Friday 22 to Monday 25 April saw the first of four scheduled Gower Ringing Group trips to Skokholm Island, Pembrokeshire. The Gower team comprised Sarah Davies, Amy Schwartz, Richard Dann and Owain Gabb, who joined a number of ringers from the Teifi Ringing Group, all of whom had visited the island previously.
The weather was breezy throughout our four day stay, with a moderate north-easterly wind for most of the trip that eventually swung round to the east and finally to the south-west. The wind was generally too strong for mist netting, so we concentrated efforts on the Heligoland traps as well as nocturnal captures of Manx shearwaters.
Day 1 saw us set out from Dale just after midday and head around St Anne’s Head to land at Peter’s Bay, a journey of a little over 20 minutes. The swell at the jetty slightly complicated the landing, but we were soon on the island top where we received a welcome and briefing from the wardens, Richard Brown and Giselle Eagle. Having put our stuff in our rooms and settled in a little, we were keen to work the three Heligoland traps. During our stay the most effective of these was the Well Heligoland, which has been constructed in an area where a small stream rises and there is scattered scrub present. Later in the season this area will become lush with yellow flag and common reed, but the only shelter in the area during our stay was provided by stunted elders and young willows.
The highlights of the day were a male Greenland wheatear and a male common redstart in the Cottage Heligoland. Otherwise the catch was dominated by willow warblers and blackcaps. After dinner, in the very well-equipped kitchen, we did bird log before some of the group headed out to catch Manx shearwaters along pre-defined transects that avoided fragile areas of soil cap.
The next two days saw us splitting our time between birding and ringing. On the second morning Amy found a shore lark. This was the fourth for Skokholm, a new Welsh species for most people (if not everyone) and established her place in island immortality as it required a painting on the toilet board! A female Lapland bunting was also present sporadically in the same area, sometimes showing well, but often disappearing. Other migrants over the duration of our stay included two merlin, a cuckoo, at least four ring ouzels, knot and a grey plover (the latter two species being on the North Pond), and regular small groups of whimbrel. It would have been nice if the alpine swift that passed over the island during the morning before we landed had lingered! However, the local cast of seabirds which included puffins, razorbills, guillemots and fulmar, as well as the mixed large gull colony, provided a great additional spectacle, with the interactions between individuals always fascinating.
Ringing was hard work for much of the trip. The catch was dominated by willow warblers, with up to 30 birds trapped each day. The supporting cast in the Heligolands, in decreasing order of abundance, included blackcaps, chiffchaffs, whitethroats and sedge warblers, with occasional robins, blackbirds, resident wrens, and a song thrush. Most of the team got to spend some time with Ian Beggs, who was more than happy to share knowledge gained from his long term and hugely impressive study of wheatears. Manx shearwater catches varied by night. Some very useful data was returned on recaptured birds alongside a good number of new individuals being ringed. An attempted gull catch was foiled by a great black back which took ownership of the area, driving off the herring and lesser black backs, but not entering the trap itself. The bait was gradually cleaned up by jackdaws. An interesting, albeit unsuccessful exercise.
Other sightings over the course of our trip included good numbers of slow worms (these are larger than those on the mainland), peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies, and a frustrating day-flying moth (probably a heath species) that escaped determination by flying away over an area with a fragile soil cap.
Huge thanks are due to Richard Dobbins for organising our trip for us and for his excellent communication before, during and after, to Wendy James and other members of the Teifi Ringing Group for being so welcoming, to the island wardens Richard and Giselle, and to everyone else including the mouse researchers from Oxford University, Ian Beggs, Howard and the other island residents for their friendliness. All of this helped to make the stay more relaxing and enjoyable.
Photos (mainly from Richard Dann and Amy) follow.