Revisiting the Puffins on Skomer Island
Quite simply, Skomer is a unique place for wildlife. When I visited for the first time, I was in the excellent company of wildlife photographer Jason Venus – who later that year would win the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition. He had kindly taken me under his wing after we had both won categories in Countryfile’s photo competition a few years before, and invited me to visit the island with him – an amazing opportunity for me to learn from a top pro. In 1996, I was just a fresh-faced 18-year-old with a burning desire to make wildlife photography my profession. We spent three days on the island together, and the experience only helped to confirm I’d chosen the right career path – I enjoyed every moment exploring the island.
A couple of years later I returned to Skomer Island, but this time on my own – again I stayed for a couple of nights. The accommodation is relatively basic, but comfortable – as you might expect, there are few luxuries. But you are not visiting the island to be pampered – you visit to escape normality and modern living, and to experience the wildness and wildlife of this amazing little Welsh island. There are few places I’ve visited where I have felt so relaxed, peaceful and happy.
Once the day-trippers have gone home, you practically have the island to yourself – only the wardens and a handful of volunteers and visitors remain. You are certainly not alone, though – you are surrounded by thousands of seabirds that make a cacophony of noise. If you have a passion for nature photography, you simply have to go. In fact, I loved the place so much that I decided to go back a few years later with my then girlfriend and popped the big question. Thankfully, Fliss said yes and I went back to taking photos of puffins… I know, I’m such a romantic, aren’t I?
The island’s main attraction is undoubtedly its puffins. There are an estimated 6,000 breeding pairs on Skomer, and on certain parts of the island visitors can get within touching distance of these colourful, comical-looking birds. However, while the puffins are the main draw for day-trippers, it is the island’s huge population of Manx shearwaters that truly make it a special place. It is believed that there are in the region of 300,000 breeding pairs on Skomer, which – together with the population found on neighbouring Skokholm Island – make it the largest known concentration of Manx shearwaters found anywhere in the world. In addition to this, you’ll find guillemots, razorbills, gulls, wheatears, owls and peregrines on Skomer, while in spring the island is carpeted in bluebells and other wild flowers. The place is literally jam-packed with wildlife – it is a photographer’s haven.
Since my first visit 20 years ago, my photography has taken a slight change in direction. I discovered landscape photography, and I also made a conscious decision to focus on shooting close-ups and macro. As a result, these days I rarely shoot birds and I’ve not had a justifiable excuse to return to Skomer for quite a while – until May, that is.
Having recently got my hands on the new Nikon D500, I needed a subject that would adequately test its speed and new 153-point AF system – landscapes and resting butterflies just wouldn’t cut the mustard. I couldn’t think of anything much more challenging than puffins in flight. They are small, fast and unpredictable birds to snap – the D500’s 10fps continuous burst speed would no doubt be required. This was just the excuse I needed, so I packed my camera bag, headed up the M5, and crossed the border into Wales for a couple of days of uninterrupted puffin photography.
I’d left it too late to book accommodation on the island – you need to book early to get the prime dates during late May and June when puffins are breeding. Therefore, my only option was to do day trips. I stayed close to the village of Marloes (approximately 30 minutes from Haverfordwest), from where the Dale Princess sails to the island. Day trips are typically from late March until the end of September, sailing daily (except Mondays) and departing at 10am, 11am and 12pm. Non-members pay a landing fee of £10 to the Trust and the boat crossing is £11. On good days it can get busy, so arrive in good time and buy your ticket early to avoid a wasted trip. If the wind is strong (particularly from the north), boat trips can be cancelled. The boat has a Twitter feed that it updates each morning to advise if the boat is sailing or not that day. Thankfully, the wind was light during my three-day escape and we crossed each day without problem.
On each visit, I made a beeline for my favourite spot on the island – the Wick. This is where you can get the best views and opportunities to photograph puffins. On Skomer you have to remain on the paths at all times – the resident puffins, shearwaters and rabbits are all ground-dwelling, so the place is riddled with burrows. The place must be like Swiss cheese underneath the surface and a stray foot could easily collapse and kill the animal sheltering or nesting below.
You don’t need to venture off paths to take good shots, though – the puffins nest right up close to them, so you can get incredibly near to your subjects. They display no fear of people and will walk right past you, and fly close by. Occasionally, you are so close that you could use your iPhone to take frame-filling shots. I stuck to using my shiny new D500, though! I find the flexibility of a zoom best for places like Skomer, when subjects can range greatly in the distance they are away from you. I kept my Nikkor 80-400mm almost permanently attached that focuses to within approximately 1.5m, and with the DX crop of the D500, I effectively had a maximum reach of 600mm – perfect for faraway subjects.
While my exact camera set-up varied slightly during the three days, depending on the available light and situation, I mostly shot with the lens wide open at f/5.6 to help generate a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the puffins in flight. I also increased the ISO to between 640 and 1600, which helped to ensure my shutter length was consistently in excess of 1/1000 seconds, even when overcast. I relied on the camera’s Matrix metering and selected Daylight WB. I experimented with my AF set up, but mostly shot using continuous-servo AF (AF-C) together with the group area option. Finally, I set my camera to Continuous High (CH), so I could shoot rapid bursts of the puffins in flight as they whizzed past or landed close by.
I think its fair to say that my firsts efforts were more miss than hit. Puffins are extremely fast, and being less accustomed to shooting birds, flight and action in my day-to-day photography, I struggled for much of the first day. Also, being only a day visitor, my window of opportunity was short – you only have around five hours on the island before your return crossing. Once I had allowed myself time to walk to and from the Wick and set up, I only had around four hours of camera time each day. Obviously, being a resident is preferable – not only do you get more time to take photos, but you also get the opportunity to shoot in better light. I would just have to make do, though.
While the first day was hot and sunny, the next days were a mix of bright, overcast conditions and drizzle. These conditions actually worked well, with the light being less contrasty and more flattering – bright, harsh sunlight doesn’t really suit a puffin’s stark black and white plumage. Capturing portraits of the birds was relatively straightforward. I would switch to single point AF and place the focusing spot close to my subject’s eye and beak. Using the long end of my tele-zoom in combination with a low viewpoint, I could really isolate the birds from their surroundings to capture them sharply against a pleasantly diffused background. The sea campion was in full bloom, adding interest to shots. When possible, I would try to shoot through flowers or grass to create an attractive, blurry softness in the foreground of my ground shots. Unfortunately, my visit was a week or so too early to be able to capture puffins returning to burrows with mouthfuls of sand eels for their young.
By the third day I was really getting to grips with the D500’s handling and I was also anticipating the puffin’s flight and behaviour with greater regularity. As a result, my hit rate was now good and I was regularly capturing results that I was satisfied with. You have to play the numbers game slightly with action, being prepared to take bursts of shots in order to capture a handful of frames that are not only sharp, but where the subject is well placed and with wings in a good position. Persistence and patience often pay off, and good opportunities are guaranteed on Skomer, with birds regularly flying in to return to their nests. Each day I carefully positioned myself so that the cliffs opposite created a dark, inky backdrop, while the diffused midday light helped to highlight the bird’s colourful feet, beak and outstretched wings.
By the end of the last day, I had taken in excess of 1,000 shots. What a contrast, I thought, to my first visit, when I arrived on the island with a meager ten rolls of Fuji Sensia and had to make every shot count. The performance of the D500 exceeded expectations – a great first run out for my new toy. It had also been good to return to a place where I have so many fond memories. I won’t be leaving it so long before returning again to Skomer… Maybe I’ll see you there?
Article By Ross Hoddinott