Skomer Island

In mid May, I went on a mini ‘road trip’ through Wales with my partner, Ed.  For the first half of our trip we stayed near Betws-y-Coed in Snowdonia.  We explored the local area, beautiful woodlands, nature walks, waterfalls, stood on top of Snowdon, and had fun in the forest on the Fforest Coaster – the only Alpine Coaster of it’s kind in UK, which was absolutely fantastic!

The second part of our trip was spent in Pembrokeshire, where again we explored the local area and standing stones, but the main focus of our stay was to visit Skomer Island!  I had learnt about Skomer Island at the beginning of the year when I had researched where to see puffins in the UK, and found out that the island along with “neighbouring Skokholm Island forms the largest breeding puffin colony in Southern Britain”.  We therefore decided to base our trip around a visit there, so were very excited when the day arrived.  You cannot pre-book tickets as the boat across depends on the weather, and tickets are instead issued on a first come first serve basis, so you have got to plan the day well.  I had been checking the weather and Skomer Boat Info Twitter account all week and conditions looked good for our chosen day.  There were northerly winds the day before which meant the boat did not cross, but luckily we woke up to a clear, still day.  I had read many reviews and suggestions recommending that you arrive at Lockley Lodge (visitor centre) for around 8:00am – 8:30am to ensure you get a ticket for either the 10am, 11am or 12pm boat, so this is what we did.  The car park was already quite full when we arrived and there was a queue out of the visitor centre door, but as we got closer to the front we could hear that there were extra boat crossings, and we managed to buy our £11 landing tickets and book onto the 10:30am boat! Relief!

After a little wait and some snacks, we headed down to the ‘pick up point’ on the edge of a small cove, and hung back whilst everyone queued up.  Once we saw ‘the Dale Princess’ passenger boat coming, we joined the end of the queue of fifty people and clambered on board (where you pay your boat fee of £11).  As we were last on, we actually ended up getting the best deal as we were allowed to sit at the front of the boat, which was beautiful as the water was smooth, the sky was blue and the air was fresh – what more could you ask for!?  As we approached the island, we started to see gulls, guillemots and razorbills in the water and flying past, and then we started to see puffins flying too!  I was rather elated, even at this point, so after the ten minute crossing we just so happened to be the first off the front of the boat and up the stone steps, where we were greeted by one of the wardens.  Once everyone else had climbed the steep steps, the group was given an interesting talk about Skomer Island – the wildlife, routes, conservation work and of course informed of the important rules (mainly sticking to the paths to avoid burrows), before we were free to explore.

There are several different touch-points and walking trails on the island, each offering their unique views and array of flora and fauna.  We began by heading up the centre of the island towards the Old Farm (a flat, grassy area which homes the overnight accommodation and picnic area) and within just ten minutes spotted a short-eared owl!  It stayed camouflaged on a stone wall for quite some time, before flying off over a field allowing us and a handful of other visitors to excitedly snap some photos.  Those few minutes set us up for a great day!

There was something very special about Skomer Island – I can’t really think of anywhere else where I have experienced the same atmosphere.  I think the fact that there are only three boat trips a day (up to five during peak times) with each only allowing fifty passengers to land, means that it almost feels like you are there alone, experiencing it in your own way… and then when you do find yourself in the busier spots, there is a sense of community as you are appreciating the same thing and sharing something beautiful.  During our trip, there were people there taking photographs, bird-watching, spotting species they had never seen before, even painting the landscape – and if you like those things too, it is like a dream!  During the spring and summer months, the ground is carpeted with flowers, which for us were mainly bluebells.  It was stunning!  On our way around, we saw numerous insects, rabbits, seals, even oystercatchers, and Ed saw either a dolphin or porpoise through his binoculars.  We were enjoying it so much, that after an hour we realised that we hadn’t even seen any puffins yet!  When one finally popped up, we were very excited and took lots of photographs of it looking around and flapping it’s wings, before it returned to it’s underground burrow.

