Skomer Weekend June 2007 - Travel Log
Wednesday 13 June - leave for Wales
With much excitement, we loaded our stuff into the car and set off on the long journey from Brighton to South West Wales. The journey was long and at times stressful, not least because of the intermittently bad weather. We stopped off at a supermarket en route to get some "vittles" - you have to bring your own food and supplies to Skomer. Prior to the trip we had decided on bread & a pot of marmite to do us for breakfast, cheese, pickle and rolls for our lunch and cans of soup, veggie sausages and baked beans for dinner & a jar of coffee (luckily neither of us uses milk!). Also, the most essential items: four cans of beer each and a small bottle of port!
So shopping done and packed away, we headed on to our destination - The Wolfscastle Hotel. The excellent food and friendly staff at the hotel more than made up for our travel stress - we decided it was the perfect place to rest up before undertaking the short journey the next morning to where we'd catch the ferry to Skomer.
Thursday 14 June - The Journey To Skomer
We left the hotel at around 08:00 hrs and drove down to Martin's Haven - about an hour further south. We noted that things got increasingly rural with suitably twisty-turny lanes as we neared the destination - the National Trust car park just up from the coast at Martin's Haven. We got free parking because Frank had joined the National Trust. When we arrived at the car park, we noted that we'd have to trek quite a way down the hill to the coast to actually get to the pick-up-point for the ferry. We didn't fancy lugging our camera equipment, as well as our luggage bags, all the way down there!
Upon being asked, the car park attendant dutifully moved the barrier and allowed us to drive further down the track leading down to the coast - what a relief! Down that track there is an information hut and some loos (also a big relief!) and it was here that we dropped off our luggage before Frank parked the car back in the car park and walked back down.
We noted that many Swallows were flying in-and-out of the hut and loo areas, and, upon closer inspection found that there were several swallow nests in the corners of the loo ceiling! These swallows seemed to be particularly sociable and checked us out somewhat by flying really close to our heads - I expect they were actually telling us to go away rather than being friendly! We also noted a Sedge Warbler singing out in the open.
We walked the rest of the way down the hill to the jetty which is located at the end of a narrow, rocky path set up from the stony beach that then drops down towards the sea. It was rather tiring lugging everything down there so we sat on our bags and waited for the ferry with much anticipation! To make the wait more enjoyable a Black Redstart was hopping around the rocks near the shoreline - surely a good omen.
Ferry? More like boat, albeit one licensed to carry 50 passengers! However, this added to the fun - not least because of the bizarre health and safety pre-recorded announcement that was made once actually making some knots towards Skomer that we couldn't hear above the noise of the sea and boat engine! The boat was packed with tourists and many Americans too and it was rather amusing to watch the rather stroppy skipper staggering around amidst the bags and people's legs to collect the £8.00 each for a return ticket to Skomer!
The journey took around 20 minutes slaloming amongst the various other islands that rest alongside Skomer off the south-west coast of Wales. The journey provided us with our first views of some of the birds we'd soon get well acquainted with - including some good close views of Gannets.
Disembarking at Skomer was probably the most stressful bit involving trekking up some steep steps with our luggage to get to the registration point. Luckily, just when we thought we wouldn't be able to manage, we were rescued by Anna, a Welsh Wildlife Trust lady, who is obviously much fitter than me - she actually carried our bags up the rest of the way telling us to bypass the queue of people waiting to pay their landing fees which we had already paid in advance as part of our booking fee for staying on the island. We felt really cool and "official" somehow, bypassing all the tourists who were quizzical about our preferential treatment!
The stress of landing nearly, but not quite, eroded the amazing vision of being surrounded by Puffins, Razorbills and Guillemots on their cliff-side colonies and in the water, completely unconcerned at the human activity going on around them and all making themselves successfully heard above the noise of tourist chatter and the boat!
At the top, we listened to the warden's introductory talk warning us to keep to the paths and the usual tourist advice. Our bags were loaded onto the trailer of a tractor and Frank and I were given directions to get to the converted ancient farmhouse located about half a mile ahead at the centre of the island where we would be staying for 2 nights.
