These charming seabirds can be watched in a few coastal locations around the U.K. with Bempton Cliffs being perhaps the most well known mainland location. There are however some really great island seabird colonies to visit, where Puffins have a significant presence. All of my images for this article were taken on a fantastic trip to Skomer island, located off the SW coast of Wales. (The Farne islands are great for northern England and consider visiting Sumburgh Head on Shetland or the Isle of May, if you are in Scotland).
These cute seabirds, with their strikingly coloured bill & worried expression, stand about 7 to 10 inches tall & weigh in at just 500 grams. They are evolved for swimming & diving more than for flight, using up to 400 wing beats per minute to achieve a decent top speed of a little over 50 mph. Life span is about 20 years.
Whilst much of their year is spent out at sea they must come to land in spring for their breeding season. This is when they sport their bright colours & striking plumage. Puffins nest in burrows. About 10% of the World population breed around the UK, that’s about 500,000 birds. This April about 25,000 Puffins were counted on Skomer. Breeding is a tough business and statistically a pair of Puffins chance of getting just one chick to fledging is about 0.5 to 0.7. One hazard is predation by Gulls & Skuas, not only are the chicks at direct risk but the parents have to run the gauntlet of Gulls attempting to make them drop their precious sand eel cargo.
Sand eels are the primary food for Puffins. The Puffins have reverse facing barbs inside their mouths & on their tongues, this allows the Puffins to typically scoop up about 10 sand eels with each dive. At 3 or 4 years of age Puffins find a mate, they will bond for life. Once the female Puffin has laid her single egg, each adult will take turns incubating the egg for about 40 days, after which it will hatch. Now starts the busy task of feeding the young Puffling who will fledge when large enough, a minimum of 45 days later.
As the Puffin parents busy back & forth with bills full of sand eels, dodging the marauding gulls & avoiding collisions, its a great spectacle to behold (always keeping the welfare of the birds upmost of course).
Once the young Pufflings have fledged (mid-summer) the Puffins will start to disperse again, out on the open Oceans until next spring. Puffins are considered to be a vulnerable species Whose numbers are falling. There are various research projects attempting to find out the causes. One possibility is that the supply of sand eels is dwindling due to overfishing by humans another factor may be changing sea temperatures due to global warming. The RSPB currently (2017) has a call out for pictures of feeding Puffins, to help with their research.
We had a great day on Skomer, I would heartily recommend it to all nature lovers. The Puffins (Fratercula artica) are fabulous. You really do need to be very careful to stick to the paths because there are fragile burrows everywhere. The Puffins are so photogenic and it’s a nice challenge to catch the perfect flight shot. Also, long focal lengths are not required which is great if you’re going to walk the few miles around the island on a hot summers day. Here’s a small gallery of a few of the day’s photos including the above (do look at Natures Universe if you’d like to purchase images) :