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Photographing the Puffins of Skomer Island

In 2014, my wife and I went on a camping holiday to St Davids, Pembrokeshire, in Wales and one of the highlights of the trip was to take a day trip to the Island of Skomer, photographing our favourite sea bird - the Atlantic Puffin.

Lone Puffin at The Wick
Lone Puffin at "The Wick" - Canon EOS 7D, 400mm, 1/2500 @ f/5.6, ISO 800

The idea of visiting Skomer to photograph the Puffin’s came about several years before when we missed out on the opportunity to see them on the Island of Staffa, West Scotland. So, while sat enjoying a delightful summers sunset at our campsite, we checked the weather forecast for the following day and it looked like it would be a good day to take the short, but sometimes lively ferry crossing, over Jack Sound from Martin’s Haven.

The Twitter feed for Skomer’s boat service (@skomer_boatinfo) told us boats would be running the following day and recommended we be there for 8am for the 10am crossing, with queues a possibility. So, with an hour’s drive ahead of us to Lockley Lodge (the excellent Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales' visitors centre), we rose at 6am for a quick breakfast and then set off south to queue for our landing passes.

We arrived and waited in glorious sunshine for Lockley Lodge to open its doors before crossing a mercifully peaceful Jack Sound. The sky and sea around the boat was alive with bird calls and fluttering wings as Puffin, Gulls, Terns and Razorbills all fished in the rich waters that surround Skomer. If this was what it was like before even stepping foot on to the island I knew that the day was going to be a great experience!

Puffin rafting in the shelter of Skomer's landing jetty
Puffin rafting in the shelter of Skomer's landing jetty - Canon EOS 7D, 400mm, 1/500 @ f/8.0, ISO 400

Skomer is a little less than 3 square kilometres in area and is, thankfully, restricted to 250 visitors a day. So, as you set off on the pathways around the island there is no need to feel crowded. You are allowed to follow any of the paths you please and in what direction you wish (but please, no wandering off path due to the enormous amount of hidden burrows and nests). On recommendation from the head warden we set off in a clockwise direction to circumnavigate the island, hoping to arrive at The Wick (the main Puffin concentration) later in the afternoon when the Puffins start to arrive in large numbers from a hard days fishing.

Fields and fields of Bluebells and Red Campion carpet the whole of Skomer in May and, if you are lucky enough as we were to visit Skomer at its flowering peak, it really is a beautiful sight to behold.

Bluebells and Red Campion carpeting the cliff's of Skomer

The wildlife on Skomer includes 120,000 Manx Shearwater pairs (the world’s largest breeding colony), 6,000 Puffin pairs, 10,000 Guillemot pairs, Razorbills, Choughs, Short Eared Owls, Skomer Voles and Grey Seals. We were fortunate enough to spot most of these and many more species (Grey Gulls, Terns, Black Backed Gulls, Kittiwake, Oyster Catchers, Heron… the list went on!) apart from the nocturnal Shearwaters, Short Eared Owl and the Short Eared Owl’s favoured snack, the Skomer Vole! We knew our chances of spotting any of these would be slim anyway so weren’t disappointed in the slightest.

Solitary Razorbill on Skomer
Solitary Razorbill on Skomer - Canon EOS 7D, 400mm, 1/1000 @ f/6,3, ISO 800

We eventually arrived at ’The Wick’ (one of the best places to photograph the Puffin), a sheer cliff full of nesting birds, and were greeted by activity everywhere we looked. From the distinct cries of the Kittiwake to the rush of air as a Puffin makes a dive for its burrow with a beak full of Sand Eels. It’s hard to sum up the atmosphere, bustle and chorus of all the sea birds going about their fight for survival against the ever present, predatory gulls - watching for the weak or waiting for the opportunity to steal a Puffin’s hard fought catch.

Photographing the Puffin was an absolute joy. Whether it be watching them stumble about their burrows interacting with each other or as they flash by you in the air - each and every interaction I had with them and the camera was different.

Equipment is definitely not king on Skomer. Sure, the odd photographer had some serious long prime equipment but I found that using a Canon EOS 7D coupled to a Canon 100-400L was more than adequate for most shots. I don’t recall have a single moment where I said to myself “I wish I had more reach with my lenses”; in fact I had a few moments where I had to swap to my 5D carrying a 24-105mm lens!

Of course not everyone has a fast focusing SLR with an equivalent 640mm maximum focal length, but don’t let that deter you visiting Skomer in any way. My wife had a compact zoom camera and despite admitting she would never manage to capture any bird in flight images (she does set the bar high!) she came away with many lovely photos of the Puffins in and around their burrows. In fact I’m not ashamed to admit that the flexibility of her camera meant she got the best image of a Puffin carrying Sand Eels to its burrow!

The real challenge of photographing the Puffin, in flight, with a beak full of Sand Eel was being quick enough – 99% of the time the poor little souls would have to aim straight for their burrows to avoid the lurking, opportunistic gulls! Both of us sadly missed out on this holy grail photo but, on the positive side, it’s an excellent excuse to return!

Skomer Puffin in flight
Skomer Puffin in flight - Canon EOS 7D, 220mm, 1/2000 @ f/6.3, ISO 800

Once satisfied with our time spent with the Puffins (if there could ever be such a bold statement!) we completed our circuit of the island before leaving for the mainland on the 3pm ferry happy to have both had the opportunity to spend just a few hours on a very special island indeed.

Because Skomer is ultimately a refuge for the wildlife and we are fortunate guests there, services on the island are limited. There is a small toilet block situated at the farm in the centre of the island but it is vital you bring adequate clothing, sun protection, food and water. There is very little shade to be sought on the island and the only provision available on island is bottled water.

The view from Carn Llidi, St David's Head, Pembrokeshire
The view from Carn Llidi towards Penberry, St David's Head - Canon EOS 5D MkII, 40mm, 1/5 @ f/14, ISO 100

For more information on day visits to Skomer please visit the Welsh Wildlife Trust website and for wall art of Pembrokeshire and Wales please visit my UK gallery pages.

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