So we set off up the rest of the hill to the top where we had considerable views over the rest of the island. The first thing I noticed about the island was its colour - the land seemed awash with purple flowers (red campions I think) and apparently earlier in the year it is covered in bluebells too. We noted that there were burrows everywhere - including inland - evidence of Manx Shearwater which we hoped to see later (Puffins tend to have their burrows closer to the cliff edges). There were also many rabbit warrens too.
Further along the track, the farmhouse began to loom in the distance - it seemed to be close, but then wasn't - then got closer again - quite a strange optical illusion given by the way the path dips in a particular direction at one point! On the way, we noted the presence of hundreds of Lesser Black-Backed Gulls - the most common gull on the island - along with Herring Gulls; some swooping over us in a noisy and nosy fashion, others watching or yelling at one another from prominent rocky perches.
Just when we thought we'd never get there, we arrived at the farmhouse. Anna, having overtaken us in the luggage-laden tractor, was waiting and assigned the "guillemot" room to us (all the rooms are named, quite appropriately, after birds!). We dumped our bags and Anna showed us the facilities that we would be sharing with 16 or so people from Oxford University who were staying on the island to study the Manx Shearwaters.
There is a boot/coat room, a living/dining area with a bookshelf full of useful reference materials and a kitchen with two gas cookers and a fridge along with various utensils and crockery.
Anna told us that since water is such a precious resource on the island, the rule of the bathroom was "if it's yellow let it mellow, if it's brown flush it down" and to be conservative with washing-up and shower water. She said that the showers are solar powered - no sun means zero hot water - and that given the weather they had had of late, we should expect the water to be lukewarm at its best! The electrics are solar and wind powered but there is a backup fossil-fuel powered generator for those. In the couple of days we were there, I was surprised at how people would just leave the lights on in the kitchen (particularly) when it was unused and so I kept turning everything off - my way of reducing my impact given that I found myself having to flush the loo more than I'd hoped to have to due to my traveller's tummy!
Anna then left us to it. Our twin room was comfortable - a pillow and duvet on each bed but no bottom sheet. We had been asked in advance to bring either a sleeping bag and pillowcase or a sheet, pillowcase and duvet cover. We chose the former but next time will choose the latter - much easier to carry than a bulky sleeping bag!
Since we had arrived there mid-morning, the heavens had opened and a thick fog had followed it. We couldn't believe it! We decided to unpack our food and have some lunch and a beer and see what happened. The kitchen became busy as the Oxford University people returned sodden wet and hungry from their research. Our pickle jar disappeared pretty much as soon as we unloaded it, but on my rather defensive entrance to the full living/dining room and an "ahem, can we have our pickle back" there were immediate apologies and offers of replacement food! It was all very amicable and very interesting over that few days listening into debriefs and briefs about what the students would study that day - e.g. effect of tourists on puffin behaviour, etc.
I had been convinced that the weather was going to be a disaster - it had certainly looked as if it intended to be inclement for the rest of the day. However, in the hour that we had our lunch, the fog began to lift as our excitement welled at the idea of being able to go out exploring after all!
Thursday 14 June - Day 1 Explorations of Skomer
Armed with optics, we set off. The island is about 4 miles walk around the circumference of the main part of it and there is a separate part of it joined by a thin strip of cliff which is not accessible to tourists. We had bought the guide book (a bargain at £1) which includes a map of routes around the island so decided to explore the north-west quadrant first.
I have already mentioned the gulls, but not previously the smaller birds we had already seen on the way to the farmhouse which we now saw in even greater numbers. The island seems to be teeming with Meadow Pipits doing their poor imitation of Skylark which we also saw and which seemed to have a rather strange dialect! When we crossed the North Valley we noted Whitethroat and a Willow Warbler / Chiffchaff and as we approached the northern coast, a Peregrine Falcon flew over the rocks towards us and right over our heads - definitely "showing well"! We got to the coast overlooking the Garland Stone and noted over a dozen Grey Seals basking in the sun, which by this time had deigned to come out in full blast.
