I AM standing near some clifftops amid what can only be described as a blizzard of plump little black-and-white birds. They take off, they land, they flap furiously about in all directions, all but crashing into me. A cacophony of “awk-awk-aaaaaawks” fills my ears to bursting point — it is a spellbinding experience.
And it’s three o’clock in the morning.
I had set off across a scrap of the Irish Sea to Skomer, a 730-acre island off the Pembrokeshire coast, on a bright, sunny August day. Almost as soon as the tiny ferry chugged away from the excitingly precarious jetty at Martin’s Haven, the captain pointed out a raft of puffins bobbing about in the water.
“They’re the stragglers,” he explained. “Around 10,000 left the island just a few days ago.” I cursed my timing; for I defy anyone to spend time among puffins and not feel their endorphin levels shoot up.
Still, I consoled myself with the thought that Skomer, although it has no permanent human inhabitants, is a landing strip sans pareil for all manner of migrating birds — not only puffins, but black-backed gulls, fulmars, Northern gannets, guillemots, and razorbills, to name but a small fraction, and that’s not to mention the array of owls, waders, ducks, and sundry blow-ins.
The jewel in the island’s crown, however, is undoubtedly the Manx shearwater. These doughty and rather heroic little seabirds breed here in sandy burrows in such profusion that no one is quite sure how many there are, although “somewhere between 500,000 and a million” seems to be the general consensus.
SKOMER also manages to find space for a bird observatory, one of a dozen around Britain offering basic, reasonably priced accommodation at £30-60 per person, per night, depending on the season (children half-price).
It means that you can really get away from it all — there are no cars, shops, or televisions here, and scant phone reception — without actually having to leave the country. When the final boat of the day takes the last day-trippers back to the mainland, there is a palpable sense of having been cut off from the world and all its demands.
Even more striking than the splendid sense of isolation was the feeling that I was treading in the footsteps of distant ancestors. You do not need to be a mystic to perceive this: close to the top of the cliff steps as I arrived, I saw a large menhir, the Harold Stone, and prehistoric walls stretch out across the island.
From the end of the Stone Age there have been people here building themselves homes, marking out fields, and fashioning tiny dams to create freshwater pools. And Skomer’s Iron Age remains are among the best preserved in Europe, leading to the island’s designation as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
THE accommodation nowadays is rather more upmarket than the round-houses of old. A friendly warden showed me to my room in a lovingly converted barn. I took off my watch, and popped it in a drawer for the duration.
The only time-specific event on the island is an informal meeting, held each evening, for those who wish to report bird and other wildlife sightings, and I was confident that someone or other would give me a nod when the time came.
I assembled a picnic in the well-equipped communal kitchen, and set off to explore the island. A four-mile walk on the footpath runs more or less around Skomer’s coast. Add in the many other paths that meander from the barn, and there’s plenty to fill in a day, because this isle is one squealing, squawking, flapping, scrapping, biffing, whiffling, ululating, mating, pulsating mass of avian life.
It is also an island of many parts, despite its diminutive size and lack of trees. Day after day, just when I thought I had got to know the entire island, I would come across an unfamiliar path, and discover swaths of unexplored territory, with its own inlets and cliffs and secret valleys and burrows.
Rabbits were introduced in the 13th century as a food source, and both brown and black varieties live here today. The island is also awash with bluebells in the spring, but, as a rule, only the hardiest plants survive the rabbits’ busy teeth.
I saw sea campion, though, and the red campion’s flash of florid pink. The thrift was no longer in flower, but it was delightful to come across the largest expanse of chamomile I’ve ever seen. I lay down beside it, and, before I knew it, the warm sun on my face and the cries of kittiwakes on the cliffs below had lulled me to sleep.
THIS bonus nap meant that I was relatively fresh when I slipped out of my room in the wee small hours to sample the Manx Shearwater Experience. Just by the Harold Stone, I was joined by an academic from Oxford called Ollie, who is studying the Manxies, the affectionate name by which they’re universally known.
He told me that, in order to avoid being killed and eaten by gulls, the adult birds stay out at sea, choosing the very darkest nights to fly in with a stomach full of sand eels to feed the fluffy grey offspring sitting safely in their burrows.
Every second that the parents spend on the ground is charged with the danger of imminent dispatch by a gull. To complicate matters, they also need to locate a high point, or a good clear runway, to get airborne again. It is perhaps not unreasonable, given these conditions, that a state of mayhem ensues.
The fine weather taught us a lesson in patience, but, eventually, the clouds passed before the moon and we became immersed in the flapping and shrieking of thousands of Manxies. “They’ll look for any height advantage they can in order to take off,” Ollie told me.
To my delight, one of the birds then began climbing up me before exploding noisily into the night, vanishing into the sheltering darkness. I had become a human launchpad! How many holidays offer you that?
For more information visit welshwildlife.org/skomer, or phone 01239 621600.
Four more observatories with accommodation:
Stay in an old lighthouse on Portland Bill, a promontory that has been a magnet for naturalists, walkers, artists, and stone-carvers for centuries. You will see plenty of birds and moths (there are moth-traps in the garden). If you fancy a little more privacy than the lighthouse affords, there is a keeper’s cottage next door. Phone 01395 820553.
Spurn Head, that intriguing sliver of land poking out into the North Sea, is a wild and wonderful place, and perfect for blowing away the cobwebs. You will see swallows, house martins, and seabirds aplenty, and history buffs will enjoy the forts and bunkers bequeathed by two world wars. No dogs. Phone 01964 650479.
Fair Isle, Shetland Isles
Offering an amazing opportunity to stay on the most isolated inhabited island in Britain, the observatory on Fair Isle was built just five years ago, and not only provides swish three-star accommodation, but affords some of the finest birdwatching in the country, including storm petrels, skuas, and puffins. Open April to October. Phone 01595 760258.
Bardsey Island, Gwynedd
Two miles from the tip of the Llyn Peninsula, Bardsey Island is popular with artists and photographers, who are drawn by the natural beauty and exceptional light. The island is home to about 300 grey seals, besides rare birds such as pied wheatear, paddyfield warbler, and bee-eater, and staples including Manx shearwater, chough, and puffin. The observatory, based in a Victorian farmhouse, has room for 12 guests. Phone 01626 773908.
For more options, visit birdobscouncil.org.uk.