Many birds prefer to spend most of their lives on the open sea, either bobbing about on the surface and diving periodically for food or swooping about on the wing, sometimes following fishing boats. They only come to land to breed during spring and summer. Some of these birds can only be seen on the offshore islands of West Wales, but if you don’t want to take a boat trip, you can see Guillemot and Razorbill, Kittiwake and Fulmar elsewhere. See Where to see nesting pelagic seabirds below.
Adaptations of pelagic seabirds
Birds such as the Fulmar have adapted superbly to flying in the turbulent air over the ocean; it glides in steep arcs and makes long, low swoops which carry it a long way on very little energy.
Puffin, Guillemot and Razorbill belong to the Auk family and have many similarities with their penguin cousins in that their wings are really short and strong, and can be used for underwater swimming; their legs are set far back on the body so they can’t walk very well at all. They fly with very fast wing beats and often low over the water.
In fact many pelagic birds have evolved to such an extent that their legs are barely functional: for instance, the Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel have to make burrows for nesting near the edges of cliffs, so that they only have to land clumsily and scoot down out of sight of predators. If you want to see them, an overnight stay on one of the islands is necessary.
Puffins also nest in burrows but have retained the ability to waddle around on their short, bright orange legs – if a little clumsily at times!
An evolutionary feature of birds of the Petrel families (Storm Petrel, Shearwater, Fulmar) is the fact that they have nostrils enclosed in external tubes running down their bills. When they drink seawater, the salt is removed by a special gland in the base of the bill and the salt waste is excreted through the tube nostrils.
Breeding behaviour of pelagic seabirds
Fulmar, Shearwater and Storm Petrel return to their natal colony to breed – and even to the same nesting site over many years. They are monogamous and form strong pair bonds which may last for the life of the pair. They usually only make one attempt at nesting per year and only lay a single egg. With so much at stake, the parents take it in turns to incubate the egg and both help with chick rearing.
The various nesting birds favour slightly different sorts of ledges, so that Guillemots hardly nest on Skokholm as there are few long, narrow ledges onto which they can pack themselves in huge numbers.
Gannets don’t necessarily go back to where they were born but they do continue to breed in the same place once they’ve raised one family successfully. They prefer hillsides or cliffs so that it is easier to take off. Nests are made of seaweed, plants, earth and all sorts of bits and pieces. They are monogamous, much like the petrels, and only lay one egg. Young birds migrate south (they have even been seen around Ecuador!). It’s a rare treat to take a trip to Grassholm Island (about 11 miles offshore) and see them nesting in their thousands, with adult birds performing their spectacular rocket dives into the sea.
Other nesting seabirds
Cormorants and Shags make their home on the islands; up to 250 pairs of Cormorants nest on St. Margaret’s Island, which is on the western tip of Caldey Island, just offshore from Tenby. Various types of gulls can be seen nesting on one or more of the islands, including Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Great Black-backed Gull.
Other birds which breed on the islands
A few Little Owl and Short-eared Owl breed on Skomer and are resident here. The former predates upon Storm Petrel. Of the wading birds, Oystercatchers, Lapwing and Curlew all nest on the islands. Raven, Chough, Buzzard, Peregrine and Kestrel are also resident species. Island ponds support several varieties of duck and there are numerous small passerines (perching birds).
Where to see nesting pelagic seabirds
Storm Petrel: *Skokholm, Skomer, Ramsey – Fewer on Skomer due to predating Little Owl.
Manx Shearwater: *Skomer, Skokholm, Ramsey
Fulmar: *Skomer, Ramsey. Also perhaps on Telpyn Point cliffs, east of Amroth, a few pairs Ynys Lochtyn near Llangrannog and some on Elegug Stacks just west of Bosherston in S. Pembs.
Puffin: Skomer and Skokholm. A few pairs on St Margaret’s Island (on tip of Caldey Island). None on Ramsey.
Gannet: *Grassholm only
Kittiwake: *Skomer, St Margaret’s Island (on tip of Caldey Island), Ramsey, Grassholm. Also around Elegug Stacks and Flimston on the Castle Martin peninsula (S. Pembs); New Quay Head, Ceredigion.
Razorbill: *Skomer, Skokholm, Ramsey, St Margaret’s Island (on tip of Caldey Island). Elegug Stacks and Flimston on on the Castle Martin peninsula (S. Pembs); Needle Rock on north side of Dinas Island; New Quay Head in Ceredigion.
Guillemot: *Skomer, Ramsey, St Margaret’s Island (on tip of Caldey Island). Elegug Stacks and Flimston on on the Castle Martin peninsula (S. Pembs); Needle Rock on north side of Dinas Island; New Quay Head in Ceredigion.
Please note that bird populations change all the time so that the above information should serve as a guideline only.
Other pelagic seabirds and migrant birds
Seabirds which breed elsewhere but may be seen in the waters close to the islands outside the breeding season include Black-headed Gull, Common and Arctic Tern, Arctic and Great Skua, Common and Velvet Scoter and other types of Shearwater. In spring and autumn, other passage migrants too numerous to mention may be seen.
Boat trips to the islands
Trips are available from the end of spring to late October. These include Ramsey (off the St Davids Peninsula) Skomer, Skokholm and Grassholm (off the Dale Peninsula) and St Margaret’s Island Bird Reserve on the tip of Caldey Island (off Tenby).
Thousand Island Expeditions, Cross Sq, St Davids Tel: 01437 721721 [email protected]
Dale Sailing Company Tel: 01646 603123 or 109 [email protected]
Tenby Boat Trips Tel: 07980 864 509 [email protected]
Staying in West Wales
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