Continuing anti-clockwise around the island, we remained full of awe and happiness, taking in the magical beauty.  As we approached the south of the island, we could see a gathering of people ahead, opposite the Wick – a deep cut sea cliff, so knew we were getting close to more puffins.  The cliff face was lined with hundreds of seabirds and hundreds more were flying in the valley below and resting on the water – it was like something off the television, but we were actually there!  And then, to top it off, puffins began popping up all over the place, entering and leaving their burrows (and single egg incubation duties), flying in from the sea and landing on the grass in their humorous but cute manner.  My heart was full.  We stayed there for quite some time, clicking away on our cameras and admiring their lovely little faces and webbed feet.  Of course we could have stayed there for hours, but had a bit more of the island to explore before catching our return boat at 3:30pm.

SONY DSC© The Wick – Skomer Island, May 2018.  Can you see the seabirds?

On the boat back, we were told about other trips they run – one of which was to see the Manx shearwaters.  I was amazed to learn that 90% of the world’s population of Manx shearwaters breed around UK islands and 50% of these breed on Skomer and the other Pembrokeshire islands (the largest breeding colony in the world) making them probably the most important species on Skomer!  They are a true seabird, spending most of their time out on the water (where they would have been during the day whilst we were there) and come to land to breed and nest in burrows.  It would be fantastic to stay overnight on Skomer at some point to see the shearwater colony, sunset, sunrise and other animal behaviour.

In total, including the boat journey to the island and group talk, you have five hours there, which may sound a lot, but I can honestly say that for a day trip it was the perfect amount of time to walk around the whole island, have a picnic and appreciate all of the amazing wildlife.

CHECKLIST FOR SKOMER ISLAND:

  • Camera
  • Tripod (if you like using one)
  • Binoculars
  • Walking boots
  • Backpack
  • Food
  • Water
  • Hat and sun-cream (especially if it is sunny)
  • Layers (to take on and off depending on the temperature)
Advertisements

RSPB Middleton Lakes

With the excessive precipitation and topsy-turvy weather over the last few months, it has been difficult to get out and about at the weekends for a ‘proper walk’, but a couple of weeks ago it was warm and dry enough for an excursion to a nature reserve.  It was easy to pick which one – RSPB Middleton Lakes in Staffordshire – as myself and partner Ed had visited in 2016 and really enjoyed it, so had been keen to return ever since.

We arrived just before lunchtime and parked up in the well-kept car park which is free for RSPB members or a reasonable £3 for non-members.  From the car park you can either head through a small wooded area to a little square of shops and eateries, as well as Middleton Hallor in the other direction past the RSPB hut straight to the reserve.  We decided to have some lunch first in Bake180 Coffee Shop which offers a variety of light bites, treats and drinks, and also sells the RSPB pin badges if you want to add to your collection, which is exactly what I did.  I donated some money and chose a blue tit and pied wagtail.  Once we had finished eating, we headed back through the car park, picked up a map from the RSPB hut, which also has lots of information leaflets, badges and a chalkboard with interesting daily sightings written on it by visitors, and then we made our way into the reserve.

Middleton Lakes is a relatively young RSPB reserve, having been acquired in 2007.  It has since been developed into a lovely site which benefits numerous bird species as well as other wildlife such as otters and of course, the visitors.  The site is described as “one of the best birdwatching sites in the area”, which I certainly agree with as it is divided into sections – water, woodland, grassland and reedbeds, and has various viewpoints, a large lookout, nature trails, a rookery and a heronry!  The conservation work and management that has been done already and continues to take place at Middleton Lakes is ultimately creating a ‘refuge’ for many beautiful birds and excitingly, the RSPB say that it “will become the most important site for breeding waders in the Midlands”.

 It was really enjoyable exploring the different areas of the reserve and spotting the wildlife related to the surrounding nature and environments.  Our favourite spots were a large grass snake (the first either of us had seen in the wild) and a beautiful pheasant who casually wandered up to us through the grass and took a liking to Ed.  He stayed at our feet for a lengthy photo-shoot and good old feather study, and followed Ed’s steps until we could stay no longer.  I was very pleased with my photographs of the pheasant and many stunning plants throughout the reserve, some of which you can view on my Instagram page.

I plan to visit Middleton Lakes more often and explore it further, so keep your eye out for future posts about my current favourite nature reserve.  In the meantime I would love to hear about your favourite nature reserves!