We also noted that many Oystercatchers were present all over the island and these were giving us their particularly ear-piercing alarm calls - we saw several fledglings which appeared to explain the particular fuss the adults were making. We obviously tried to be as unobtrusive as possible. The fledglings were brown and fluffy - in stark contrast to the black and white sartorial elegance of their parents. For those oystercatchers that had fledglings, both parents appeared to be present acting as chaperones for their young and one parent would take responsibility for acting as decoy - attempting to lead us away from the other parent and the fledglings. We noticed that the meadow pipits in particular tended also to employ similar decoy behaviour.
Frank pointed to three flying corvids that were making a strange noise - Ravens - fantastic; another lifer for me. We also saw several Wrens at various points around the island displaying and yelling their little faces off in a very open manner. Curlew too seemed to be a fairly common sight in most places on the island - far more habituated than I've ever seen on the mainland some would fly quite close overhead or just sit atop a rock watching our activities.
In the rocky cliff areas, we noted several Wheatears - and their fledglings too which certainly took us a while to ID! We also saw quite a few Rock Pipits. Interestingly, as the tourists that had also been mooching around the island disappeared to catch the ferry, more of these birds and their fledglings seemed to come out of their hiding places and seemed unusually habituated - perhaps it was just the time of day: bird dinner time! Whatever the reason, the wheatears in particular were easy to photograph as they allowed us to get to within about 20 feet of them.
It was an amazing feeling: feeling so alone in the warm sunshine to enjoy the peace albeit broken by the noise of the birds - a far nicer noise than that which we are used to: traffic, aeroplanes and people. What a special, tranquil place. As we slowly mooched back to the farmhouse, I could feel all my people-related stresses evaporating away along with my sun-induced perspiration!
One of Frank's "bogey" birds has been short-eared owl. When we returned to the farmhouse, we retrieved our portable chairs and went to sit on the slope at the back of the farmhouse overlooking the expanse of the purple-flowered, grassy and gorse/shrub mottled North Valley - where we had been told it was likely we'd see short-eared owl.
We sat and waited, accompanied by the usual suspects: Meadow Pipits, a Whitethroat signing its heart out, a noisy Wren and a bunch of Linnet, both adult and juvenile. Just as we thought we'd never see our target, Frank spotted it - a beautiful, pale Short-Eared Owl - doing its butterfly-like flapping low along the valley before flying over the crest of the ridge and out of sight. It is just as well that Frank knows the "giss" and appearance of this owl because in my ignorance I would have thought it a barn owl! It was also just as well Frank wasn't time-keeping (which is unusual for him and shows how much he had relaxed) because we worked out we saw the owl at 18:35 hrs - and we'd meant to return to the farmhouse at 18:30! We couldn't believe our luck - a lifer for both of us.
After having returned, jubilant, to the farmhouse and had our supper and a beer we walked down to the warden's house (the house you see when you first land on the island) for the Bird Logging session that takes place there at 21:00 each night. The house is lovely with a big, roomy living/office area with fabulous views over the coast. I could imagine living there...
We were impressed by how informative the session was and how open everyone was about what they were doing/what research they were doing. I was stunned at how open the warden and his assistants were about the business of managing the island and their plans, considering we were total strangers to them - they seemed to really want to get everyone involved and gather opinions. They discussed quite openly the management problems they have on the island, such as rabbits and how to manage them, and what impact such management might have being that the rabbits have been there for a few hundred years now and perhaps the wildlife and environment have actually adapted to the point where the rabbits have become an essential part of the ecosystem. It was very interesting and Frank and I even contributed our findings to the actual Bird Logging part of the session.
