Anyone who has been to somewhere like Bempton Cliffs, peered over a cliff edge and been thrilled by a glimpse of a Puffin or two, would understand the visceral shock of a first visit to Skomer Island just beyond the far SW tip of the Pembrokeshire coast.
Skomer hosts tens of thousands of Puffins, who benefit from the island's lack of ground predators and consequently is one of the world's most important locations for burrowing birds.
I was fortunate to join a workshop hosted by two outstanding photographers, Richard Peters (a Nikon ambassador who had helped me with some 1-2-1 coaching a couple of years ago) and Drew Buckley, a highly successful professional photographer based in South West Wales.
A small group of clients benefited from their support, advice and encouragement over a 2 day stay on the island, not to mention some pretty good Dinners, despite the 'off-grid' living at the Farmhouse that works well as 'home' for the stay.
There may be tens of thousands of Puffins, they might be so close that you could touch them (but obvs not of course!!), but for a first time visitor I was glad of the advice from Richard and Drew because Puffins are small, fast and not really inclined wait for you to be in the right place, with the right settings before you take the shot!
I probably spent too much time searching for the classic 'inbound-sandeels-in-mouth-front-on-flight-shot', especially as the slightly tricky easterly breeze didn't work so well with the light, this one above being my best effort. By the time the wind switched a little to give some easier chances, the light had gone .... excuses excuses ha ha!!
Fortunately, Richard and Drew were able to walk us to places on the island where some interesting shots could be constructed in much more favourable light for the exercise.
The far north western tip of Skomer is an amazing place to watch the sun go down in clear skies. Our first evening presented a perfect opportunity to try for something a little different from a photography perspective.
Shooting directly into the setting sun and hoping for a cooperative ('confiding', is the 'birding' term) Puffin to pose nicely for the camera. The professional guys have some really great versions of this shot, but I quite like my first attempt at this backlit into the sun shot.
The light might have been fading, but the good news is that it 'softens' as it does so, allowing for even better chances to frame different views.
A large rocky mound, just offshore served as a nice dark backgound and when we found some more Puffins on the nearby rocky cliff top, we took full advantage. My favourite shot of the 2 days is at the top of this Blog and the one below is not to shabby either (imo!).
Once serious night falls, the island is 'invaded' by a reported 700,000 Manx Shearwaters! Skomer is THE most important site in the world for this species and the island is a honeycomb of burrows as a consequence. Visitors need to keep strictly to the paths at all times as a misplaced foot, even a few cms wide of the target can damage a burrow, or worse, its occupants too!
You can just about make out the swooping silhouettes of the Shearwaters as they fly back to the same burrow every night. Photographs aren't possible, not least of which because flash lights are prohibited to avoid disorientating the birds - a moments delay can give the Great Black-backed Gulls and other predators a chance to pounce. The number of carcasses littering the island suggests that the Gulls do quite well, but only take a tiny fraction of the huge seasonal population.
I did manage to venture along the dark footpath at the dead of night to experience the intense but eerie sound of the Shearwaters both overhead and underground in their burrows.
Once back home and reflecting on the photographs taken, I realise that next time I should take better advantage of being so very close to a species, usually only glimpsed from distance. The penny did drop eventually and had a few attempts to capture the more sleepy individuals, overdosing on cuteness as I did so (the Puffins were cute, not me!!).
I'm sure a more perfectly clean background and perspective is possible, but its always good to have a first try at something that you can go back and improve. I could tell that some of the photographers who had been many times had some specific shots in mind and were less present amongst those of us trying to track inflight puffins at the top of The Wick. I've got some good ideas for next time already!!
Here's a shot of Gareth, one of our group, nice guy and experienced photographer at the top of the cliff top (The Wick). You can see how tight the roped off paths are and just how small and quick the Puffins can be! Looks like I got this little chap sharp, I wonder if the big man did too ha ha!!
July is a good time to visit if you want to see the adult birds bringing Sandeels in for their young (called 'Pufflings'). If you're patient, observant and ... lucky ... you can sometimes see the young ones venturing out of the burrows, watched carefully by their parents and us!
There's little time between the Pufflings becoming strong enough to emerge from the burrow and their first flight out to sea and a life above, on and below the waves, so this was great timing.
Skomer has many charms and provides chances to experience sights and sounds hard or even impossible to see elsewhere. I had always wanted to see the enigmatic and emblematic Chough, a rare red-beaked Corvid seen only on rugged western cliffs in the British Isles. Re-established in Cornwall after an absence of nearly 30 years in the late 20th Century, it's therefore unsurprising that I hadn't seen one ... until now that is!
They've now made it across the Bristol Channel to SW Wales and there seems to be at least 5 individuals on the island. The pic below is heavily cropped and in fact ... not very good ... but sometimes it's the wildlife rather than the photographer that's the star!!
Drew Buckley knows Skomer like the back of his hand and also is a great 'Astro' photographer. Both he and Richard were on hand to help a few hardy souls who wanted to try this very different photography for the first time. The clear skies, late rising moon and not too much light pollution, made the first night a great chance to have a go, post midnight below the Milky Way and surrounded by the calls of the Manx Shearwaters.
There's all sorts of advanced techniques to learn, but the start point is to get your basic, 'straight-out-of-the-camera' shot right first. I was absolutely delighted with my first attempt and look forward to practising more - when I can find the right 'dark-sky' location, not easy in the centre of the country where I live!!
So we come to the end of the story for this visit and my final few shots to share. With sincere thanks to Richard and Drew and all the lovely people who were in our group and the others staying on the island, I'll be back for sure. Short-eared Owls flying over the Bluebell carpet in May sounds like a must-do trip!!
Farewell then to the charismatic little Puffins for a while - utterly charming, completely endearing and well worth the long(ish) drive west!
If you enjoyed this Blog post and would like to join me on my hosted WILDerness Photography workshops, feel free to send me a message via any of the ways provided on this website, it would be great to meet you!