DSC01295 (2)© RSPB Middleton Lakes, April 2018

The Nature of Iceland

Happy December everyone!  I hope you are all feeling jolly and are enjoying the festive season so far.

It has been a while since I have written about a specific place, but after a wonderful break and first visit to Iceland, I have been inspired to share my experience by delving into some brilliant, beautiful natural wonders!  Arriving on the evening of 23rd November, myself and partner Ed, had planned an eventful trip which certainly lived up to expectations.

Friday 24th November:  The sun didn’t rise until around 10:30am, by which time we were already out and about.  We spent the first day exploring Reykjavik, sampling several delicious pastries from Sandholt bakery and the highly rated Brauð & Co bakery, visiting Hallgrímskirkja, spotting birds we had not seen in real life before (American robins and ravens were regulars on the trip), absorbing some wonderful views along the harbour and admiring the Solfar (Sun Voyager) sculpture.  The steel sculpture is “a dream boat and an ode to the sun“, and the way in which the metal catches and reflects the sunlight is simply stunning!  We also walked under 23 life-size models of whales in the ‘Whales of Iceland’ museum.  Although entry into the museum was quite pricey, I enjoyed learning about the natural history of Icelandic waters, experiencing the immense size and magnificence of such a beautiful species, whilst also capturing some photographs which look like we had been swimming with them!

Once the sun began to set, we headed back to our apartment and filled up on pasta, delicious cinnamon biscuits and tea before layering up in numerous thermals and jumpers and heading out once again at 8:30pm for our Northern Lights trip!  We were picked up at a stop around the corner from our apartment by BusTravel Iceland (which was very handy indeed) and reached our destination out in the countryside after around forty minutes.  The guide instantly led us to a snowy, dark, open area of land which was amazingly already crowned by a graceful, wide arc of cloudy green light!  (The green of the aurora is caused by collisions between fast-moving electrons from solar activity and the oxygen particles in our atmosphere).  We were lucky to have the aurora borealis above us all evening, and as time passed, the wide arc separated into thinner streaks which stretched almost from horizon to horizon and towards the end of the night, Mother Nature even treated us to an ephemeral curved aurora band with vertical rays.  Stunning!  The best way I found to see the colour distinctively was to cup my hands around the side of my temples to block any peripheral light (of which there was little anyway) and frame the aurora above me… I think this along with the nighttime darkness and cold air on my face made me feel in my own little world whilst experiencing the natural, magical spectacle.   It was certainly a memorable experience which truthfully, I haven’t stopped thinking about.

Saturday 25th November:  It was an early start for another trip with BusTravel Iceland – this time the Grand Golden Circle tour in the Southwest of Iceland!  As we travelled out into the countryside, we were able to watch the sun rise over snowy mountains before making a brief stop in Hveragerði, “the capital of hot springs” or “flower village“.  This was a lovely little town to view on the way down the mountain road as it lays on an active geothermal zone, so there were many hot springs and pillars of steam dotted throughout (even in people’s gardens) reflecting the early light, along with warmly lit greenhouses, which are heated by hot water from the volcanic hot springs.  In fact, Hveragerði “has the highest concentration of greenhouses in Iceland where residents have been harnessing geothermal energy since 1920 to provide the country with much of its home grown produce“.  We had a little wander and stretch and before returning to the bus, also had a look at a small exhibition called ‘Quake 2008’ which was all about a powerful earthquake (6.3 on the Richter scale) that struck the area on 29th May 2008.

We made five ‘highlight’ stops throughout the day – each offering something remarkable and with snow on the ground and sunny blue skies, we were both able to take some lovely photographs to save and share the beauty.

Kerið volcanic crater:  I had only seen pictures of this in spring and summer – a bright blue crater ‘lake’ looking up through a red and green embankment, so was fascinated to see it frozen over, surrounded by dark snowy slopes and patches of red rock.  It is believed that Kerið (which measures about 270m long, 170m wide and 55m deep) was once a cone volcano that erupted, clearing its full magma chamber in the process.  With no magma remaining, the cone likely collapsed into the void, resulting in the crater we see today.  The ‘lake’ naturally lays at the same level as the water table and varies between 7m and 14m throughout the year.  During our visit, it had a peaceful, still atmosphere which I would love to experience again, maybe even in the warm season to see the wonderful colours of the water and moss complementing the red volcanic rock of the caldera!