Thursday 14 June - The Manxie Experience: Night 1
We decided to leave the meeting early because the strong overhead lighting in the room was giving me a migraine and I didn't want to become ill and miss seeing possibly the main target of our trip - the elusive and nocturnal Manx Shearwater. Commonly known as "Manxies", we were told that these birds begin strutting their stuff at around midnight. At this time of year when they are breeding, Manxies return to their nests to relieve their partners from egg or baby-sitting duties. The relieved partner then flies off to spend a day or so at sea before then returning to assume his or her own position as nest guardian and in so doing relieving the other partner. Sounds like a very fair way to raise kids - perhaps us humans could learn something from this?!
Manxie "nests" are in fact burrows in the ground and are scattered all over the island in varying densities - including inland. Apart from not hurting the Manxies, one of the reasons to stay on the paths is simply to avoid a twisted ankle caused by a misplaced foot in a Manxie burrow!
So, Frank and I hung about expectantly in the growing darkness, the grassy areas surrounding the paths lit up by occasional clusters of glow worms like beacons to guide our way. We had been told we could use torches but to try and not shine them on the birds. In the end we decided to mostly cope with the darkness because of the irritation of having a torch on, then off, then having to wait to get your eyes to adjust to the dark. And it was far more fun experiencing the darkness and the glow worms.
Sure enough, around midnight we heard a sound that (to me anyway) sounded like something repeatedly yelling what to me sounded like "Greta Garbo" in a funny gull-like voice! Gradually, more voices joined this throng as incoming Manxies attempted to locate their burrows and their partners replied "I'm here" - at least I assume a communication of this style goes on!
As it grew darker, it became more spooky; the lack of light pollution and cloud cover meant it became very dark indeed. We were interested and surprised at just how much our human eyes could adjust to this and it wasn't long before the sky was so busy that we were able to make out the ghostly flying things against the sky - our first Manx Shearwater sightings.
As the evening went on, the degree of flappings, flutterings, crashes and thuds increased. Whilst known for their long-distance navigational abilities - Manxies fly several thousand miles in a year and spend most of their time in flight - they are not known for their ability to avoid bumping into land-based objects (there not being much into which to bump at sea!) - so we had been warned to expect collisions! I had a Manxie fly into the back of my leg (it luckily appeared unharmed) and we had various close shaves, including a Manxie foot on my head that nearly dragged my hair band off and Frank really nearly did have a close shave when a Manxie seemed as if to try and grab hold of his beard!
Manxies don't land in the way other birds do - they kind of "crash land" and then crawl their way along the ground into their burrows. This makes them seem and sound rather creepy and rodent-like! As it got busier into the early hours of the morning, Frank and I alternated between ducking our heads and dodging crawling Manxies with our feet! It was a really awesome experience, not least because the Manxies seemed completely oblivious to our presence!
That same night, we noted a very powerful beam of light being aimed towards the heavens - picking out the millions of silvery birds (Manxies are pale underneath) crossing through the beam. We walked towards the light (as they say!) and found that two people were making a video of the birds flying through the beam. It was amazing to watch and gave us really good views of this strange and mysterious bird. The beam of the torch also showed up smaller birds - perhaps Storm Petrol - but we weren't sure.
So, deafened and very tired but extremely contented, we returned to the farm to hit the sack at around 02:30!
Friday 15 June - Day 2 Explorations of Skomer
The next day we had a bit of a lie-in due to our late night Manxie experience. We still hadn't seen chough - a lifer for both Frank and me. So, fuelled up on toast, marmite and coffee we set off to explore the south of the island. First we went to The Wick viewpoint joining the many tourists and two volunteers, one of which was Cudyll Bach, a fellow member of Bird Forum. It was quite strange nearing The Wick seeing these hoards of people all lined up along the cliffside, and, as we neared we saw what they were enjoying: spectacular views of colonies of Puffins, Kittiwakes (the first we'd seen on the island), Guillemots and Razorbills.
