2016 starling murmuration, RSPB Otmoor, Oxfordshire

I hadn’t planned to write about our latest visit to RSPB Otmoor. I’ve already written about our previous trips to watch the starling murmuration here and here. Added to this I have loads of half-drafted blog posts which I really need to finish! Yet an estimated 50,000 starlings and an almost supermoon changed my mind.

This way to the starlings, RSPB Otmoor
This way to the starlings, RSPB Otmoor

Starling murmuration

Our previous trips to watch the Otmoor starling murmuration were memorable for the wrong reasons. We turned up way too early the first time, and although we had a great view of the murmuration we were almost frozen to the spot. The second time we decided to visit later so that we didn’t have to hang around. But we were too late. Never mind, at least we saw a good sunset.

Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor
Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor

Our timing, and the weather, were spot on this year. It wasn’t all perfect though; so many people come to watch the murmuration that the small car park gets very busy. We were fortunate to get a space but do car share if you plan to visit, otherwise you may have a long walk down from the village.

Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor
Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor

Back to the all important timing. We left the car park at 3.30pm, and took about 20 minutes to walk to the starling viewpoint. We passed several serious looking bird watchers heading the opposite way so I worried we were too late. I needn’t have been. An RSPB warden at the hide informed us the starlings would arrive in 10 minutes.

Moon from RSPB Otmoor
Moon from RSPB Otmoor

The warden must have had a direct line to the starlings as they flew in almost to the predicted minute (which strangely was later than the previous time, when we missed them). Flocks started arriving from all directions. Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be any starlings left elsewhere in Oxfordshire another flock would swoop and swirl in. And then another. And another. All settling down into the reedbeds for the night. Not that I think they’ll have got much sleep given the noise they were making.

Moon from RSPB Otmoor
Moon from RSPB Otmoor

Supermoon

Almost as spectacular as the starlings was the rising moon. We visited the day before the supposed ‘supermoon’ (which was a non-event in Oxfordshire due to cloud). There were no clouds to spoil our view that night at Otmoor. Simply a huge illuminated ball rising above the flat plain. Absolutely breathtaking. The perfect accompaniment for our walk back to the car park.

More info

  • The RSPB website has travel directions and further information on visiting Otmoor. Please park responsibly!

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Exploring the Isle of Eigg, Inner Hebrides

Have you ever visited somewhere that felt so perfect that you didn’t want to leave? That’s how we felt after our short break on the Isle of Eigg.

Reached by a 1.5 hour ferry ride from Mallaig, Eigg is one of the Small Isles south of Skye. I’d been a little worried our journey would be choppy but the sea was calm. Instead the excitement was provided by the dolphins following our boat and a minke whale spotted blowing nearby.

Welcome to Eigg
Welcome to Eigg

Glebe Barn

Our Calmac ferry docked at Galmisdale, the main port on the island. We’d booked a self-contained flat annex at Glebe Barn which also offers hostel accommodation to visitors. Stuart, the owner, found us wandering on the pier, picked up our luggage and pointed out the house on the skyline, aptly comparing it to Father Ted’s house on Craggy Island. He explained we could either walk along the road or take the adventurous route via the shoreline. We played it safe and walked the road route for our first trip but soon realised the shoreline route was much quicker.

Glebe hostel, Isle of Eigg
Glebe Barn hostel, Isle of Eigg

The flat annexe consisted of a main living area, kitchen and bathroom. It usually sleeps 2 people but can accommodate 2 extra children if you don’t mind a bit of a squeeze in the bedroom. Although we had a separate entrance we were also connected to the rest of the hostel by an internal door. This was handy for the kids as they could pop down to the common room to play table football, their main source of entertainment. Unless you count watching golden eagles from the kitchen window!

Shell collecting on Glamisdale beach, Isle of Eigg
Shell collecting on Galmisdale beach, Isle of Eigg

After unpacking our bags we headed out to find the alternative route between the hostel and Galmisdale. The path from the hostel heads down through the bracken to meet up with the shoreline. Using this route it was, in theory, possible to walk to Galmisdale in about 20 minutes. However, this does not take into account stoppage time to sift through the shells at Galmisdale Bay beach.

Shells on Galmisdale beach
Shells on Galmisdale beach

Galmisdale

I have visited several places which promote themselves as shell beaches. But the understated nature of Galmisdale Bay beach, which must contain hundreds of thousands of shells, makes it one of my favourites. Added to which the peace and views of the mainland make it a place I’ll remember for a long time.

Our planned destination was the cafe-bar near the pier in Galmisdale. Yet the shell beach wasn’t the only distraction. The light was perfect for photography and the boats in the harbour made for great subjects. Dragging ourselves away from the view we finally made it to the bar and rewarded ourselves with a drink.

