Little Brothers of the North

They are known as the ‘clowns of the sea’ and are one of the UK’s favourite birds. Instantly recognisable with their formal black and white ‘dinner jacket’ plumage, bright orange feet, and colourful orangey red bill. The blackish grey skin that forms a triangle shape round the eye gives them an appearance of wearing makeup that further accentuates the clownish look. Add to that the comical way they walk, upright and waddling, and their confiding nature and it is not difficult to see why they are one of our favourites. Of course, I speak of the puffin.

The beautiful puffin

On Sule Skerry the puffins nest in burrows under the mayweed that covers the top of the island. Everywhere you walk one must watch where you put your feet lest you stand on a burrow and break through. All through the day, there is continual movement of puffins. Overhead they fly in circles around the island, coming in to crash land among the mayweed or onto rocks. The stream of puffin’s ebbs and flows during the day, with peaks in the morning and evenings, but it seems there are always puffins flying overhead. Some have bills full of silvery fish, with which they disappear into their burrows where a hungry mouth is waiting. They reappear cautiously, peeking out from the burrow to check the coast is clear. Along with those overhead, everywhere you look on the island there are puffins. Gathering on the boulders of the rocky shore, perching on rocks among the mayweed, on the lighthouse, on the roof of the storerooms, the toilet, the kitchen. Here they gather, either on their way out or back from the sea, seemingly watching the goings on of the island.

Puffins gathering

The air is continually full of their fluttering wings and the ground almost vibrates with their growling and grunting from underground burrows. With the numbers of birds breeding here it almost sounds like a muted chainsaw being revved up.

It is fantastic just to pick a spot and watch them. Watch has they come streaming in over the sea, rocks and mayweed, some with their bills laden, silvery flashes glittering in the sunlight. Watch as they almost crash land into the vegetation, wings held out, feet splayed as they break looking like Eddie the Eagle. Watch as they jostle for position on rocks, with birds continually replacing each other as one jumps off the perch, heading for their burrow or out to sea. I laugh as I watch them peer out from their burrows, wander out and then freeze having realised I am there. Then comes the decision of what to do. Sometimes they just go for it and hurtle themselves into the air again, feet and wings moving rapidly in order to gain enough momentum, others turn round and slowly waddle back into their burrow as if trying to pretend they were never there.

Peeking from a burrow

It seems there is never a moment without puffins on Sule (not a bad thing). All through the day they are around, flying or waddling past, perching and watching, fluttering and stretching their wings. Even when it gets dark and things finally quiet down it is not unknown for birds to go wandering, either an adult or a newly emerged puffling. Early one morning I am awoken by a bump and scrabbling of claws on canvas as one finds its way under my outer tent and then works its way around the inner tent. When I was on the island in 2009 we spent many evenings collecting pufflings that had emerged from their burrows and were making their way to the sea (sometimes via the lighthouse whose generator appears to make a sound similar to the waves crashing on rocks!). We would collect them up, put a ring on them and then take them down to the shore to release them into the night-covered ocean. This time whether we are slightly earlier or the puffins are having a late season I am not sure, but there are not many pufflings emerging during the short hours of darkness, with most still all tucked up in their burrows. In the midst of ringing storm-petrels, however, one member of the team does appear with a newly emerged puffin, a monochrome version of their parents, which we dutifully ring and then let go out to sea.

One of our key activities on Sule is ringing puffins. We set mist nets up for them, and proceed to open then each morning and most evenings. They seem unperturbed by the nets, with many crashing into them and then bouncing out.  They shake their heads with an almost bemused expression and then carry on as if nothing has happened. Of course many do stick in the nets. Out of all the birds I have taken from mist nets, puffins are one of the most aggressive. They may look cute and funny, but they have an attitude and will fight (not that I blame them as I am the one who opened the net to catch them in the first place!). That lovely colourful bill? Lovely yes, colourful yes and razor sharp! Designed with backwards facing, sharp edged groves to hold fish in place, the bill can inflict a lot of damage on the soft, yielding flesh of human hands. A good reason for wearing gloves. Add to this the tiny black, hooked claws on their bright orange feet and their tenacious attitude and the puffin becomes a little bit of a devil in the hand. None the less, I love them. I welcome their fight and attitude. They need it. Not only to survive the harsh realities of breeding on remote islands and coastlines and of seeking out fish in an unforgiving ocean, but also to survive the changes we humans are causing to their food supply and environment.

Puffin in flight

Over the course of the entire 3 week expedition some 18,000 puffins are ringed and processed by the team. About two-thirds of the birds already have rings on from previous expeditions, and while we were unsuccessful in finding the bird with an EB sequence (which would have meant a bird ringed from the 70s! and thus break the longevity record for puffins in the UK) we still catch a good number from the early 2000s, and even some from the 90s!

It’s amazing to think that these sturdy, comical little birds who spend their summers nesting in such remote areas, swimming in cool waters in search of enough small fish to raise their chicks, dodging predators, competitors and cleptoparsites (birds that will steal food from others) and who spend their winters braving the storms of the Atlantic, can live to nearly 40 years old!

By most accounts puffins are finding things tough, with numbers on Sule Skerry as well as many of their Scottish and Norwegian strongholds declining. They are now classified on the Red List of UK Birds of Conservation Concern, as Endangered in Europe and Vulnerable globally (BTO Bird Facts). All the more reasons why data gathered during expeditions like this to Sule Skerry are vitally important to understanding this wonderful and endearing little seabird.

And so to finish: ‘what is in a name?’

A little odd isn’t it, the name puffin? It’s thought to come from the word puffed, or swollen, which could especially be used to describe their chicks whose dense cover of soft greyish down certainly makes it look puffed up. But the terms is also an Anglo-Norman word for cured carcasses and was originally applied to the salted meat of young Manx shearwaters. It may be that due to their similar nesting habitats (they both nest in burrows) the puffin acquired the name also.

Their scientific name on the other hand is Fratercula arctica which means ‘little brother of the North’ and alludes to ‘little friar’ referring to their plumage which is reminiscent of a friars robes.

Puffling – not quite ready for the big world 


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