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Amazing Birding Experience in Wales

Christine Roberts

Off the rugged Pembrokeshire coast, West Wales lies the scenic, tranquil islands of Skokholm and Skomer. Together, they represent one of Britain's most exciting wildlife nature areas - home to more than 50 per cent of the world's Manx Shearwater population.

Their guardian, the Wildlife Trust West Wales up 'til last year could only arrange for trust members to stay on Skokholm to view thousands of birds participating in an amazing nightly spectacle. To date, only limited accommodation was available in a small 18th century cottage. More recently, however, additional chalets/rooms have been    provided for a maximum of 15 guests permitted to stay on the island at any one time. So, commencing

This year, the general public has been able to experience this unique island for the very first time, taking a three-night package, which includes ferry crossings, all meals and accommodation.

The highlight of this trip is to observe tens of thousands of slim, black and white silky-coated Manx Shearwarters depart early each morning to go fishing, far out to sea, winging their way back to their island burrows at night thereby avoiding detection and certain death from predatory Greater and Lesser Black-backed Gulls who eagerly await their return, and a substantial feast!

Accompanied by "churring" Storm Petrels, thousands upon thousands of these magnificent birds fill the night sky, calling out to their respective mates as they draw closer to the burrow entrances. It is incredible how they ever manage to find their mates, but they do!

The recognition between Manx Shearwater pairs is repeated continuously throughout the island creating a unique cacophony of sound and activity.

One of the best parts of the island to view this momentous event is near the lighthouse on the island's western tip. This is where four of us headed to experience the noise and mayhem of the birds as it reached a crescendo around 23h00 pm. We were armed with small torches, cameras and clad in warm clothing. It was April and there was a distinct chill in the air.

Manx Shearwaters were everywhere, darting over, above and around their burrows and us. The light was poor as the modern, unmanned lighthouse had been specially modified with a red filter to offer protection to the returning birds making it difficult for the gulls to locate them.

We took utmost care not to disturb or fall over the birds as they rushed across the main path, which resembled and felt like a thick hall-way carpet - thanks to the island's healthy rabbit population!

Graham, our knowledgeable Wildlife Conservationist gently picked up a glossy coated Manx Shearwater so we could get a closer look.

The bird was in excellent shape, especially in view of the amount of time it had spent out at sea on its long daily flights returning to land late at night. Each year, in May, just one egg is hatched in the deep underground burrow where each pair makes their home.

Skokholm was once a favorite Viking stopover when regular raids of coastal West Wales were commonplace. The name, Skokholm, means "wooden isle" in ancient Norse, and was where local farmer and naturalist, Ronald Lockley, set up home in a whitewashed cottage for 12 years from 1927, writing books about his work and island experiences.

Now, some of the guests stay in his beloved cottage or nearby    rooms, spending their days recording    bird sightings, joining guided walks with the warden, enjoying sea views, photography and sharing the tranquility and their experiences with like-minded guests. The seas around the island are frequented by grey seals, porpoise and dolphin.

The island is at its best when the coastal cliffs are covered with colorful lichens, flora and fauna.

At mealtimes there is a guest roster for assisting with preparation of salads and vegetables and the washing up. Many hands make light work of this, in record time!

Advance arrangements are made daily with the resident cook as to the desired time for collecting water for personal washing.

There is no electricity, running water, baths, showers or telephone lines on the island! It's a true getaway from it all. And lighting  is by gas lamps. But, mobile 'phones can be used and drinking water is pumped up from a freshwater spring.

The 18th century farmhouse and neighboring complex comprises a cottage with several bedrooms - beds with mattresses - and the highlight is the comprehensive library cum lounge with fireplace. Further down the passage is, a chemical toilet and hand basin.

In an adjacent building is the dining room - "The Wheelhouse" - with a kitchen, bar and long dining table. Additional rooms are housed in the building opposite.

The most famous section is "The Brig" which has a red doot and is located in one of the outer buildings. this toilet a la difference has walls adorned with a wide selection of colorful hand painted birds the work of past visitors. Their names with dates of the particular bird's sighting appear under each hand-painted work of art.

Graham, the friendly, resident warden spends eight months of the year on the island. Early evening, he gathers with guests around the fire in the lounge to discuss the day's sightings, before or after dinner.

He explained that there is growing evidence that a small number of the wide range of seabird species attain the age of 30, or more.

At least one is known to have reached 37!

Puffins and guillemots are color-ringed to make them easily recognizable The Manx Shearwater, however, sometimes wears out its "ring" grinding it across rocky surfaces, which makes the actual numbers of these older birds recorded being substantially under-estimated.

Living alongside thousands of puffins and rabbits who regularly pop out of the multitude of underground burrows in their shared "honeycomb" burrow environment.

Visitors can expect to see a wide range of other bird species such as fulmar, shag, razorbill and the short-eared owl.

When booking your three-night package, be sure to check out which items you need to bring to the island. These might include a single duvet cover sheet, bed sheet and comfortable walking shoes. Items such as chocolate bars can be bought at the island's small tuck-shop.

Getting there:

Travel by train or car from London to Haverfordwest by train or car. A night's stopover in Cardiff or at the award-winning farmhouse in Spittal, near Haverfordwest is highly recommended. Consider buying a BritRail Flexi Pass if several long distance train journeys are planned during your stay in Britain.

Contact:  Email wildlife@wildlife-wales.org.uk  or Web site:  www.wildlife-wales.org.uk for details on Skokholm's 3-night packages, a visit to the island of Skomer and overnight stays on the Pembrokeshire coast.

Scheduled ferryboat departures leave from Martins Haven, outside Haverfordwest, in West Wales, crossing the famous Jack Sound. Usually, a handsome seagull, Tonto, accompanies the ferry!

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Email:  Christine Roberts


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