Puffins are one of my favourite birds, its their appearance and the way they behave. They are great fun to watch and make great wildlife subjects. The only problem with Puffins is they are only found in a few locations in the British Isles. One place is Skomer Island, just off the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales.
In 2013 I visited Skomer for the first time. On this first visit I went on one of the day trip boats that are run. If you want to go on a day trip you need to get to the ticket office before it opens as there is usually a queue and boat tickets soon sell out.
A day trip is a great way to see the Puffins but for photography it's quite difficult. The problem is you are on the island during the day when summer sunlight can be quite harsh making exposure difficult, especially when you are dealing with a black and white seabird. During the day trip I cam away with a few images I was pleased with, one being this Puffin image below.
The day trip left me thinking Skomer provides great opportunities for Puffin photography but day trips don't provide the right type of light I want. It's impossible to get sunrise/sunset light when the boats only run from 10am and return at 4pm.
Staying on Skomer
Having seen the accommodation building during my day trip, on my return home I researched if staying was a possibility. I found there are two options, volunteer for a week and help run the island or pay to stay in one of the 16 beds in the farmhouse, I chose the latter. Another option is to pay for photography workshop stay lead by a pro, but Skomer is easy as a DIY option.
There are 5 accommodation rooms in the farm house, ranging from 2 single bed rooms to a 5 bed dorm room. The accommodation is surprisingly good considering it is 'off grid' living. Electricity is provided by solar panel that powers lighting and two power sockets to charge phones and batteries. There is running water, heated showers and a large kitchen with gas hobs/ovens and a fridge for storing food. You have to bring all the food you need for the time you are staying and then take all rubbish off the island when you leave. You don't need to bring drinking water as water is taken from a well on the island and treated to make it safe to drink. The accommodation is located in the farm house in the centre of the island meaning you are roughly 15 minutes from all points of the island.
The Wick- Puffin Heaven
If you want to see Puffins, and that's what most come for, there is one place everyone heads for, and that is The Wick. It's home to thousands of nesting Puffins. Below is a panorama of The Wick, a rare sight of The Wick with no one present and the Puffins left alone. During the day the Wick is usually a very busy place with day trippers always there. On a Monday Skomer is closed to day trippers and no boats run. It was strange to be at The Wick on my own when on other days it would be packed with day visitors.
If you want to see Puffins, and that's what most come for, there is one place everyone heads for, The Wick. It's home to thousands of nesting Puffins. Above is a panorama of The Wick, a rare sight of The Wick with no one present and the Puffins all left alone. During the day the Wick is usually a very busy place with day trippers always there. On a Monday Skomer is closed to day trippers and no boats run. It was strange to be at The Wick on my own on a Monday when on other days it would be packed with day visitors.
The panorama gives a good insight into Puffin photography on Skomer, most Puffin images are taken in this small area. The path is roped off at the sides as Puffin burrows are located alongside the path so you have to be careful not to damage or collapse any of the burrows by accidently stepping off the path. This means you have a very narrow area to work within, and you have to make sure you don't block the Puffins access across this path too. There are burrows on both sides of the path, many Puffins land with their catch not knowing exactly where their burrow is and have to run off to find it before the Gulls try to take their catch or even them!
To get a low perspective to help isolate the foreground and background you have to get low. Getting low means either kneeling or laying on the path. The path is full of stones and pebbles and that makes its very uncomfortable after a few hours. It also means you come away with several bruises on your knees, legs and arms. We soon found our bean bags gave great support to our elbows, a different way of using them as usually they are for camera support. I would now recommend taking some kind of kneeling pad to save you from the bruises.
Sadly due to the high number of visitors that come to the Wick over the years the path has been eroded, in places its now around 4-6 inches lower than the burrows. This does help to get the low perspective, as fellow photographer Elliot Hook shows in the photo on the left. As you can see laying sideways along the path with gaps left between you is ideal as the Puffins can still walk across. They will quite happily past within a few feet of you, and even stand on you or your camera bag to gain a better view!
The Wick is great during the last few hours of the day. In late June the sun sets over the cliff to the right as the Wick faces south. This is a great time to capture some side lit or backlit Puffin Portraits. Puffins are great models as they are curious of you and your camera. The Puffins gather in great numbers on the cliff top during the last few hours of the day, giving many opportunities to get some nice portraits in great light.
Some of the images I took during my two night stay are shown below.
I would highly recommend anyone to visit or stay on Skomer Island to see the Puffins. I enjoyed the overnight stay so much I've booked again for July next year so I may see you there if you do book. There is plenty to see and do on the island, Puffins are not the only draw but they are hard not to like them. More information can be found about staying on Skomer Island on The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales website here.