Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Sunning with Puffins

cwlogoBy Jeanne Christie

I am not a birder.  I have many good friends who are and I admire their passion.  I’m not sure why I never caught the birding bug.  Perhaps it’s because binoculars quickly give me a headache.  Perhaps it’s because birds seem so elusive – just a flicker in the distance or a puffins1song in the trees and I crave outdoor experiences that are more tangible.

Even so some of my most memorable moments outdoors have been encounters with birds and one of the best occurred last month in Scotland when I went ‘sunning with puffins’.

puffins2Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) are pelagic (ocean-living) birds that nest in large colonies on coastal cliffs, often located on islands in the North Atlantic. Puffins can live 20 years.  They form strong pair bonds often returning each year to join their mate on the cliffs where they were born.  Their brilliant bills are only present for breeding season and are shed later in the year revealing a smaller, less colorful true bill beneath.

puffins3The male builds the nest tunneling down about 2-3 feet and lining the burrow with soft grass.  The female lays a single egg and both parents incubate the egg and feed the chick.  The new family winters at sea far from their summer home.  The new chicks spend a few years at sea before returning to find a mate and start a family of their own on the cliffs where they were born.

island062316Staffa Island, only 82 acres in size, is one of the islands that make up the Inner Hebrides in Scotland.  It is famous for its largest sea cavern which was the inspiration for the Hebrides Overture by Felix Mendelssohn.  There are also puffins.

Tourists are taken to the island by boat and dropped off to visit the cave—and to linger at the top of a special cliff where the puffins are nesting.

Scotland is famous for its inclement weather, but the weather the day we arrived on Staffa was uncharacteristically warm and sunny. The tour operator pointed to the cliff with an orange marker on top and told us if we climbed up cliff062316there and sat on the grass the puffins would come up and sun with us on the top of the cliff.  He explained the puffins there were constantly harassed by seagulls. Various species of gulls may prey on puffins or steal their food.  The presence of humans discouraged the seagulls.  This puffin colony took advantage of the respite provided by the humans by flying to the top of the cliff and relaxing.

grass062316So we sat on the grass under the sun and the puffins flew up to us.  They stood on their orange feet and groomed each other gently clicking their beaks together and basked in the sun and we sat in the grass and watched and took pictures.

Maybe I should think more seriously about becoming a birder.


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