Farewell to the Puffins
It’s early August, and the long summer holidays are nearing an end. If you’re a puffin, that is. These beloved sea birds usually start arriving in Orkney in April – sometimes a little earlier – and their numbers peak from May onwards, staying high throughout June and July. Which is very convenient, because that’s when the numbers of human holidaymakers peak too. And there’s nothing visitors like to do more than go puffin spotting!
They’re not the easiest birds to find, as they prefer to nest on remote islands like Auskerry, Copinsay and Swona. The largest colony is on Sule Skerry about 50 miles west of here: it’s estimated that there are 60,000 burrows on that island – which is a lot of puffins, considering the island is not much more than a big rock sticking out of the North Atlantic.
A few years ago I sailed to Sule Skerry on a Stromness boat, the John L, to assist in offloading a team of RSPB volunteers who’d been on the island for a week counting and ringing the seabirds. I’ll never forget the backs of their hands, covered in cuts and scars from where they’d been nipped by angry puffins, objecting to having identity rings placed around their bright orange legs. Those rings give us invaluable information. It seems that, after their Orkney summer is over, the puffins migrate to the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Portugal. Some even travel as far as the Mediterranean, having been tracked in Italy and North Africa. I think we get the best of them, however, for their winter plumage is much duller and even their bills lose their striking stripes of red, orange and yellow.
That big multi-coloured bill is one reason they’re irresistible to both visitors and locals. No other seabird in these waters has anything nearly as impressive. If you’re really lucky, you might see the bill filled with tiny fish or sand eels as the puffin returns to its burrow after a fishing voyage. There is a shortage of sand eels here at the moment, and there has been for a few years – it’s believed that climate change is to blame – but this summer, at least, there seem to be enough to support a fairly large puffin population.
So, where can you see them if you can’t make it to one of those remote islands? On the Mainland, Marwick Head is always a good spot, as is the Brough of Birsay. The Brough has fewer birds, usually, but the shape of the cliffs and geos mean that they are often easier to get a good look at than on the scarily high precipice of Marwick Head. Best of all is if you can make it up to Westray. No one should need an excuse to visit ‘the Queen o the Isles,’ but if you do, Orkney’s best puffin-finding spot could provide it. The Castle o Burrian is a few miles north of the ferry pier at Rapness. It’s not a manmade castle, but a natural rock stack, and it’s home to about 300 puffins most years. Best of all, you can sit on the cliff and watch them sit on their home ledge, talk to each other, and fly off and back, with just a few metres between you and them. It’s the best puffin photo opportunity in the islands.
Are the puffins watching back, out of those apparently big mournful eyes, with their streak of Cleopatra-like eyeliner? Probably not, but it’s almost impossible not to think of them as little bird people, such is the appearance of character their faces and behaviour give them. Their Orkney name, Tammy Norrie, sounds like a particularly cheery uncle. This may be anthropomorphic nonsense, but it isn’t recent anthropomorphic nonsense. Their Latin name is Fraticula arctica, which means ‘little brother of the Arctic,’ showing we’ve been identifying with them in this way for centuries.
And I’m sure we will for centuries to come. All the different species of seabirds we have here are fascinating and beautiful in their own way, from the majestic gannet to the fast-dashing razorbill, and the cormorants hanging their wings out to dry. But no species is more loved than the puffin. It’s been good having them here again for their regular summer holiday, and we wish them farewell as they prepare for that long journey south.
Until they return at least we have Ola’s charming silver versions to keep us company!