Faxi waterfall:  Faxi or Vatnsleysufoss waterfall is located on the Tungufljót river and is a striking natural wonder that glistened magically in the mid-morning sunlight for us.  At 80m wide and 7m high, Faxi had a humble charm about it and a prettiness that has remained in my mind.

Geysir Geothermal area:  This was our longest stop of the day as it included lunch and the extra time meant that we were able to slowly walk around the geothermal field and witness some impressive hot spring action!  It is believed that the entire field has a surface area of 3km², but most of the springs are aligned along a 100m wide strip.  The Great ‘Geysir’ is a large hot spring in this area and gives its name to hot springs all over the world – the name is actually derived from the Old Norse Icelandic verb geysa, meaning “to gush”Although Geysir is relatively inactive itself anymore, he was once a powerful marvel, reaching heights of 170m at one point, but as our guide explained “he is now in retirement”… but just as magnificent as ever!

‘Strokkur’ is now the most energetic spring in Iceland.  It spouts every ten minutes (or less as we saw it occur several times) and generally reaches between 10m and 20m in height, yet has been known to reach 40m!  Like Geysir, Strokkur’s power has fluctuated over time.  In 1789, it began mightily spouting water, gas and steam, yet by 1830 had calmed down and actually had to be encouraged to spout by people with stones and turf!  Between 1896 (after an earthquake) and 1920, it subsided completely twice with slight activity occurring occasionally in between the years, but in 1963, on the recommendation of the Geysir committee, “a 40m deep hole was drilled from the bottom of its basin” after which it has been spouting regularly ever since.

As well as the spectacular geysers, we also saw smaller bubbling hot springs, mud pots and steam eruptions from fumaroles.  Once again, the blue sky, snow and this time ice made for some awesome bright and reflective photographs, but it also meant that these natural sights were accompanied by sights of people sliding in slow motion and slipping over, so if you do visit in winter and want to remain upright (like Ed and I managed to) either take in the surroundings calmly by walking slowly or as the signs suggest in certain areas, wear crampons!

Gullfoss waterfall:  Of the locations on the Golden Circle tour, Gullfoss or the ‘Golden’ Waterfall (which gives the tour its name) is probably the most famous.  It has been named as one of the world’s top ten waterfalls and in 1979, officially became a nature reserve to permanently protect it and to allow visitors to safely enjoy the impressive site and sight.  Being the largest volume fall in Europe, Gullfoss has an average flow of 1400m³/s in the summertime and 80m³/s in the wintertime, which cascades down 32m in two stages into a commanding canyon (70m high and 2.5km long) below.  This canyon “was created at the end of the Ice Age by catastrophic flood waves and is lengthened by 25cm (9.8in) a year by the constant erosion from the water”.

As we visited the majestic Gullfoss in November, a lot of the ‘falling’ water was actually frozen mid-flow, which looked absolutely amazing and dreamlike in the ambient amber light of the setting sun!  I was interested to later learn that a waterfall freezes in such a way because the flow of water ‘supercools’ (experiences a temperature less than its freezing point without becoming a solid) and consequently slows down which causes the water molecules to stick together and form tiny, solid particles of ‘frazil ice’.  There are three vantage points from which the waterfall can be viewed (the lowest of which was closed whilst we were there for safety as it was very slippy), so we were able to get a clear look at this well known beautiful area of nature.

Þingvellir:  ‘Thingvellir’ National Park or ‘Parliament Plains’ was our final stop of the tour, and what an awe-inspiring stop it was!  On the way there, our guide explained that the Alþing general assembly was established around 930 AD and the Icelandic parliament continued to assemble at Þingvellir until 1798 to have important discussions and plan significant events.  Even today, the people of Iceland meet there for special occasions and dates, so it has become “a protected national shrine” and was accepted on the World Heritage list for its cultural values in 2004.  “The Environmental Policy of the Thingvellir National Park was approved by the Thingvellir Committee to ensure that the internal work of the national park is in accordance with the management plan of the park and to make sure that the actions of the park are environmentally responsible”.

