What is it about puffins? Like a cross between a parrot and a penguin, they seem uniquely equipped to charm our socks off. Anyone who followed the BBC's Springwatch last month will know that their young – peculiar little fluffballs called pufflings – are adorable, too. When the warden of Skomer Island gently hoiked a puffling out of its burrow for a live check-up, it stole the show.
The staff of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales (WTSWW), which manages the island of Skomer, are now firm believers in the power of "welly telly". Partly thanks to Springwatch, overnight bookings for June and July were snapped up at great speed this year. But if you're quick, there's still a chance to grab a room in the newly refurbished lodge on Skomer's lesser-known neighbour, Skokholm, before the puffin-watching season comes to a close in early August. If you like your islands small, wild and mysterious, it could be right up your street.
Skokholm Island lies a little under three miles off the coast of south-west Pembrokeshire. It's around 30 minutes from the mainland by small, open-decked ferry – just 20 minutes further than Skomer. But unlike Skomer, which welcomes boatloads of tourists in spring and summer, Skokholm is breathtakingly quiet. Riddled with ancient rabbit burrows, its terrain is delicate; stray from the paths by mistake and you could find yourself sinking a foot through the surface and straight into the nest of a rabbit, puffin or a Manx shearwater.
To avoid undue damage, the WTSWW generally restricts visitor numbers to 10 or so at a time. Just four day trips run throughout the year, but these are very limited (the final one for 2011 departs on 8 August, and has just a few spaces left). At the peak of the breeding season, Skokholm's birds outnumber humans by a thousand to one.
For nature lovers with a sense of adventure, this kind of exclusivity is a rare treat. At a mile long by half a mile wide, there's no chance of getting lost, but there's ample space for everyone.
It was the romantic notion of living "alone with birds and flowers, in some remote place where they were plentiful and undisturbed" which attracted the young naturalist Ronald Lockley to Skokholm in 1927. Apart from a lighthouse and a dilapidated, 200-year-old farm, the island was untouched. He lived here for 13 years, turning the farm into Britain's first bird observatory and publishing classic studies of the private lives of Skokholm's puffins, Manx shearwaters, storm petrels and rabbits. The latter inspired Richard Adams to write Watership Down.
Today, Skokholm is staffed by a WTSWW warden, Jerry Gillham, and a relay of volunteers. It's a testament to their dedication that it's still utterly unspoilt. Rabbits remain the island's chief architects, and arch-predators such as peregrine falcons and great black-backed gulls rule the roost, littering the grassy paths with the bones of their victims.
Little has changed since Lockley's time, but this year a team of enthusiasts gave the old farm a gentle makeover. A revamped stone building now provides simple guest accommodation with sound environmental credentials, powered by shining arrays of solar panels. Water is hand-drawn from butts or carried up from the well; care is taken to minimise waste and to recycle as much as possible.
When I arrived for a four-day stay last month, I quickly adjusted to the island's rhythms, eking out jerrycans of water and making the most of the long hours of daylight. Many nature lodges talk up their "eco-credentials", but it was refreshing to be somewhere that embraces green principles so completely.
On the first morning, Jerry guided us around the island with quiet confidence. He's a down-to-earth character who has coined a term for the way this spartan, blustery wilderness of bracken, wildflowers and rock works its magic: Skokholm syndrome.
We crossed meadows where skylarks trilled their liquid song, then stopped at a dark, wave-battered wall of cliffs where fulmars, guillemots and razorbills squabbled on ledges barely one bird wide. Several thousand breed here each summer, in conditions as cramped and three dimensional as downtown Hong Kong; cannily, they lay pear-shaped eggs which, if knocked, roll harmlessly in a circle rather than falling and smashing on the rocks below. Landing is a skilful operation: as we watched, a quick succession of birds roared in on the clifftop gusts, braking just in time.
Next, we bounded over springy clumps of thrift to a sandstone wall where oystercatchers screeched hysterically – which was a sure sign of a nest nearby – and a family of choughs tumbled about like clowns. Beyond was a fortress-like bluff from which peregrine falcons – an adult and three burly youngsters – were glowering out to sea.
