Bardsey Island is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. Also known as Ynys Enlli, this Welsh Island is situated just off the coast of the Llŷn Peninsula. I have now visited the island four times over the last couple of years and am looking forward to exploring its rugged scenery again in the future. Bardsey is a peaceful place where you can really get back to nature.
Accessible only by boat, my first impression of Bardsey was truly impressive, with droves of sea birds passing back and forth overhead, including my first glances of Puffins! Collin the boatman is a memorable character and was nice enough to pass by the steep cliffs of the East side of the mountain and the resident sea bird colonies.
Staying on the island is like stepping back in time with no electricity on most of the island, no phone signal and almost no man-made noise. Whilst you can day trip to Bardsey, I stayed at the amazing Bardsey Lodge and Bird Observatory.
As soon as I had unpacked a rare bird was reported on the Island, a Blythe’s Pipit which should’ve been in east Asia, and amazingly the first spring record in the UK. Little did I know I had many firsts to come with Blue-Headed Wagtail, Purple Sandpiper, Turtle Dove and Puffin – all new species for me on my first trip. My favourite though was an Eastern Subalpine Warbler which was feeding amongst the flowering gorse bushes, usually a bird of the Mediterranean and Africa! I don’t have a fancy camera, so I’ve included some of my bird sketches below. It was fantastic watching BBFO’s team at work identifying the rarities I have seen during my trips to Bardsey Island, I learnt a great deal from them so thanks guys!
In subsequent visits new birds for me included a Wryneck, Great Skua, Barred Warbler and a Little Bunting. But Bardsey Island isn’t just about the rarities. It also has a fantastic spring migration, much better than we get here in Kent! Walking round the island after a big fall of migrants, the bushes would literally be dripping with chiffchaffs, and once every fence post seemed to have its own Spotted Flycatcher perched on top, hunting for small insects.
No matter where I walked there was always something different to attract my interest. I enjoyed watching the Choughs, a real welsh speciality. I somehow always found my way back to the Lighthouse. I must’ve taken 100s of photos of it, but this is my favourite below.
During my fist visit I helped assistant warden Steffan count and find the Oystercatcher nests around the coastline. Oystercatchers are notoriously noisy, so it was quite easy to count the nesting pairs but finding the actual nest site was not easy to spot. It amazes me how vulnerable these nests are hidden amongst the pebbles on the floor, I think I got the hang of it in the end! About 100 pairs of oystercatcher nest on Bardsey each year. We also were looking for other nests to contribute to the nest record scheme, linnet and wheatear nests were new for me.
Aside from the bird life, I also fell in love with the flora of the island and could’ve spent all day exploring the grassland fields looking for wildflowers. I could write a whole blog on the various flowers I photographed, so I’m just going to include my favourite, this attractive Cuckoo Flower. In the spring the island turns beautiful shades of pink and purple with the carpets of Squill and Thrift flowers. I drew this sketch of the Squill flowers whilst sitting on the terrace of the Observatory, the first time I had felt like drawing in a long time.
In amongst the botany you can’t miss the fantastic insect life. I can’t list all the species of moths, bees and butterflies I photographed so I’m going to pick my two favourites. I really enjoyed photographing a few day flying moths. I found a little patch of wild Thyme growing on the north end of the island which was covered in Six-spot Burnet Moths. And on the opposite side of the island live Thrift Clearwings, a scarce moth in the UK, I had never seen a moth so fascinating.
I can’t mention Bardsey Island without mentioning the substantial Grey Seal population. Up to 200 seals can be found on the island on most days and they haul out to rest around the island. I enjoyed sitting and watching the seals down by the lighthouse, I was so close to them that I could hear them snoring… and even farting! They have their pups in September and October, I feel very privileged to have watched the mother seals with their youngsters, although I did feel for the tiny pups on a stormy day.
When the sea is flat calm it is perfect for dolphin watching. I saw Common Porpoises almost daily, there is something magical about that moment when you see their dark shape slip out of the water, only to disappear seconds later. Bardsey’s waters are visited by many cetaceans, but probably the most notable are the Risso’s Dolphins. No one really knows why they regularly visit here. I was lucky enough to see a small pod with a couple of calves whilst sitting on the veranda of the Obs.
On my last visit to Bardsey I was lucky enough to help the Observatory’s team with their seabird monitoring work. This meant trekking over to the more treacherous East side of the island, an area where the general public do not have access. As we set off, we first came to the colonies of breeding Herring and Lesser Black Backed Gulls, with the occasional pair of Greater Black Backs. As we moved further around seabirds were swarming around us. The colonies of Razorbill and Guillemot consisted of around 2000 pairs of each species, my mind was blown.
We were lucky enough to find a nesting puffin, not many of these beautiful birds have been ringed on Bardsey as they have only recently started colonising the island. Study of these charismatic birds is vital as they are now listed on the red list of conservation concern in the UK and classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN red list. If you would like to find out more about bird ringing, see the British Trust for Ornithology’s website.
My highlight? It’s hard to pick just one, but as well as the sea bird monitoring, the most remarkable birds on Bardsey Island are the 21,000 pairs of Manx Shearwaters that nest here each year. Through bird ringing we now know that they join us each year from the coast of Argentina to spend the summer here in the UK and breed. When the breeding season is finished, they head down the west coast of the UK to the coasts of the Mediterranean and Africa, before crossing the ocean back to the Americas.
They arrive back to their nest sites en masse, and through ringing data we know that they usually nest in the same burrow as the previous years! They usually come back to their burrows during the cover of a dark night to avoid predators, they don’t get around very well on the land so are quite vulnerable on the ground. I can’t even describe how haunting it is to hear the thousands of Manxys calling, something I will never forget.
To hear the Manx Shearwater’s intriguing calls check out this sound recording from Bardsey Island.
The most amazing thing is that when their chick is fully grown at around 80 days, their parents have fed them up so much they can’t fit out of the burrows. Come July, the adults leave their fattened chick in the burrow by itself and head back to south America. When the chick has slimmed down and moulted it follows all by itself with no guidance from its parents.
The Bird Observatory lead guided walks at night to see the Manx Shearwaters sitting at the entrances of their burrows and watch the adults being ringed. A very interesting nesting female Manxy was recorded on Bardsey Island in 2010. The ringing data showed that the bird was first ringed in 1957, so this bird was at least 53 years old! This individual once held the title of the world’s oldest bird before “Wisdom” the 68-year-old albatross came along.
I hope this blog has inspired you to visit some of our wilder islands the UK has to offer. I would like to thank Ben Porter, aka “Bardsey Ben” for letting me use some of his photos. He is a brilliant upcoming wildlife photographer and if you want to see more photos of the wildlife Bardsey Island has to offer, check out his website Ben Porter Photography.
But for now, I’ll leave you with Ben’s charming little video of a pair of Manx Shearwaters getting their burrow ready for the breeding season.