Galmisdale, Isle of Eigg
Galmisdale, Isle of Eigg

Galmisdale Bay cafe, next to the pier, is a magnet for both tourists and residents. Open every day during the summer months it offers home baked food during the day, turning into a popular bar and restaurant most evenings.

Alongside the cafe we found the Isle of Eigg store and a small gift shop. We’d bought our own food with us as I wasn’t sure what was available on the island. I needn’t have bothered lugging bags of pasta as the store was well stocked although understandably more expensive than the mainland.

Galmisdale pier, Isle of Eigg
Galmisdale pier, Isle of Eigg

Leaving the bar we took the road route home as the sun was setting and we hadn’t bought torches with us. The sky turned pink and purple and it was difficult to keep our eyes on the road. Visitors are not allowed to bring cars on to the island so we were quite relaxed about road rules. However we soon discovered most of the locals had cars and some drove pretty fast, presumably because they weren’t expecting much traffic or pedestrians!

Sunset on the Isle of Eigg
Sunset on the Isle of Eigg

Eigg is 5 miles by 3 miles with plenty of walking opportunities. The next day we explored the north of the island, visiting the stunning beaches at Laig and Singing Sands. You can read more about our walks here.

As we walked we saw plenty of evidence of how environmentally aware the islanders are. Eigg generates its own electricity through a combination of hydroelectric, solar and wind power. Waste has to be burned or taken to the mainland so there’s imaginative local re-use and recycling.  Even the small school has been awarded the Eco-Schools Green Flag award.

View of the mainland from Isle of Eigg
View of the mainland from Isle of Eigg

On a sunny summer day I could imagine giving up a hectic life on the mainland and taking up crofting on Eigg. Back home a quick look on Rightmove threw up a couple of building plots and a house we’d admired in Galmisdale Bay. But we visited in summer. I’m pretty sure reality would kick in around October when the weather and a bored teen would take the shine off the idyll.

Boats, Galmisdale, Isle of Eigg
Boats, Galmisdale, Isle of Eigg

Later that day we still had some energy left after our walk in the north so it was time to return to our favourite shell beach. The kids found a rope swing over a stream nearby and messed about on this before heading towards the pier. As it was Sunday evening the cafe-bar was closed so no refreshment stop but we still enjoyed our evening stroll.

Galmisdale Bay, Isle of Eigg
Galmisdale Bay, Isle of Eigg

We spent the morning of our departure exploring the area around the Cathedral and Massacre caves before heading back into Galmisdale. On Monday mornings during the summer there’s a craft and produce market in the Community Hall, along with a cafe run by Eiggy Bread. We’d seen hardly anyone else on our Eigg walks so it was a shock to see so many people, both tourists and locals, in the hall for coffee and a chat. We soon realised why when we ate the best food of our holiday, a delicious plum and almond tart.

Isle of Eigg community hall
Isle of Eigg community hall

We still had a couple of hours to fill before our return ferry departed so took a final stroll along the coast. I spotted a colony of seals out on a group of rocks and we sat and watched them.

Seal watching, Isle of Eigg
Seal watching, Isle of Eigg

The funniest moment occurred when a gull flew in low over the seals and almost every one of them launched into the sea. It was hilarious to watch. I wonder whether this happens every time a gull flies over?

Seals, Isle of Eigg
Seals, Isle of Eigg

It was a reluctant walk back to the ferry pier. We’d only stayed for 2 nights but all of us had fallen for the island. Our departure was accompanied by the island piper, playing her bagpipes at the end of the pier. I’m not sure we’ll ever return to Eigg but our short visit will remain in my memory for a long time.

Boarding MV Lochnevis, Eigg to Mallaig ferry
Boarding MV Lochnevis, Eigg to Mallaig ferry

Read part two of our Isle of Eigg adventure, detailing our walks, here.

More info:

  • We travelled on the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Fort William, then picked up a hire car for the final stretch to Mallaig. Read more about our journey here.
  • We used the Calmac ferry from Mallaig to Eigg. A return ticket costs £13 for adults, children aged 5-15 years are half price.
  • The self-catering annexe at Glebe Barn costs £52 per night for 2 people. There is an additional charge of £12 per person if additional beds are used.

Puffins and bluebells on Skomer, Pembrokeshire

Twenty odd years ago I spent a week volunteering as an assistant warden on Skomer, a small island off the coast of south west Wales. It was a formative experience of my 20s; the beauty of the island, the conservation work and the volunteers are all ingrained in my memory.

Bluebells and sea campion, Skomer
Bluebells and sea campion, Skomer

It’s always tricky to revisit a place that holds such strong memories but I wanted to return with the kids when they were old enough to enjoy it. Our recent holiday to Pembrokeshire gave me the ideal opportunity; I knew the visit would be completely different but would I regret returning?

