Championed by Ester de Roij
As the boat slowly sways to and fro on our approach to the island, the black and white bird that had been bobbing directly in front of of us tries to make a lift-off. With all its might and vigour, it flaps its wings and takes strides on the water surface for a good 20 seconds before deciding to give up and to take up a resting position again on the water. On our other side, a bird comes in for landing by hitting the brakes in a style strongly reminiscent of Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner. At first glance the Atlantic puffin seems as badly evolved for flying as pandas are for eating anything other than large quantities of bamboo.
Its unmistakable bright red-and-orange beak and fashionable black-and-white coat are signs that the breeding season is nigh (in the wintertime these birds lose their bright colours and shiny coat) and the blue-grey skin around their eyes gives them a constantly befuddled, surprised or apologetic expression. A puffin is not as big as you might think, being only 11-12 inches from beak to stumpy tail. Puffins at large nesting sites are very amusing to watch as they spend lots of time interacting with other birds to establish dominance: a dominant bird will have an upright stance, fluffed chest and an exaggeratedly slow walk whereas submissive birds walk with their heads lower and scurry around, not unaccustomed to the occasional stumble here or there. They will return back to the same colony at which they hatch, being monogamous as a result of fidelity to a particular nesting site. They can excavate their own burrows or move into a pre-existing one burrowed by animals such as rabbits (and will easily win a fight for one). Pairs bond by ‘billing’ in which both will wag their heads and rattle their beaks together, and puffins are proud parents to a single puffling every year. At sea it is a very skilled hunter and can stay submerged for up to a minute swimming both deep and fast. Its main prey consists of sand ells, herring, sprats and capelin.
The Atlantic puffin’s Latin name, Fratercula, refers to the word friar as their black and white plumage resembles monastic robes. And if you’re still in need of reasons to love puffins, their collective name is actually an improbability of puffins (as well as a circus, loomery, colony and burrow). Not quite sure what the science is behind that one but I seriously want to shake the person’s hand that came up with that one.
Ornithologists from all over the world will travel far and wide to come to our UK shores to see these charismatic creatures, which occur here in slightly lesser numbers than Iceland, Norway and Newfoundland. Best sites in the UK include Skomer, the Farne Islands, the Shetlands, the Orkneys and the Hebrides. Puffin colonies have in the past proved very stable and flexible when it comes to getting enough resources to feed their young. However, climate change is putting them under pressure as challenging weather is upsetting their yearly cycles – last year alone 500 puffins were killed on an island off the coast of Scotland as a result of strong winds and cold temperatures. And it’s not only a directly visible impact – there has been a worrying explosion in snake pipefish Entelurus aequoreus populations around the British Isles in recent years, a fish which puffins will feed their chicks mistaking them for sandeels, causing the chicks to choke to death as they are slightly larger and bonier than their eel lookalikes.
Danny Green’s limitless library of fabulous puffin images have enchanted me for years and no doubt encouraged me to make my first trip out to the Farne Islands for a day, followed by 2 days and a night on Skomer, and several nights already booked for 2014. I can see this obsession getting out of hand! They are a delight to photographers and regular visitors alike, being very obliging at putting on a show and not being camera shy in the slightest. As the official A Focus on Nature mascot, the puffin’s status as one of our most beloved animals is surely secured, and it will undoubtedly continue to enchant young and old. If reincarnation were real, I could only hope to be a puffin in my next life.
Ester is a young nature photographer and filmmaker from Belgium, currently living in Bristol but would happily spend 365 adventuring in the field if possible. She has recently joined the BBC NHU and in her free time is finishing off a film for her local wildlife trust to be released early 2014.
Like Ester said, the puffin is the official A Focus On Nature logo. Wildlife Artist Matt Lissimore has recently designed an official t-shirt for us – get in contact with him if you’re interested in buying one!