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Sea-watching at Strumble Head, Pembrokeshire

Elfyn Pugh

One of the most fascinating facets of birdwatching is the study of bird migration. It is an aspect of natural history that has intrigued man since time immemorial. Many people witness an act of migration without giving it a second thought. In the British Isles we look forward to seeing the first Swallow arrive in our home area following their winter sojourn in South Africa. The return of the Swallow to our shores heralds the coming of Spring, however bird migration occurs throughout the year to some degree. Some species of birds such as the Arctic Tern undertake a remarkable annual migration from their summer breeding grounds in Northern latitudes, even from the high Arctic, to winter in the Southern oceans on the edge of the Antarctic pack-ice a journey which entails the bird clocking up an incredible 35,000 kilometres (approx 22,000 miles) or more annually. Arctic Tern
The Arctic Tern (above) therefore witnesses more daylight hours in a year than any other living species of animal. They enjoy a life of perpetual summer. It is thought that on reaching the Southern hemisphere some terns may even circumnavigate the Antarctic continent! I have nothing but absolute admiration for the Arctic Tern because if you see one close up it doesn't appear to be a particularly robust bird which nonetheless does not preclude it from carrying out these amazing transoceanic migrations.

I will not delve too deeply here into the complexities of bird migration but can only advise the reader to obtain some reading material on this fascinating branch of Ornithology. I have just finished reading a recent book by Dominic Couzens entitled 'Bird Migration' published by New Holland and I can highly recommend it as an introduction on a subject that can seem bewildering to a layman but Couzens has been able to condense the literature on the subject to a highly readable and easily understandable format.

Strumble HeadThis book was appropriate reading material for me this past week as I have spent quite a few hours conducting a 'sea-watch' for migrating seabirds at, what is without doubt, the most supreme location in Wales for sea-watching which is Strumble Head in Pembrokeshire. This peninsula of land known as Pencaer lies 5 miles west of Fishguard and juts out slightly into the sea thereby affording a good platform to watch the passage of seabirds which usually starts from the end of July through to mid-November peaking in September/October.

At Strumble Head you will find a building which is a remnant from WW2. It was then an observation post for enemy submarine activity in the surrounding sea but now it has adopted a more passive role as a vital and welcome shelter from the elements for the great many 'birders' who visit this location during late Summer and Autumn to witness the spectacular migration that can occur here. Anything can turn up for those who have the time and patience to spend hours at this prestigious location such as the recent sighting on the 23rd August 2005 of a Sooty Tern, a rare vagrant to these shores, a species that breeds in tropical and sub-tropical zones of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. The best sea-watching conditions at Strumble Head are following a prolonged spell of South or South westerly gales followed by the wind veering to a West or North westerly direction. This has the effect of driving birds, who would normally pass to the South or West of Ireland, into the Irish sea area and the changing wind direction then forces them back in a southerly direction which effectively brings the birds close inshore as they leave the Irish sea area.

If you happen to be at 'Strumble' when these prime conditions occur the sense of expectancy among the birders present is physically tangible. The topography of Strumble Head is well suited to obtain good observations of seabird movements as it is only about 60 to 70 feet above sea level. The observation building is like a natural theatre and life is played out before an audience awaiting in excited anticipation. 'Birders' can sit and watch here with their 'scopes' and 'bins' constantly scanning the sea. The building in question is now maintained by the Pembrokeshire National Park authority and during the months in question you would be unlucky not to meet one of the eminent Ornithologists that spend countless hours here recording the seabird passage. These old 'sages' affectionately known as 'Strumblers' will be on hand to help you with identifying any species seen and I can speak from experience that after spending many hours in their good company sea-watching demands great concentration, dedication and an element of luck but it is certainly never boring as here at Strumble Head the sea meets the sky and the colours and the moods of the sea are forever changing.

Observation buildingHarbour Porpoise are present throughout the year but can be difficult to locate by the untrained eye especially if the sea state is choppy. You may also see Atlantic Grey Seals - indeed during the months of September to October relatively good views can be had of seal pups on nearby beaches and coves along this coastline. You will also get the occasional flypast of a noisy party of Choughs or even a Peregrine Falcon. Last year, during September, I was here during stormy conditions and saw a Peregrine Falcon picking off migrating Leach's Storm Petrels as they were flying just above the surface of the sea on their migration Southwards! Out at sea there are Gannets, Fulmars and at this time of year a myriad of auks moulting into winter plumage and formed into small rafts are scattered over a wide area of the sea.

Just to the left of the observation building (above) lies the now unmanned and automatic lighthouse on a small islet called Ynys Meicel. The light can be seen by shipping at a range of 26 miles. When strong gales fiercely pound these shores the scene can be dramatic as the waves crash onto the rocks below. It is an enchanting place to spend some time and may it always remain so.

If you intend visiting Strumble to do some birding then I cannot emphasise strongly enough that you need to arrive there at the crack of dawn as the first couple of hours of daylight are likely to prove the most productive, although I would advise birders to spend the whole day there. Your enjoyment will be greatly enhanced by bringing a scope with a lens of at least 30x or a zoom. For your own comfort I would suggest also that you take a folding seat of some sort with you. Ensure too that you wrap up well against the chill or you may fall victim to the 'Strumble shakes!'

Arctic SkuaThe following is a list of birds I saw at Strumble Head during the week 11th to 17th September 2005 just to give you an idea what species can occur:- Sooty Shearwater, Cory's Shearwater, Manx Shearwater, Gannet, Mediterranean Shearwater, Great Skua, Arctic Skua (right), Pomarine Skua, Sabine's Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Kittiwake, Little Gull were all seen by those whose company I shared as well as Black Tern, Sandwich Tern, Red throated Diver, Common Scoter, Wigeon, Teal, Whimbrel. There was also a good passage of Swallows probably having flown across the Irish sea from Ireland.


© Crown Copyright 2005

Image produced from Ordnance Survey's Get-a-map service.
Image reproduced with permission of Ordnance Survey and
Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.

Suggested reading for 'birders' who have an interest in visiting Pembrokeshire are;

‘Birding in Pembrokeshire’ by Jonathan Green & Owen Roberts-published by The Welsh Ornithological Society & printed by Gwasg Gomer, Llandysul, Ceredigion.

'Birds of Pembrokeshire' by Jack Donovan & Graham Rees (out of print)

Pembrokeshire Bird Report 2004 available from ‘The Wildlife Trust South and West Wales‘, Welsh Wildlife Centre, Cilgerran, Cardigan. Tel-01239 613211 Priced at £4.00 excl; p&p or from the Secretary of the Pembrokeshire Bird Group - Mr. Trevor Price, 2 Wordsworth Avenue, Haverfordwest. SA61 1SN or Tel:- 01437 779667