In search of Gannets, Puffins and much more.. Part 1

18th June 2013
The day after my Kingfisher photos I left the Midlands early on a saturday morning and made the 4 hour drive to Fishguard in South West Wales to get the ferry to Rosslare in Ireland. The hope was to spend 3 days on the uninhabited Greater Saltee island off the South east irish coast near Kilmore photographing various seabirds and wildlife on this wonderful island before returning and then spending 3 days actually resident in the converted farmhouse on the magical island of Skomer off the Pembrokeshire coast.
After a fun ferry journey and taxi ride and settling into the B & B, the next morning saw our small group head out of Kilmore Quay on a fishing boat in a fairly lumpy sea which made me question the logic of having a "Full Irish breakfast" complete with black pudding (look it up if you're not sure what that is!). With no man-made landing point it required us to transfer to a small 4 person capacity Zodiac inflatable with an outboard and complete our journey ashore for a slightly soggy landing, all the time hanging on to your bags full of expensive camera kit for dear life. But with no mishaps we headed up the steep steps to discover the island. Whilst not overly warm the weather started well but grew to be stunningly good for the whole week (very end of April) and our numerous thermals/waterproofs etc became largely redundant.
Here's an image looking down on the island showing about 50% of it and giving an idea of it's size.



The island is best known for it's Gannet colony but numerous other seabirds and songbirds inhabit it and with minimal human interference are left largely undisturbed. Whilst there are no large predators such as foxes and badgers to interfere there are apparently some rats that make an impact.
One bird I love to photograph is the Razorbill and it seems sometimes overlooked when Gannets and Puffins are around but it's a handsome bird in it's somewhat understated way! After a brief squall swept through on the first day (the only one we had all week!), I watched this bird drying and preening on the cliff edge as the rain passed through and the temperature crept up.



But the main attraction on Great Saltee island is the colony of Gannets that live mainly at the extreme westerly end of the island on the cliffs. But before heading up there,from our high positions with the sea many feet below, we watched the occasional bird diving in their usual spectacular fashion. Really difficult to get a sharp satisfactory image from so far away but here one starts his dive and begins to fold in his wings as a raft of Puffins look on from the surface behind.



Each day we made the fairly strenuous (with 20kg rucksacks plus tripods !) to the top of the island in an effort to catch the evening light which can transform your images. But getting there early in preparation also enable us to watch the amazing interaction between birds in the colony.
With the cramped conditions and a fully grown Gannet having a 6 foot wingspan squabbles are inevitable as birds guarded their nests and it's contents.



Indeed sometimes the fights got increasingly vicious. The picture below shows a fight in which 3 birds seemed to pick on one and that lasted 8-10 minutes. Given their sharp beaks and strength some birds must get hurt. In this case all appeared unhurt if a bit shaken by their punch up!



As the birds continued to bond there were displays of bonding going on all over the colony and each time a bird returned from a trip feeding or to collect nesting material it was reinforced again in quite a touching way. It's a wonderful thing to watch all the small individual actions and stories being played out...sometimes in formation...Strictly Come Gannets!



Sometimes a bit more ...personal !



We were incredibly lucky with both the sunshine but also the wind which meant as they returned to their nests most of the Gannets could fly into the wind and use it as a form of brake. It led to some great images ....





The instinctive need to build a nest drove the birds to make countless trips to collect grass, twigs, seaweed, and unfortunately a fair array of man made rubbish such as fishing lines and discarded bits of fishing nets. These are known to be the cause of numerous deaths amongst chicks as they become entangled. But it also leads to some more humorous situations as here as a gannet appears to be landing "blind" and without the benefit of air traffic control but with the added distraction of numerous beaks preparing to keep him off the wrong runway!



Where we were positioned was probably 400-500 feet above the sea at it's highest point and with all the different bays and cliffs it was fascinating to watch the birds in the deep canyons and on lower rocks against the crashing surf. Here I tried too get a high contrast image as the Gannet launched itself off some rocks way below me. Taken with my 500mm lens it lends a different look.



Similarly, I had the chance to get above the Gannets slightly in some places as they took off from their nests and take some more less often seen images. Here you really feel the size of the bird as it launches itself down the slope and struggles to get airborne like a Lancaster bomber!



As the sun set so the light became more and more glorious throwing that lovely warm glow over the island and which each evening had our group of 7-8 as the only visitors. It was a magical place to be and I had to make sure I sat back and enjoyed the sheer unspoilt wonder of the place rather than get pre-occupied totally with the 2 cameras, 5 lenses, tripods, the light, shutter speeds etc etc....That is the joy of knowing we were there for 3 days (and 2 late evenings)so we had no need to panic for fleeting images.
Here a male returns to it's partner and they bond...



And two images that just illustrate the difference the light can make in warming the image and showing the glorious detail in the bird that is so difficult to pick up in the harsh middle-of-the-day light.





Whilst the Gannets were stunning, Saltee island also held (as we saw) Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Puffins, Shags and Guillemots though in generally quite small numbers but that was due to the weird weather this year with the whole season about 3-4 weeks behind schedule, and many birds were still in large groups (called rafts) out at sea but we still had some nice views of these birds as they prepared for the breeding season and I would recommend anyone to go at this time of year. Here a pair of Kittiwakes noisily reinforce their bond.



And a Shag dries off in the warming sun perched on a rocky outcrop hundreds of feet below me. The light reveals how this is anything but a dull and black seabird....



The springtime also brings fair numbers of songbirds and migratory visitors to Greater Saltee.

A Wheater watched me briefly from the rocks as I sat in the sun eating my sandwiches made with great care by our irish B & B landlady back in Kilmore Quay (yes, a bit like Mrs Doyle!!)..



And when I wandered down near the foreshore on our third afternoon on the island , when alas we had to leave at 5pm rather than the normal 9pm of the previous two days, I watched as a pair of Willow Warblers hunted flies attracted to the stunning yellow lichen-covered boulders heated by the sun.



Truly a stunning place where admittedly we had unbelievably good weather which is hardly normal for Southern Island in April !! but if you go prepared you won't be disappointed. And I'll leave you with an image looking west from the Gannet Colony back towards the mainland ...I'm sure if more people got out to the wilder places like Greater Saltee and just marvelled at the natural world we'd all look after our planet that little bit better....



And so we headed off to Rosslare to get our ferry back to Wales and then the drive to Skomer, the magical island off the Pembrokeshire coast in South West Wales....which I'll describe in part 2....thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed the images.

***********

ps....(I know this will interest some and bore silly others!! but from a techie point of view I took most of the images with my Nikon D4 (and less so my D300)and either the 500mm f4 or the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lenses. The landscapes I shot with a Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 and in no particular order I used my Gitzo 3541Ls tripod, Paramo and Stealth Gear clothing, Meindl walking boots, waterproof Lowepro 400AW camera rucksack, and I can honestly say all performed brilliantly..)...

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