In search of puffins, I first visited Skomer in the spring of 2013. Being immediately captivated by the place, as soon as I returned home my thoughts turned to planning a repeat trip. Then rather than follow that up with a visit for the third year in a row, this year I decided to switch my attention to Skomer’s sister island Skokholm.
Like Skomer, Skokholm is an important sea-bird colony location, a Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales reserve, and host to a modest amount of overnight accommodation available for the public. However being rather less well known than Skomer there is much less information out there, especially from the perspective of photographers. So having returned to the real world after my first stay on Skokholm, here is my assessment of the island in comparison.
Both islands have a similar overnight population with, I think, twenty-nine on Skomer1 and twenty-five on Skokholm2. The big difference is that Skomer has up to 250 day trippers appearing six days a week, while Skokholm has just two boats a week and no option for day visits. Neither island could ever be described as anything less than serene, but the lack of day tourist means Skokholm feels even more laid back and peaceful.
Having now been to both Skomer and Skokholm, my feeling is that the latter offers potentially greater rewards but that it requires greater effort to turn that into a final end product.
On Skomer the two main puffin areas are North Haven (east-facing) and The Wick (west-facing). Both give the opportunity to get in among habituated puffins throughout the day, and no matter the direction of light and wind, you can always find a variety of angles to work.
By comparison, Skokholm has a single main accessible puffin area, Crab Bay. This is located on the south side of the island, and sits in a valley between two higher ridges such that it misses the early and late light. In addition, the wildlife trust request that nobody loiters on the path that leads down the slope and into the colony. You can either position yourself at the top of the slope overlooking the puffins, or use the path to access a small three-person hide that sits on the slope. Worthwhile photos from the hide are not impossible but by its very nature it is restrictive, and rather cosy if all three seats are taken. Up at the top of the slope there is more freedom to move around but you are not so immersed in the activity. Quite a few nests are located just to the east of this patch, while individual puffins will often wander around the accessible area. My most productive visit was a late morning when mist rolled in and softened the light while a parliament of puffins formed at the edge of the slope.
The second largest parliament of puffins occurs on The Neck, a flatter part of the island with a feel not unlike The Wick. In the final hour of the day large numbers of accessible puffins gather, to the point of blocking the footpath. However this area is east-facing so it is more of a challenge to take advance of the sunset golden hour. Unfortunately when this part of the island is basking in the first light of the day puffins are quite sparse and they pause only briefly before flight.
What makes Skokholm interesting is range of the locations where you find the birds around the island. The density of puffins is lower with gatherings only building towards large numbers as sunset approaches, and they tend to be less sure of human company. However the upside is a variety of terrain in which you can observe the birds. In particular, the birds frequent a variety of rocky outcrops plus the occasional man-made structure. If you are after wide-angle environment shots, many of the places around the coast of the island come across as more visually pleasing than the Wick.
Razorbills and Guillemots
When it comes to razorbills and guillemots, it is inarguable that Skomer and Skokholm cannot rival the mass opportunity presented by the birding mecca that is the Farne Islands. Most the birds that breed on Skomer and Skokholm do so on distant, inaccessible cliff faces. On Skomer a small number nest in positions that can be photographers at eye-level from the dock steps. I had hoped that this would occur in better numbers on Skokholm, but the reverse was true; the path up from the dock does not pass through an area of any nesting. Skokholm’s most accessible location is a small two person hide located on The Neck, that overlooks a cliff face colony. The birds are not at eye level but the distance is suitable for group shots at 500mm. This cliff face is north facing, and is viewed westward.
One area where Skomer is the stronger of the two islands, is for auks in the water. Any trip down to the dock on Skomer will present countless puffins floating in the North Haven bay and with a bit of patience some will drift into range. On Skokholm, the dock sits in a much smaller inlet and one which does not seem to favour birds. Inquisitive seals and a collection of jellyfish were my company.
Waders and waterfowl
Skokholm has a number of modest ponds. The most accessible of these is known as North Pond. The footpath runs alongside the north edge of the water so it should provide the opportunity to take photos from a low(ish) angle should an interesting bird be present. During my stay the highlight was a male ruff in breeding plumage. Compared to my trips to Skomer, curlew and oystercatchers seemed to be a much rarer sight.
Raptors and Corvids
Being in the right place at the right time is the deciding factor on either island, but with it’s lack of day visitors Skokholm remains quieter which can only increase the odds of coming across a subject at close quarters. Family groups of ravens were a common sight around the island. Reports of the island peregrines were frequent, alas when one decided to hover in the wind while it eyed me up, I had left my camera behind!
Unlike Skomer, Skokholm does not have any resident pairs of little owls or short-eared owls. However the latter are regular visitors to the island and an opportunity to photograph one might arise.
It might be as much to do with the route of the paths as the underlying geography, but either way I came away with the sense of a island that is slightly more rugged. For those that would like to do some landscape sessions during their stay, it felt like there were a greater number of locations that would avail themselves to capturing the drama of the high cliffs.
For anyone that has visited Skomer the accommodation on Skokholm will feel familiar, however it does lack a couple of home comforts that the bigger island manages to provide. There is no shower to enjoy come the end of the day, and compositing toilets takes the place of ones that flush. One nice touch with Skokholm is that island library is not tucked away in the wardens’ accommodation but is accessible to all; useful should you want to check out some information in one of the many field guides and monographs.
So, Skomer or Skokholm?
For first time visitors, especially those who have not already spent a lot of time with puffins elsewhere, I would recommend going with the more popular Skomer. There is an accessibility to The Wick that makes it the better introduction to Fratercula arctica. However for those who make regular pilgrimages to that corner of Wales, I think it would be a mistake not to experience Skokholm for yourself at least once. It is not just Skomer with a slightly different name.
If you are a photographer who has been to both islands, I would be interested to hear if you agree with my review.
1: Skomer: Two wardens, assistant warden, two Field Assistants, Hostel Warden, Long term volunteer, six weekly volunteers, sixteen overnight guests
2: Skokholm: Two wardens, long-term researcher, two long-term volunteers and twenty overnight guests.