The Skellig Rocks Part I

There are few places in the world that make me marvel over the abundance of wildlife more than the Skelligs off the coast of Kerry, Ireland. A trip to the rocks is both a trip back in time and into the world of natural wonders. This is part one of a two part entry…the Skelligs world of natural wonders.

2011_07_29 SKM - Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) 06
The Colony

We departed Knightstown on Valentia island at 0900 on my cousins yacht and made for the sea. When we sailed around Bray Head I was telling them all about the Skelligs and one of our number had never been. After a course change we made for the Little Skellig. The smaller of the two islands is the second largest gannet colony in the world after St. Kildas in Scotland, and this small piece of craggy slate and sandstone is home to some 27,000 Northern Gannets as well as various other seabirds. As you approach the rock you first notice the number of gannets flying past increasing, both high and low. The you start to smell the rock, an oily fishy, guano smell which becomes stronger and stronger the closer you get. Finally the noise hits you. So many thousands of birds all voicing their opinions at the same time is an assault on the ears, which added to the visual effect of thousands of birds flying above and around you, nesting and calling, is a pure delight to behold.
2011_07_29 SKM - Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) 11
Juvenile Gannet unable to fly yet

Gannets are not too fussy about their nesting materials, as you can see in some of these shots that they collect man-made items such as netting and rope. When I was a tour guide on the Skelligs in the early 1990s I found a puffin chick with netting wrapped around his leg which had deformed. Poor Borax Bozo Bead-test Junior the Third. I fed him fish and gave him flying lessons for three weeks, but life became too Darwinian for him in the end and he is now buried on an outcrop above the lighthouse there.

2011_07_29 SKM - Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) 01
Gannet collection nesting material

As well as gannets, the larger rock, Skellig Michael plays host to large numbers of Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Storm Petrels, Manx Shearwaters, Razorbills, Guillemots and Puffins as well as the usual Herring, Great and Lesser Black-backed gulls. There is also a large colony of Puffins that burrow into the ground, or evict rabbits, to nest. In recent years though, this colony has suffered a decline in numbers. It would appear that the sand eels that the puffins feed on have declined or moved elsewhere due to changes in water temperature. Without their main food source many puffins have moved or, as in some cases, starved.
2011_07_29 SKM - Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) 02
Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)
2011_07_29 SKM - Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)
Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)
2011_07_29 SKM - Razorbill (Alca torda)
Razorbill (Alca torda)
2011_07_29 SKM - Common Guillemot (Uria aalge) 02
Common Guillemot (Uria aalge)

2011_07_29 SKM - Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) 01
Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

Apart from birdlife, the Skelligs is home to mammals also. On Skellig Michael there are hundreds of rabbits that were introduced by the lighthouse keepers. They undermine the ancient structures which worries the OPW who takes care of the monastery. (I ate three of them back in ´92. They were delicious) We didn´t land on the island so I didn´t get to see if the black and blondie rabbit is still about but we did see seals and common dolphins. It is also not unknown for whales or other dolphin species to pass by.

2011_07_29 SKM - Harbour [Common] Seal (Phoca vitulina)
Harbour or Common Seal (Phoca vitulina)

2011_07_29 SKM - Short-beaked Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis) 1
Short-beaked Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis)

So that´s the birds from the trip, tomorrow I´ll have some shots and a bit of the history of Skellig Michael, the ancient monastery, the lighthouses and the problematic issue of archaeological restoration as opposed to preservation.

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