Puffins are fascinating to watch: coming out of their burrows, taking a bit of a running jump and dropping off the side of the cliff to fly off for a few hours before returning to land at their burrow entrances with a bill filled with sand eels, a quick look left and right, then down into the burrow to deliver the load to their burrow-bound young. The burrows are located along and down the side of the cliffs extending inland about 50 yards from the cliff edges. I had only seen these auks in photos or on the telly before and they are considerably smaller in real life than I had anticipated. I had expected them to be Herring-Gull-sized but in fact they were probably only Jackdaw sized!
We noted that the Puffins generated a lot of interest in the Gulls milling overhead the Puffin burrows. We were told that the Gulls hover in wait to hijack the puffin's catch of sand eels. Remembering a study I read about the propagation across the country of milk-bottle-top-piercing-and-cream-nicking Blue Tit behaviour, I wondered about the way in which such apparently parasitic sand eel theft behaviour had evolved in these Gulls...
Just as I was pondering that one, Frank pointed out several Chough scrabbling and feeding on part of the grassy slope down to the sea adjacent the cliffs amidst the puffin and Manxie burrows. Another lifer for us both, yes we were "choughed" to see them! The area was so busy with humans that we decided to return later at around 16:00 hrs when the day-trippers would have gone (the Dale Princess leaves at 15:00 hrs). So we headed off towards The Mew Stone and enjoyed views of a Buzzard flying along the coast. Right atop The Mew Stone were perched some Shag - another lifer for me! These were also flying about along with Ravens and the ubiquitous gulls.
We returned to the farmhouse for lunch and later returned to The Wick viewpoint to play at photographing Puffins - especially trying to get the classic photo of a Puffin with a bill-full of sand eels! Frank made me very jealous by getting an excellent photo and, after a lot of persistence and help from Frank pointing things out - action shots are not my forte - I did manage to get a couple of shots of my own. I then concentrated on my speciality - getting close-up shots of Puffins at unusual angles or looking out to sea in a "moody" fashion. Hopefully some of the photos in the gallery illustrate this.
The weather looking increasingly ominous, we returned to the farmhouse to have a good look at our photos and then have a nap in preparation for our late night Manxie hunting expedition. We had been told that we should go down to near the landing point of the Dale Princess if we wanted to experience the ultimate Manxie interaction! We had also been told that the path adjacent to that which goes down to the jetty leads to a beach and a quay upon which you can sit to enjoy Storm Petrol sightings. So, after our nap and some supper and coffee, we went out - this time armed also with our cameras and flash guns!
Friday 15 June - The Manxie Experience: Night 2
We trudged down to the quay and parked our butts on its cold concrete, our legs dangling over the side hovering over the pebbly beach below. We sat in the looming darkness, but not much happened for ages expect for the continuous, chastising noise of two very angry Oystercatchers as we got rather damp due to the misty rain that had begun to drizzle down on us. Eventually, flitting, swallow-like shadows seemed to come and go over the fluorescing breakers a little way down the beach - Storm Petrol - another lifer for us both. Frank reckoned that these were probably the smaller birds we'd seen in the spotlight the previous night.
The bedlam noise of the two Oystercatchers got too much for me - they won their battle to remove us from their territory - we headed back up the path to the visitors arrival point where there is a large wooden display unit with a slight roof overhang upon which various posters are displayed and where visitors can buy leaflets. Nearby, there is a bench upon which we sat expectantly. Sure enough, the noise and flutterings of the Manxies increased to far greater proportions than where we had been located the night before.
Yes, this was definitely the right place for full-on Manxie interactions: one of them nearly crash-landed onto our laps and was actually sat on the bench beside us for a while before scrabbling off the back in a suitably Manxie ungainly manner. There was a loud thud as another bashed into the wooden display unit - I hope it was unharmed - they do seem to be very resilient perhaps because of their dense feathers! Anyway, it was absolute bedlam down there - Manxies flying and crawling all over the place.
