The Saturday following the Friday of the terrible weather dawned bright and sunny and apart from a few lurking clouds the sky looked innocently down upon us as though nothing had happened. We were still hoping for a trip over to Skomer Island, so set off to drive the hour or so that it takes to reach Martin’s Haven, from where the boats depart. We were not too hopeful of being able to get to Skomer today; Saturday’s are popular anyway and as no boats would have gone out yesterday, we expected it to be busy. A first sight of the car park, already overflowing onto adjacent land brought that sinking feeling, compounded by the attendant informing us that all 150 of the day’s landing ticket allocation had been sold by 9.30am. We were somewhat taken aback to learn that some people had begun queuing for places at 5.30am; the first boat for the island leaves at 10am. So, no Skomer for us today.
We had made some effort to get here though and determined to make the best of our situation decided to explore the area around the headland instead. The headland is known as the Marloes Peninsular; the land is owned by the National Trust and for some reason we have not managed to establish is named “Deer Park”, although there are no deer here. There are however spectacular rocks, sea views that take in most of the Pembrokeshire Islands, wildflowers and, we were fairly confident, there would be birds.
We set off to walk up to the highest point of the peninsular, Wooltack Point, distinguished by the small white building on the top that is now an active coastwatch point operated by the National Coastwatch Institute.
We were soon distracted by the small birds we began to see around us almost immediately: Stonechats, Linnets and Meadow Pipits, all species that can make homes in this rather bleak windswept habitat, carpeted with grass and heather and furnished only with low-growing tangles of gorse bushes, brambles and generally scrubby vegetation.
The first bird we had a good view of was this little Stonechat female (Saxicola torquata), who was very shortly joined by a male.
The Stonechat male perched just a short distance away from his mate
There were several Linnets flying around and one beautiful male landed quite near us on a bramble and began to sing.
This beautiful male Linnet was singing from atop a dead bramble stem
It was sunny here, but windy too, so it was some consolation to think that those on the boats travelling across to Skomer would probably be feeling the combined effects of the cold wind and choppy sea in a not-too-pleasant way. Yes, very immature, especially as we have actually made the journey in even rougher conditions, survived and gone on to have a spectacular day. Anyway, onwards and upwards to Wooltack Point. The views out over St.Bride’s Bay are truly spectacular, but the sea around this point can be treacherous with concealed rocks and strong currents, hence the presence of the Coastwatch.
The incorrectly marked compass (click to enlarge)
We attempted to work out the layout of the islands we could see, picking out Skomer easily as it was close by and Ramsey Island as we recognised the shape of St. David’s Head, but were guessing at the others. I spotted a compass of sorts on a plinth outside the door of the stone hut and as I leaned in to take a picture of it the coastguard popped out to tell us that its directions are useless as all points are wrong. Apparently even the North marking is incorrect. He was quite amused by the fact that “there is nowhere in the world from which that plaque would be correct” and has no idea why it has never been replaced.
The nearest we got to Skomer Island today, just 2 miles across the Sound
Ramsey Island, 9.5 miles away is located off St David’s Head
Dropping down onto the cliff in front of the hut we discovered it to be sheltered from the wind and much warmer. We sat there for at least an hour watching the array of seabirds flying back and forth or swimming and diving around the rocks below us.
Razorbills were the most numerous birds on the water, but there were a few guillemots and cormorants too.
Razorbills swim on the surface then suddenly make a synchronised dive and disappear underwater for ages, eventually reappearing some distance away
Cormorant flying close to the rocks, low over the water
Herring Gulls passed us by very closely
Lesser Black-backed gulls were another frequent sight
We were delighted by the appearance of Grey Seals in the sea just below us, and even more thrilled when we realised there were dolphins too. The first dolphin we picked up on was following the Skomer boat on its return trip to Martin’s Haven, but soon realised there were at least three in total.
The island of Grassholm is occupied by an enormous colony of breeding Gannets (another highly recommended trip to take) and although it is 10 miles away from where we were today we kept a hopeful look out. We were rewarded with an initially distant sighting of a number of the birds circling and diving, but over the course of twenty minutes or so they gradually worked their way towards us, clearly following the progress of a shoal of fish. This is why the dolphins were there too. It would have been lovely to have had closer views, but both they and the birds were near enough to be seen well through binoculars.
One of a number of Gannets closely following a shoal of fish
The spot we had chosen to settle in seemed to be within the territory of a Pipit. He made several tours of the rocks immediately around us, making some rather disgruntled noises, clearly not happy with us, but otherwise undeterred by our presence.
I think this is a Meadow Pipit, but going on its location, it could be a Rock Pipit
The Pipit demonstrating his ‘parachuting’ display flight whilst singing
This is undoubtedly a tough environment for wildflowers, but there was thrift and sheep’s bit flowering and almost squashed into the short grass several tiny specimens of pretty blue spring squill.
There were bumblebees visiting most of the available flowers
Leaving our sheltered viewpoint we continued our walk around the remainder of the headland then cut back inland towards the car.
Rocky coves with sheltered beaches such as the one below the cliff here on the far side of the peninsular are perfect places to see grey seals and their pups. The land in the top right of the picture is the tip of Skomer.
Next on the agenda was to seek out another sheltered spot in which to eat our lunch. With hindsight we did consider that perhaps if we had not stopped at M & S in Haverfordwest for decent sarnies we may have squeezed onto that boat … ? (Normally we would have made our own, but pinned in by the tree we couldn’t get out to the shops yesterday and had no suitable supplies.) But, on the bright side, it was more than pleasant here and we had had some very fresh air and some wonderful sights. We located another likely spot to enjoy our food in and settled down. We soon realised we were being watched; a baby bunny was peeking through the grass at the top of a sandy hillock close by that we could now see was above the entrance to a warren.
Baby rabbit on the roof of the family home
We were thoroughly enjoying our lunch sitting on a grassy bank in a warm and sunny spot, appreciating our beautiful surroundings and reviewing the wealth of sights we had enjoyed, when another bird appeared in front of us. This was a handsome jaunty male Wheatear and once again we seemed to have settled ourselves in the middle of his territory. He seemed to be making a point of travelling around us, settling on rabbit hills, brambles, rocks and the like. We did feel a little guilt but carried on enjoying the sight of him quietly, staying as still as is possible whilst yielding a hefty camera lens.
A female appeared too from the same direction and made a similar circuit, so we surmised that they had a nest located somewhere behind the bank occupied by the rabbits. Beautiful birds.
The very handsome male Wheatear asserting his territory from the top of a rabbit hill
The female Wheatear with her browner plumage is also a very attractive bird
Arriving back at the lane leading to the beach we headed for the loos to find there was an unusual queue to enter the building. A number of Barn Swallows were waiting for people to leave, taking their opportunities to swoop in to their nests built in various places inside.
One of a pair of Barn Swallows waiting to get into the toilet block and back to their nests
Although they are a familiar sight swooping and gliding over the countryside, it’s not often you get such close views of these elegant birds and to appreciate their very glossy plumage.
This bird was taking advantage of the waiting time to thoroughly preen its feathers
I was listening and watching for a sight of a Whitethroat, as we have always seen them here in the past, but not so today. As we made our way up the hill towards the car park we did see another Wheatear and had a quick glimpse of the back of a Dunnock singing from a bramble patch.
A quick glimpse of a Dunnock that was singing from a bramble patch
Not the outing we had planned, but a thoroughly enjoyable few hours spent in a beautiful place and still with a bit more to come….