Puffin-spotters guide to Pembrokeshire

PuffinPic-150x150The puffin is one of Britain’s favourite birds. With its big, colourful bill and soulful eyes, it’s one that just about everybody recognises – and wants to see.

And Pembrokeshire is one of the best places to see puffins in Wales, or anywhere around the British coast – it’s all about timing and location…

To see Pembrokeshire’s remarkable range of seabirds – including puffins – you have to visit the coast during their breeding seasons. For a couple of months colonies are buzzing with birds, but once the season’s youngsters have flown the nest, the cliffs and islands get much quieter. 

For example, puffins begin to return to the islands of Skomer and Skokholm in April. From mid-June to mid-July there are chicks to feed, so adult puffins are coming and going all day long. But by the first week in August they go, leaving their burrows for another year.

Puffins are definitely the stars of Pembrokeshire’s seabird summer, but there are plenty of other fascinating birds to see too, including:

People often think that the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park’s logo bird is a penguin. It’s actually a razorbill. Related to puffins, razorbills are a similar size and have a big, flattened beak too, yet they lack the puffin’s bright colours. Look for a bird with a black back and head, and a white belly. They nest on ledges on cliff faces.

Another cliff-dweller, the guillemot looks a lot like the razorbill, but where the razorbill is black and white, the guillemot is dark-brown and white, with a long, sharp bill.

On the coast there’s a good chance that you’ll see gannets flying by on their way to one of their favourite fishing areas. If you’re really lucky you’ll see them fishing. An adult gannet has a two metre (6ft) wingspan and their plumage is brilliant white (with black wing tips). When they hunt they fold back their wings and drop, spear-like, into the water at speed.

Large and oily-black, the cormorant has a hooked beak and long, snaky neck. There’s something primeval about them. You’ll often see one riding on the water, sitting just above the surface like a small submarine – when it spots a fish it will dive.

Where to see them…

Skomer Island
A day on Skomer is one of the UK’s top wildlife experiences. In summer, the island (a Wildlife Trusts nature reserve) is home to around 12,000 adult puffins, along with lots of guillemots and razorbills too. This windswept place is also home to cormorants and one of the world’s largest Manx shearwater breeding colonies, with over 100,000 breeding pairs (Boats from Martins Haven).

Skokholm Island
Set in the middle of a marine nature reserve, Skokholm Island is of international importance for its breeding seabirds including Manx shearwaters, storm petrels and puffins, and some fascinating migrating birds pass through as well. You can often see dolphins, harbour porpoises and Atlantic grey seals around the island (Boats from Martins Haven).

Dinas Head
If you walk the coast path around the eastern side of Dinas you will pass Needle Rock, a pillar of rock that is a stone’s throw from the mainland. Scores of razorbills and guillemots nest on its cliff-face ledges (Between Fishguard and Newport, a short walk from Cwm-yr-Eglwys).

Strumble Head
Spend time on the cliffs around Strumble’s landmark lighthouse and there’s a good chance that you will see gannets coming and going along the coast and Manx shearwaters too – don’t miss the birdwatching observation post. It’s also a good location for whale watching and dolphin-spotting (Near Goodwick – parking area at the lighthouse).

Stack Rocks
Also known as Elegug Stacks – elegug is the Welsh word for guillemot. Two near-vertical pillars of limestone that are home to guillemots and razorbills. There’s also a good chance that you’ll see a passing peregrine falcon (Near Castlemartin – short walk on coast path from car park).

Grassholm Island
About 11 miles west of the Pembrokeshire mainland, Grassholm is a small rocky island. Tens of thousands of gannets nest on Grassholm – one of the world’s largest colonies (Boats from Martins Haven).

Make Wolfscastle Country Hotel the base for your bird-watching adventures – head west to St Bride’s Bay and the St. Davids Peninsula or north to the Cardigan Bay coastline, and don’t miss the birdwatching hot spots of the south. 

*The traditional Pembrokeshire name for puffins is “sea parrots”