Seeing puffins on Skomer Island: what to expect

Puffins at the Wick on Skomer Island
When to go to Skomer: To see puffins, go from May – July. To see chicks (aka pufflings), go in June.
When I went: mid-July. There were still pufflings because it had been a cold spring.

A scene of carnage greets us as we hike through drifts of yellow wild flowers. Hundreds of desiccated carcasses lie strewn across the dry grassland. Whatever perpetrated this massacre was brutally efficient: each corpse has been butchered in the same way. Only a spinal cord and a pair of wings is left.

On a tiny island off the coast of Pembrokeshire, the list of suspects should be limited. Speculation becomes wilder as we walk along the sun-baked footpath to our objective, our ears assaulted by the cries of a multitude of seagulls. Is Skomer, measuring just two miles from east to west, and criss-crossed daily by over a hundred nature-loving day-trippers, home to its own version of the Beast of Bodmin Moor?

Our cryptozoological theorising is dismantled half-a-mile along the footpath by a volunteer nature warden. Hundreds of manx shearwaters fly in from the sea to the shelter of their burrows every night, he explains. The carcasses are all that is left of shearwaters caught, dismembered and devoured by gulls.

A puffin crashes into the rope. The audience winces, but the bird scampers off into the chamomile, its beak still full of sand eels

Our helpful warden has set himself and his telescope up on the edge of a precipice at the Wick, a world famous puffin colony. But it isn’t the puffins that have this warden excited. He tells me to look through the telescope, which is trained on a 200-feet-high cliff.

“Look at the edge of the crag. Can you see the guillemot chick behind the adults?” he says. There, in the distance, I see a line of penguin-like birds in black coat-tails and white shirts. Behind them is a smaller, scruffier version. I am instantly converted. But we’re here to see the puffins and I notice I’ve already been ditched by my more single-minded wife.

She’s standing motionless a short way along the cliff-top, surrounded by puffins. The path here is roped off on either side to keep the celebrity sea birds safe from humans who might put a boot through the fragile burrows.

A puffin in a burrow at the Wick on Skomer Island
A puffin in a burrow at the Wick on Skomer Island

Puffins ignore the rope, crossing the path through the legs of tourists as they go about their business. This business includes theft of a neighbour’s nesting material and one slapstick occasion when a puffin, flying in to land, crashes into the rope. The audience winces, but the puffin scampers off through tufts of chamomile, its beak still full of sand eels.

Puffins on Skomer from Welcomehumans on Vimeo.

After two hours at the clifftop, the footpath is getting crowded — and not just with puffins. We move on. The second ferry of the day has arrived and the number of people on the island has doubled to 60.

A four-mile loop of the island takes in all the best wildlife-spotting areas. Our hike took us past grey seals lolling about in a cove, a peregrine falcon being mobbed by seagulls, oystercatchers and razorbills. It’s a concentration of genuine natural wonders that explains why Skomer will never need a rumour about a rogue big cat to attract thousands of visitors every year.

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