Puffin on Skomer island
Puffin on Skomer island

The boat to Skomer

The boat to Skomer leaves from the small bay of Martin’s Haven. As the island has a limit of 250 day visitors you need to arrive early if you’re travelling during peak season. We were visiting on the late May Bank Holiday so didn’t take any chances and were in the queue for tickets by 8am.

Our early start paid off and we were allocated seats on the first day visitor sailing. Our boat, the Dale Princess, makes the 10 minute journey several times a day which is reassuring given the notorious reputation of Jack Sound, the stretch of water that separates Skomer from the mainland. I was glad it was only a short journey as the swell was considerable despite it being a calm day.

Skomer guillemots
Skomer guillemots

As we neared the landing stage we were surrounded by seabirds, mostly puffins, bobbing in the sea around us. After disembarking we were directed up a flight of steps, past ledges full of guillemots, for an introductory talk by the warden. 

The warden described the island as a piece of Swiss cheese. This is a perfect analogy. Three of its main inhabitants live in the burrows which cover the island; puffins, rabbits and Manx shearwaters. Whilst you’re likely to see both puffins (in season) and rabbits the Manx shearwaters arrive and leave in darkness. Only overnight visitors will witness the vocal cacophony of the shearwaters that return to the island each evening.

Visitor centre and volunteer accommodation, Skomer
Visitor centre and volunteer accommodation, Skomer

We had around 5 hours which is more than enough time to walk a circuit of the island. Our first stop was a trip to the Old Farm, which houses a small visitor exhibition and, most importantly, the only public toilets on the island. It’s also the location of the volunteer accommodation, which I was keen to show the family, even though the kids weren’t particularly impressed by my reminiscing.

Skomer volunteer accommodation - 1990s vs 2015
Skomer volunteer accommodation – 1990s vs 2015

The volunteer accommodation had certainly had a makeover since my earlier visit, as you can see from the then and now photo. Our converted cowshed (top photo) had no running water and very rudimentary facilities. I’m not sure what I smelt like after a week with no shower but I doubt it was fragrant!

We continued walking on towards Skomer Head. As with much of the Pembrokeshire coast the island is carpeted with flowers during late spring. At home (Oxfordshire) the bluebells have finished for the year but they were still flowering in abundance on Skomer, along with pink campion and sea thrift. 

Walking through the bluebells, Skomer
Walking through the bluebells, Skomer

We saw plenty of rabbits as we walked. Rather disconcertedly the first one was black and white which made the kids wonder if a pet rabbit had escaped. The rabbits were introduced to the island in the 13th Century and were raised by locals for their fur and meat. Hence many are from domesticated stock and aren’t the traditional brown colour.

We didn’t actually miss out on seeing Manx shearwaters either. Although sadly they were dead ones! Skomer is home to the largest population of Manx shearwater in the world and they’re easy picking for greater black backed gulls. As we walked around the island we saw plenty of Manx shearwater carcasses in various states of decomposition. My son delighted in taking photographs of these, I’m not quite sure what that says about his psyche.

Skomer signpost
Skomer signpost

We stopped for an early picnic lunch near Skomer Head where we attempted to spot porpoise. We were out of luck so contented ourselves with views of Grassholm, renamed gannet island by the kids. The island is home to thousands of gannets, who are responsible for the snow covered appearance of the island (bird poo).

The Wick

After lunch it was on to the main attraction, The Wick. This sheer cliff is rammed full of seabirds, mostly guillemots and razorbills, which you can hear just as well as you can see. All the visitors to the island seemed to congregate here too as it’s the best place to watch puffins on Skomer.

Skomer puffins
Skomer puffins

This year’s puffin count recorded more than 21,000 individuals, the highest number ever. The footpath runs between the puffin burrows and the cliff so visitors are treated to great close up views of the birds. There was no need for binoculars, although there was a Skomer volunteer manning a telescope focused on The Wick for better views of other seabirds.

I remember my volunteer work consisted of boardwalk building and a bird count. I should probably apologise for any inaccuracies in puffin numbers during the early 1990s. It was hard to accurately count birds that wouldn’t stay in one place for long!

Puffin burrows, Skomer
Puffin burrows, Skomer

The puffin burrows are marked with numbered sticks. These help the volunteers record which burrows are occupied and which eggs have hatched. Every so often a startled puffin emerged from one of the burrows, let out a squirt of poo and escaped the cameras by heading out to sea.

Of course puffins are not the only bird on the island. They’re not even the main attraction for the serious birdwatcher. The Skomer island blog shows that a black stork flew over on the day we visited; previous visitors this year include several golden orioles and even hoopoes! Needless to say we didn’t see any of these, but we were quite content with puffins.