The Thingvellir National Park is part of a “fissure zone” that runs through Iceland and is situated on the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (the boundary between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates).   There was so much to see – mountains, trees, rocky cliffs and valleys, all of which were covered in crisp, white snow.  It was simply breathtaking – reminiscent of vintage Christmas card scenes!  I feel that a whole day could definitely be spent there, so I would love to go back and explore even further than we did.  One section would be Lake Þingvallavatn which lies partially in the National Park and sounds spectacular:  “The lake is particularly fertile and rich in vegetation, despite the very cold temperatures.  A third of the bottom area is covered by vegetation, and there is a large amount of algae.  Low-growing vegetation extends out to a depth of 10 metres while higher vegetation forms a large growing-belt to 10-30 metres deep.  A total of 150 types of plants have been found and 50 kinds of invertebrates, from the shore to the center”.

Once we were back on the bus, our guide thought it would be apt to sing the Icelandic national anthem to us.  I had not heard it before, but apparently it is notorious for being extremely challenging to sing, due to its large vocal range of high and low registers, but she was absolutely fantastic!  A lovely end to a wonderful tour.  Back in Reykjavik, we treated ourselves to a nice warm dinner of wild mushroom soup from Svarta Kaffið, a cosy eatery which offers two soup options served in a large crusty bread roll!  We then settled down in our apartment and slept very well ready for our final day.

Sunday 26th November:  We enjoyed a relaxing morning in Reykjavik, walking around and looking in the shops for a couple of mementos.  Being Christmas time, we had learnt about the interesting Icelandic Christmas traditions and folklore which instead of Santa Claus, includes thirteen ‘Yule Lads‘ who descend from the mountains to visit the towns and “wreak mischief in the nights leading up to Christmas”, but to also leave small gifts in the shoes of good children, or potatoes for the naughty children!  We agreed that it would be appropriate and fun to buy a bauble with a Yule Lad on, so had a read through them and chose our favourite – ‘Pottasleikir’.

“Pot Licker, the fifth one,

was a funny sort of chap.

When kids were given scrapings,

he’d come to the door and tap”.

(Excerpt from the poem “Jólasveinavísur” by Jóhannes frá Kötlum)

At 2pm we set off on our final trip in Iceland – the Blue Lagoon!  We had been keeping our eye on the weather forecast and snow was predicted for the afternoon, so we were in for a magical time.  The snow started to fall right on cue whilst we were travelling and within an hour we had arrived.  After getting changed, showering and slathering plenty of conditioner through our hair, we met at the indoor mouth of the lagoon and made our way into the mineral-rich, hot blue water, through a door and out into the open.  “The geothermal water originates 2,000 metres below the surface, where freshwater and seawater combine at extreme temperatures.  It is then harnessed via drilling holes at a nearby geothermal power plant, Svartsengi, to create electricity and hot water for nearby communities.  On its way to the surface, the water picks up silica and minerals. When the water emerges, its temperature is generally between 37°C and 40°C”.  

It was a surreal and ethereal experience – with the steam rising and snow rapidly falling, we were in a white-out for the majority of our time there, so we couldn’t really see many people, which was nice as it is a popular place, so made us feel like we were alone at times and didn’t feel busy at all.  Everyone was relaxed and quiet, so it was lovely and peaceful.  We slowly swam around, tried out the silica mud mask and chilled out in the dreamy waters.  (If you do go, look out for people with their mobile phones wrapped in plastic bags, taking selfies and holding them above their heads instead of relaxing – it’s very bizarre)!  When we were well and truly ‘pruned’, we changed back into our layers, hopped on to a Reykjavik Excursions bus and travelled back to the capital.  We had a bite to eat at Reykjavik Chips (for the second time on our trip because the chips were so amazing) and ended our visit to Iceland reinvigorated and content.

Our first trip to Iceland was amazing and certainly somewhere I would go again.  Have you been, or perhaps you are planning a trip there?  I would love to hear what you did or what you have planned!