David Gardner’s Wild Pembrokeshire: Puffins – Part 1
For my first two posts for Pembrokeshire.Online I have chosen to write about the puffin as, for the first time, trips to the islands to visit these wonderful characters have not been possible this year and the birds will soon be leaving our shores for the open ocean.
If asked to name their favourite bird, I am sure that most people would place the puffin very high on their list, if not at the top. They are members of the auk family, which includes razorbills and guillemots, and their large brightly coloured bills, orange legs, dumpy body, inquisitive nature and waddling gait have given them the popular names of “sea parrot” and “clown of the sea”. However, although they might be comical in both their appearance and their mannerisms, puffins are in fact highly specialised to enable them to survive in the face of often wild, open ocean conditions.
We in Pembrokeshire are blessed with having the largest colony of puffins in southern Britain on the islands of Skokholm and Skomer, but they also used to be found on Caldey and Ramsey Islands before shipwrecked rats arrived to predate them to extinction. Now that the rats have been eradicated, it is hoped that puffins will return to these islands. Models of puffins with recordings of puffin calls have been installed on Ramsey to encourage them to re-colonise, but whereas Manx shearwaters have returned, puffins have yet to do so.
Many people on seeing a puffin for the first time are surprised at how small they are! Only standing around eight inches (20cm) tall with short legs and wings, they are built more for swimming than walking or flying. Their short wings mean that they have to flap at the fast and furious rate of up to 400 wing beats per minute to remain airborne, but they can attain a maximum speed of 55mph. The short wings make manoeuvrability in flight difficult, often resulting in accidents and crash landings in a tumble of legs and feathers. Underwater their webbed feet and their short, rowing-action wings prove their worth, enabling puffins to achieve depths of 200ft as they dive for up to 30 seconds in their hunt for prey fish such as sand eels and sprats.
Puffins nest communally, often in old rabbit or shearwater burrows, to which they return annually in April. They pair for life, and on getting together again after their time at sea, the two partners indulge in much mutual beak rubbing and clacking as pair-bonding activity before mating and the laying of the single white egg. It is believed that the large, brightly coloured bill is an important stimulus for pairing and mate selection as it only develops in the spring and is shed in the autumn, leaving a smaller grey or black beak for the rest of the year. Both partners share the incubation of the egg, which is laid in a nest of grass and feathers at the back of the burrow.
In my next post, I will take you on a trip to my favourite puffin spot, Crab Bay on Skokholm Island, introduce you to a puffling, and give you some more interesting facts about this special species.
David Gardner has a background in the environmental and conservation fields having been, inter alia, a salmon and trout farm manager, fisheries and conservation manager with the National Rivers Authority, and chairman of the Wildlife Trust South and West Wales. He is also a dealer in art and antiques, which must go some way to explaining what a great eye he has for creating beautiful images of the world around us. He can supply high-quality prints of these and other images to order, and he is happy to accept commissions if you have special subjects in mind.
Contact him at David4Rugs@aol.com
Please note that all the images displayed here are David’s own work and are protected by copyright. We have David’s kind permission to use them.