We had decided to take our cameras this time and have a go at flash photography. We had been advised that this was permitted, but to only take one flash photo of any one particular Manxie or groups of Manxies. Can you imagine trying to get a camera set up to focus at the right distance to get such a photo in the pitch blackness? Obviously AF is useless in such circumstances - you have to pre-focus. I used a technique whereby I'd use the AF assist of my 550 EX flash unit to get my Canon 1D MkII N and 100-400 mm L IS USM lens to focus on something at an approximate distance away - such as a white tourist information sign which appeared eerily pale in the darkness - and then use focus lock on the camera. Then I'd point the camera lens at a pre-determined area of the sky, stop looking through the viewfinder and wait for a Manxie to cross the path of the field of view I had set up to cover with the camera and fire the shutter if the Manxie was at the right kind of distance away! This was very tricky and you can see my rather dodgy attempts in the gallery! But oh, what fun! We obviously had more luck photographing ground-bound Manxies as you can see from the gallery!
At some silly time in the early hours we decided, having had our fill of noise, near-collisions and frustrating photographic experiences, to return to the farmhouse and our beckoning beds. En route, I decided to attempt to get a photo of Frank walking up the hill surrounded by Manxies. I thought this would be easy - not so!
As we wandered back up the steep, stony path, I turned my back on Frank to check a setting on the camera and boy was I regretful, for no sooner had I turned away and I heard Frank yell out behind me. I leapt round and put the torch on him to find him rubbing his head - a Manxie had just crashed straight into the side of his face! The problem is that Frank is nearly six foot five and therefore a good target for Manxie collisions! We shone the torch on the Manxie which appeared unhurt and soon crawled into its burrow. As to Frank, he said he was a bit dazed but wasn't actually hurt, and in some jubilation at such an ultimate close encounter, but irritation that I'd managed to miss what would have been an awesome photo-op, we made our way back to the farmhouse for a night cap of port. In the light of the kitchen we saw that the side of Frank's face was mottled in black smeary stuff and he found his glasses had feather imprints on them! We decided that it was suitably apt to say that "Frank got covered in Manx mank" due to the experience!
Saturday 16 June - Departure from Skomer
The boat was due to pick us up and take us back to the mainland at around 09:00 hours, so we got up at around 07:30 to wash, pack up our stuff and have our toast, marmite and coffee breakfast.
I had a quick mooch around the farmhouse and took photos of the area and then Anna put our luggage on the tractor's trailer and Frank and I headed back down to the jetty, me taking photos of the area en route. If we thought it was hectic getting on to Skomer, it was even worse trying to leave! The Dale Princess was packed with impatiently disembarking tourists squeezing past us and our luggage on the narrow path from the jetty.
However, we were soon, somewhat wistfully, on our way - I could certainly have done with some more time there. The tranquillity of the place, its variety of flora and fauna and the absence of the "hecticness" associated with our modern lives: cars, noise, deadlines, etc., was something I could have done with experiencing a little more of! We told ourselves we'd come back next year. We also reminded ourselves how lucky we had been with the weather because there had been severe weather warnings for much of the country for that weekend and we'd only suffered a bit of bad weather!
Our arrival at Martin's Haven was also rather exciting: no-one to help us with our disembarking of the boat with our bags and the jetty and path even more narrow than that on Skomer - and littered with a queue of some one hundred tourists waiting their turn to get on the boat! That was a bit daft because of course it hampered our ability to actually get past them back along the path to join the main cars-width track to get back up to the car park! So lots of "excuse me's" and people clambering on top of rocky ledges to allow us room to pass and we just about managed it, landing in an exhausted heap on the track the other end! But then if you want an expedition it is part of the experience to have to struggle a little!
Skomer. An awesome place and well done to the warden, his assistant and all the volunteers for making it such an amazing place. If you haven't been before make it a priority - we went in June, and I guess June is a great time to go re the breeding season. However, if you don't mind showers that are a bit temperamental and sharing kitchens and utensils - and sometimes food - with other people, then do go and stay on Skomer. We intend to return next year. It was a fabulous experience. It really is worth staying there rather than visiting for the day - that's the only way you will get to experience Manx Shearwater.
At the bottom of the page are some links for information about Skomer.