View over to The Neck, Skomer
View over to The Neck, Skomer

After we finally tore ourselves away from The Wick we headed back to our start point, stopping to take in the glorious views over The Neck (inaccessible to day visitors). The photo above really doesn’t do it justice as the ground was covered in swathes of bluebells and pink campion.

We arrived back at the landing stage earlier than our planned departure time so that I could take some photographs of the guillemots we’d passed earlier. As it turned out, the boat arrived early too and we were allocated seats on an impromptu 2.30pm sailing. The trip back was completely calm, no spray and no swell, much more pleasant.

Boarding the Dale Princess, Skomer
Boarding the Dale Princess, Skomer

Did my return visit live up to expectations? Of course it did, and the rest of the family enjoyed it too. Sadly there was no sign of the boardwalk we built, but the island was exactly how I remembered it, with added puffins.

If you’re visiting the area you might also like to read my blog post about things to do near St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

More info:

  • Access to Skomer. The island is open from 1 April to 30 September, except Mondays (although it is open on Bank Holiday Mondays). It is not possible to book  trips in advance so on busy days during peak puffin season you should aim to be in the queue at Lockley Lodge, Martin’s Haven before 8am. Once you’ve got to the front of this queue and paid your landing fee you’ll be allocated a boat departure time. The landing fee is £10 for adults, children under 16 and members of the local Wildlife Trust are free.
  • Taking the boat to Skomer. The boat officially departs at 10am, 11am and 12 noon (although we were allocated a place on a 9.30am boat). It only sails when conditions allow. In particular, a strong northerly wind can mean no sailings; you can check latest boat information via @skomer_boatinfo on Twitter. The boat departure point is about 5 minutes walk downhill from Lockley Lodge. The fee is paid on the boat in cash only; this is £11 for adults, £7 for children.
  • When can you see puffins on Skomer? The best time to see puffins is May to mid-July. Most have left by early August.
  • What facilities are on Skomer? There are basic toilet facilities on Skomer but that’s all; there’s nowhere to buy food so bring a picnic with you. You can however hire a pair of binoculars; these cost £5 and are recommended if you’ve forgotten to bring your own.
  • Is Skomer suitable for children? Yes, but with some reservations. There are 87 steps to climb from the boat landing stage and much of the island is rugged terrain with open cliffs, visitors must remain on paths at all times. There are only a couple of  places to shelter on Skomer so visit on a dry day. Lastly consider whether it’s the kind of place your family would enjoy. If you’re looking for beaches, a cafe etc it won’t meet your expectations. If you’re happy to wander round the island, stop to watch wildlife and enjoy a picnic you’ll be fine. There are kids trails available, pick one up from the warden at the introductory talk.

Starling watch at RSPB Otmoor, Oxfordshire

*To see details of our November 2016 visit to watch the starling murmuration at Otmoor click here*

Have you seen a starling murmuration? A murmuration is the name given to the swooping displays made by starlings just before they come into roost. Last winter we were treated to a fabulous display at RSPB Otmoor, and as this is the perfect time of year to see them we decided it was time for a revisit.

On our previous trip to Otmoor we made a mistake and arrived way too early. It was a freezing cold day and we spent a long time standing around in frozen mud trying to keep warm. The wait was worth it though as we were treated to spectacular murmurations.

This year we set off later. It had rained all day but as we negotiated the traffic delight of Oxford’s ring road the blue skies appeared. Surely a signal.

We duly arrived at the car park, put on our wellies and started the 20 minute walk to the viewing point near the reed beds. A couple of small groups of starlings flew overhead and as we walked we were treated to the most amazing sunset.

Otmoor sunset

Otmoor_sunsetOtmoor_sunset2Otmoor_sunset3otmoor_sunset4

Perhaps this should have been an indicator that we were a little on the late side arriving this year. Nevertheless, we joined several other bird watchers at the shelter and proceeded to wait for the starlings. And we waited.

A few minutes later a couple of the group started to walk back and we overheard that the starlings had already put on their display for the day. This was disappointing news to us, and to the people next to us who had driven for 1.5 hours to see them!

Many bird watchers have visited my blog over the last couple of weeks to find out what time the starlings roost. At the end of November it was around 3.40pm. About 10 minutes before we arrived.

Were we disappointed? A little. We hadn’t seen the starlings but we were treated to the most amazing sunset. And there’s something magical walking back through a nature reserve in the dark!

If you’re interested in other posts about local nature reserves you might also enjoy reading about moth spotting at Neptune Wood or orchid hunting at Warburg Nature Reserve. Alternatively locals and visitors alike might enjoy my post about things to do in Oxford.

More info:

  • Further details about Otmoor reserve can be found here.