went on our unknown  destination and discovered a beautiful pristine island covered in purple flowers as we walked our one mile long path to the Wick, prime spot. As we first landed, the Warden gave us an informative talk and made it very clear that we needed to stay in the paths at all times, to avoid stepping into someone’s burrow. Rabbits also nest underground, so you get the point.Image

The administrators of the island only allow 250 person on the island on a day, except a couple of times a year, when they allow one more boat. We were lucky not to be there on one of the mot crowed days, because space could be a problem given that the Wick is not large. I could see it being very difficult to shoot if more photographers or birders were there.

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The Puffins are totally used to people and not shy at all. In fact, I think they feel protected by us from the attacks of the Herring Gulls, always-opportunistic stealers.

Rather than go fishing, given their size, they just wait for the poor Puffins to fly in with a mouthful to attack, and a hit and run manner. They will also try and get young chicks out of their burrow for a meal, whenever possible.

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The path separates both sides of the Wick, cordoned. Puffins nest on both side and will sometimes land on the ocean side, crossing the path walking. If you are standing on their way, they make eye contact with you, asking you to please move, then continue. If you can’t move because there is someone next to you, as it was on one occasion, he/she stepped on my foot and kept walking. Needless to say I was thrilled by the honor.

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No need to bring a long lens here, since Puffins are to be had even with the iPhone.

We brought the 500mm on our first day and regretted the weight for the walk, since we did most everything with the 70-200/4 plus the 1.4X, using a couple of 25 extension tubes if we needed head portraits.Image

There were no daisies by the Wick, I hear the rabbits have been feasting on them, which was a shame, because they would have looked beautiful in the pictures. Not to complain, the backgrounds are spectacular and you have the choice of blue or green, depending on the light direction and the side of the path.

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Other birds present in the island are Guillemots and Razorbills, and you can see plenty of them by the dock. There even one nesting  right next to the stairs up this year. 

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I will never forget this beautiful place and hopefully can go back. I have a few frames of video, although not sure they will be usable because of the tremendous wind we had on the first day. I’ll post it if I cam make something usable.

 

If you want to keep up with what’s going on in the island, check:

http://skomerisland.blogspot.com/

 

 

 

Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis)


Dawn begins to break as the sun rises slowly on the horizon and a female Snail Kite shakes her feathers briskly as she prepares to begin her day. Her two-toned feathers have the luster of youth and her pose is proud. Her keen eyes scan the horizon and she bobs her head as she gets ready for the hunt. It is the time of the year when nature’s call brings pairs together to assure reproduction.

Snail Kites getting ready for copulation.

Snail Kites have a very specialized diet, feeding almost exclusively on the Apple Snail,
although they will occasionally take a small turtle when the opportunity arises. Species that have more varied food sources are more likely to survive. The first step to extinction is extreme specialization. There was a time when all the land south of the lakes had provided nearly endless swamps and marshes where the Snail Kite could find an abundance of food. Man’s relentless destruction and draining of swamps and marshes resulted in a huge reduction in Apple Snail habitat in a matter of only a few decades, resulting in the decline of a species unable to rapidly adapt to a change of diet.

Female Kite with snail on a rainy day.

She shook her feathers again and waited for the sun to get higher so that she would be able to spot her prey which would be no more than two inches under the water surface. When the light was right she would begin hunting, flying around her territory, her sharp vision not missing one target. The amount of energy she spent on this was enormous. She could hover for a long periods looking into the water from above, and she would spend almost as much energy hunting as she gained from every juicy morsel.

Flying with meal.

She was lucky to be in this part of the lake. The water here was pristine and fairly abundant; necessary requirements for the Apple Snail to thrive and grow. She would find an abundance of prey here, and she would be able to do her part to perpetuate her species

Male Kite flying in field of flowers.

At one time, there were as few as 12 Snail Kites reported in the State of Florida.
The Kite, a hawk-like bird, has different breeding behavior than the typical Accipitridae. Snail Kites change nesting locations depending on water levels. They nest in the summer in loose colonies and choose trees as nesting locations. Both parents hunt for food during the nesting period. One of the pair may abandon an active nest to start a new one with another partner, leaving the original mate to fend for the chick alone. Their call is similar to laughter and can be quite loud. They are listed as Federal and State endangered species due to their small population in the United States and their extreme habitat specialization. They are very common in Latin America, where they are called Gavilan Caracolero; Spanish for Snail Kite.

Male showing talons.

Although the Kites were known as Everglades Kite in the past, they are no longer commonly seen as far south as Everglades National Park. Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and Grassy Waters Preserve, both in Palm Beach County, are locations where you can see and photograph Snail Kites. Lakes in Central Florida, such as Lake Kissimmee are also a good place for them. Last year, their nesting site at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge was fairly close to the service road where photographers are allowed, and there were a few nests within long lens reach.

Warming up in the sun to kill parasites.

As photographic subjects, Snail Kites are majestic in flight or perched, but difficult as an overhead target because their dark colors make them hard to illuminate unless the water is reflecting some light onto the underwing area; but females are a bit easier due to their lighter two-toned feathers.

We can only hope that enough Apple Snail habitat is preserved so that these specialized birds can continue to reproduce and thrive in Florida.