Saturday 16 June - The Forest Of Dean
So Skomer done, I walked up, minus luggage, to collect the vehicle from the car park and, thanks to the nice attendant, drove the vehicle down to where Frank was waiting with the luggage. We then made the journey from Martin's Haven to The Forest of Dean where we would stay that night before driving back towards Brighton the next day.
We arrived at the hotel - The Speech House Hotel - at around 14:15, starving hungry. Upon dumping our bags and going food hunting, we were told by the rather unfriendly barman upon asking for a menu that, contrary to what the receptionist had told us, they'd stopped serving food! The reason: a wedding! We had already deduced there was a wedding going on from the rather rude and discourteous clusters of people at the hotel entrance when we tried to make our way in! I have nothing against weddings but why do the guests always behave as if they are the only ones staying at a hotel?
Anyway, upon asking said barman if there was anywhere he could recommend that would serve us a beer and a bite at that time, he said in an equally unfriendly manner that everyone in the area stops serving at 14:30. "Do these people actually want to make any money?" was what Frank and my exchange of incredulous glances said! He did give us one suggestion, so we drove there - a little way up the road - like bats out of hell in our desperation for quarry only to find that they'd stopped serving food at 14:00 that day! We decided that beer had to take priority at this rather stressed point, so we decided to stay put and tolerate the pickled eggs which was the only source of sustenance available at that time!
After that, we returned to the hotel to unpack before then driving to the RSPB "Aren't Birds Brilliant" Peregrine watch point at Symonds Yat. This was good for various reasons. Firstly, on the path towards the viewing point we came across a tourist hut that, in addition to the usual memorabilia, actually served hot food! Stomach requirements having well overridden any birding requirements at that point, Frank promptly ordered and enjoyed a nice egg and bacon roll and I tucked into a toasted sandwich! Sated, we crossed the over-road bridge and arrived at the actual viewing point where we enjoyed a friendly reception from the three RSPB volunteers.
Frank and I look very obvious birdwatcher/photographer types with all the camera gear and L series lenses along with our Country Innovation clothing! This tends to make people think we are really serious - even "professional" (I wish) - and quickly gets people talking to you. We got the usual "you're obviously already members of the RSPB" (of course we are!).
So the volunteers and us, gradually joined by other tourists, waited - no peregrine sightings for ages from atop the incredibly high and impressive viewpoint of Symonds Yat - a natural rocky outcrop overlooking the river and valley some four hundred feet below. Of course, the height of this viewing platform means that you can be at eye-level with any peregrine flying high along the valley (as they tend to do). Eventually our patience was rewarded by the sight of a Buzzard flying past. Then, some twenty minutes later, sure enough we were told a Peregrine was approaching - and there she was, with a pigeon in her talons, flying along the valley (parallel to us) towards some adjacent cliffs upon which a rocky ledge houses a peregrine nest complete with three fledglings. The fledglings themselves occasionally flew out for a brief linger, practising their aerobatic skills between the trees on the cliffs. I was fiddling with my camera when she flew past and never managed to get a shot - the nest was too far away to get any decent pics either.
Whilst we were at Symonds Yat, one of the volunteers pointed out a Mute Swan way down at the river's edge below us sitting on a nest of eggs. We were told that the river level was rising to the point the nest would be carried away and that this had already happened to this particular swan a few weeks ago. Sure enough, the exact same thing happened whilst we were there. It was very upsetting seeing the swan with her head submerged digging around as if trying to find her eggs whilst the bits of nest flowed down the river in pooh-stick fashion. Natural selection in action I guess, for if the swan can't choose a sensible nest site then... and all that....
I have to say the RSPB continues to impress me with its organisation of such activities. The volunteers clearly loved their subject - and the peregrines they keep an eye on. A great deal of effort was evidenced by having the right leaflets available, scopes for people to use and even a kind of toy peregrine thing to get the kids fired up. Well done RSPB, you make these members proud!
