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Why I’ll miss the puffins of Skomer island

Award-winning wildlife photographer Mike Cullis ARPS describes the lure of his favourite getaway – and its magical inhabitants

Above: ‘Puffin peering from its burrow', Skomer island

My wildlife travels have taken me to many different places around the world including Kenya, the Arctic, Costa Rica, Namibia and the Falkland Islands. But in my own area, Skomer island, just off the coast of Pembrokeshire, west Wales, has always been a special place for me, particularly because of the puffins. A boat trip goes out from a place called Martin’s Haven and it takes about 30 minutes to get to the island.

We’re moving away from Pembrokeshire to Hampshire. I’ve visited Skomer island on many occasions over the years, so this year is particularly special for me. It’s an even more magical experience to stay overnight on the island and share it with just a handful of people.

The best time to see puffins in large numbers is mid-June to mid-July as they fish for sand eels and return to feed their chicks. Puffins are amazing birds that have so much character and such gorgeous looks. They’re called the clowns of the sea because of the yellow and red colours of their bill, their clown-like faces and their unusual gait on land.

Skomer is also home to half the world's population of the Manx Shearwater – some 300,000 pairs. Chicks lying in their burrows are fed only at night by their incoming parents to avoid predation. Adults abandon them and the chicks leave late August to make their own 6,000 mile journey to Brazil and Argentina, where they live on the water in rafts. The following March they return to Skomer and find their way to within metres of the original burrow. 


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Above: ‘Puffin guarding his catch', Skomer island

The puffin in-flight photography is always the toughest. These little birds travelling at 50-60 miles an hour pose a huge challenge for the camera autofocus system to lock onto and to stay focused on. The gold standard image everyone looks for is the puffin with sand eels in its mouth. At one stage one came in and landed on me on its way to the burrow – it dropped some of the very smelly sand eels on my head. That was quite amusing for me and the people around me at the time.

Of course, it’s about being responsible with the puffins. When they come in, they’ll land on the edge of the cliff. Further inland they have a labyrinth of burrows. You stay to the footpath and it’s a question of trying to establish the flight path – given the wind conditions and the time of day – and working out what the flight trajectory will be. That’s the most difficult part, for sure, then looking for something that’s different, trying to capture the emotion of the puffin and the relationship with its partner.

I’m looking forward to new horizons, new adventure in Hampshire, and the ability to travel to places that are fascinating to photograph.

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Above: ‘A proud puffin surveys the landscape', Skomer island

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Above: ‘Two puffins play', Skomer island

Skomer Warden's Acomodation

Above: ‘Skomer warden's accomodation', Skomer island

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Above: ‘Guillemot community on Stack Rock off the southern Pembrokeshire coast', Pembrokeshire

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Above: 'Adult black-blacked gull in moult', Pembrokeshire

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Above: 'Curlew in flight', Pembrokeshire

All images by Mike Cullis ARPS