Finally we reached Crab Bay, its slopes dotted with the penthouse burrows of the island's high fliers, the puffins. Crowds of these summer visitors were pottering peacefully on the grassy clifftop, while rafts of their colleagues bobbed like bath toys in the water below.
Tour over, we were left to our own devices. In the small research library, there were survey sheets for those who wished to help to count butterflies, seals or dolphins, and we were all encouraged to record our bird sightings in the daily log. But essentially, our days were our own, and each of us felt we had the island to ourselves.
Our rooms were simple – there's no on-site laundry, so guests bring their own linen and towels – but none of us had come to Skokholm to waste time indoors. We were free to cook at hours that suited us, often eating together in the cosy converted barn; the rest of our time was spent roaming.
Fascinated though I was by the raucous hierarchy of gulls, the pluckiness of the wrens and pipits, the strange, metallic whiff of storm petrel nests, and the spooky after-dark wailing of shearwaters, it was the puffins that kept me enthralled.
They were shamelessly curious; once, when the door of my hide blew open, one individual simply strolled up to investigate, as if checking out what a human burrow might look like. Clearly, they weren't really bothered whether I concealed myself in a hide or not. So I switched to just sitting quietly among them, like Gulliver in the Court of Lilliput, while they went about the important business of socialising, sparring and picking up attractive scraps of grass.
I spent hours perched under their flight paths, watching them zoom in with dayglo-orange landing gear down and beaks loaded with sandeels. Occasionally, in a moment of high drama, a scavenging gull would take a clumsy swipe, but the puffins almost always outwitted them. Every so often, a soft, contented "Awwww" would sound from a well-fed nesting bird, deep underground.
I didn't see a puffling, sadly – it was too early in the season for that. But if you go now, when they're ready to fledge and brave enough to poke their scruffy heads out of their burrows, you might just be in luck.
Bird-watching on islands in the UK
Like Skokholm, Skomer is an important summer breeding ground for puffins, Manx shearwaters, guillemots and razorbills. It's very accessible: boats take daytrippers across three times a day (Tue-Sun and bank holidays, Apr–Oct) and there's hostel-style accommodation. Day trip, £18; shared rooms £20–£50 per person.
(01239 621600; www.welshwildlife.org)
The Farne Islands, Northumberland
Two miles offshore, the Farnes are easily one of Britain's most impressive bird-watching destinations, due to the tens of thousands of puffins, kittiwakes, arctic terns and eider ducks that breed here. Billy Shiel's in the village of Seahouses offers two-and-a-half-hour trips for £13 (Apr –Oct) or six hours for £28 (May–Jul). (01665 720308; www.farne-islands.co.uk)
Isle of May, Firth of Forth
This Scottish Natural Heritage Reserve hosts legions of puffins, guillemots, terns, and breeding grey seals. The May Princess sails there from Anstruther (01333 311808; www.isleofmayferry.com; day trip £40) and the lighthouse, now a bird observatory, can accommodate six ornithologists.
Open Mar-Nov; £12 per person per day plus £40 boat fare, or £95 per week including boat. (01896 848126. www.isleofmaybirdobs.org)
Lunga, Inner Hebrides
Fearless and companionable puffins arrive in April and stay through until early August. The island is also teeming with seals, which produce pups between June and September. You can cruise across with Turus Mara, which reckons close-quarters puffin-watching is the best therapy money can buy. A day trip costs £50 from Mull or £55 from Oban. (08000 858786; www.turusmara.com)
Getting, staying and visiting there
This summer, Skokholm will remain open to visitors until 1 August. Bookings are handled by The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales (01239 621600; www.welshwildlife.org).
A bed in a twin room, self-catering, costs £125 per person for three nights (starting Friday) or four nights (starting Monday), or £250 per person for seven nights (starting either Friday or Monday). There is still limited availability from 29 July (three nights).
The 2012 visitor season will run from May to August; precise dates will be confirmed when booking opens on 10 October 2011 for members of the trust (17 October for everyone else).
Visitors are required to bring their own bed linen, towels and fresh food. Other supplies can be bought from the island store.
The twice-weekly crossing to Skokholm from Martin's Haven in south-west Pembrokeshire by small, open-decked boat costs £25 return.