So, after a bit more banter with the volunteers and various visitors, we headed back to the car and then back to the hotel just in time to avoid the rainy downpour! That evening we had dinner in the hotel, and I have to say that the quality of the food somewhat made up for the discourteous reception that we'd received earlier. However, the noise from the wedding and their band in the adjoining room was rather off-putting, not least because the sax player of the band evidently didn't have his or her instrument properly tuned! And we noted how rude the wedding guests were - not meeting eye contact with us or returning a smile.
So, we hadn't been impressed by our initial introduction to the people of the Forest of Dean. However, the beautiful forested ecology of the area: old pine as well as deciduous woodland, along with the bird life, more than made up for the area's deficiency in the Homo sapiens arena. BTW, before anyone flames me, I am sure that there are plenty of nice people in the Forest of Dean, just that we didn't really get to meet any of them except for the RSPB people! The other thing that tickled us was that, New-Forest-like, sheep wandered freely about in the area and over the roads - the hotel even has a cattle grid at the car park entrance! And, at one point when we were sitting having early evening drinks, a sheep "wandered" over towards the hotel's main entrance (no cattle grid) in a very inquisitive manner and we half expected to see its nose pushed up against the glazed door as if to ask for a drink - of Shepherds Neame, perhaps!
Anyway, negative comments aside, the next morning we awoke having had a restful night devoid of disturbance - we were thankfully in a separate building block from the hotel and its wedding. We had our breakfast and then set off to our first planned destination of that morning - New Fancy Viewpoint - a likely site to see goshawks which would be yet another lifer for me! Whilst not an official RSPB site (and with no volunteers present therefore) there was an information point and a viewing platform. We enjoyed close up views of Willow Warblers messing about in the silver birch trees, the tops of which were usefully almost level with the top rail of the viewing platform fence. Then a local birder and his son arrived and he pointed out a Goshawk: a pale grey form atop a pine tree way off in the distance. Not a good view but at least a tick!
We then travelled onto RSPB Nagshead. Frank's research had discovered that this was the place to see another lifer for us both - Pied Flycatcher ("pied flick"). We didn't have much luck for ages in this forested RSPB run site, nor in the Lower Hide. However, on the way back Frank spotted her - a female Pied Flycatcher doing its characteristic flick-out-of-a-treetop- and-catch-a-fly-then-flick-back-onto-the-tree-to-munch-it behaviour! We were sad to not have seen the more strikingly coloured male, but nevertheless, yet another lifer!
Sunday 17 June - Home Via Aston Rowant Red Kite Watchpoint
We headed home in a very happy mood - it would be about a three hour journey home. Frank - who is much more clued up than me about where to see what bird - suggested we go back via the M40 to go to the famous red kite viewing location at Aston Rowant (off Junction 6). With that in mind, we stopped off at a nearby garage to fuel up and get the even more essential fuel of sweeties, snacks and drinks and to the M40 we went.
The weather was becoming rather inclement at this point, but before the downpour we managed to get some spectacular sightings of Red Kite - on two occasions two different individuals flew directly above us some thirty feet up and we hardly had to move far from the car to experience this. This was just as well as Frank had suggested we walk some way along the hillside there and at this point I was so knackered and stiff from all the walking on Skomer and elsewhere that we'd done that I just couldn't countenance the idea of any more walking!
Unfortunately the weather conditions meant I didn't quite set the exposure compensation right on my camera, so the Red Kite photos are not great. However, since this is one of my favourite birds, I was very pleased to get a second change to see them (the first time was last year on the way to Rutland for the Bird Fair, again thanks to Frank).
After all that excitement, we decided that we should make the hour and a half or so journey back to Brighton. So that was our trip in perhaps more than a nutshell!
Here is some information about the places we visited:
So what of the lifers we clocked up?
6 for Frank: Short-Eared Owl, Manx Shearwater, Storm Petrel, Chough, Goshawk, Pied Flycatcher
10 for Didi: Razorbill, Puffin, Raven, Short-Eared Owl, Manx Shearwater, Storm Petrel, Chough, Shag, Goshawk, Pied Flycatcher