Atlantic Puffins, one of four types of puffin, are a striking sea bird with a bright orange rounded bill and penguin like demeanour. There appearance is so familiar that just about everyone is able to recognise them, yet few people will have seen them in the wild. The reason for this lack of visibility is due to the fact that there are very few places in the UK where you can see puffins from the mainland due to their vulnerability from ground based mammals, especially rats. If however you are able to hop in a boat and sail out towards the islands that these small birds call home then they can be seen in their thousands.
Some easy points of access include Skomer Island (sometimes spelt Skoma) off the Pembrokeshire Coast, Puffin Island (Ynys Seiriol) off Anglesey and Staffa Island, which can be accessed from the coast of mull or Iona in the western Isles of Scotland. Because of the isolation of these islands the puffins are able to breed in relative peace, with only the odd tourist wandering past taking photos to bother them
Atlantic Puffins are vulnerable because they dig burrows in soft earth, making the eggs and young easy pickings for small hungry mammals. With the spread of man came the spread of rats and other feral pests which forced the birds offshore. This isn’t to say the puffins are endangered, there is an estimated population of around 12 million Atlantic puffins around the world with Britain holding a good proportion of those numbers all around the UK coast.
A pair of puffins on Staffa Island
Puffins feed mostly on small fish such as herring and in particular sand-eel, which is one of the most important food sources for many of the world’s sea-birds. Because of their specially adapted bill, puffins are able to go on quite long fishing trips, storing their previous catch in a neat row in their bill. This makes each trip much more productive than it would be if they had to ferry prey back to the burrow each time. Puffins catch their prey by “flying” underwater, diving for around 20-40 seconds at a time, using their wings to swim powerfully down and their webbed feet to point them in the right direction.
Puffins try to return to the same burrow with the same mate year in year out, laying only one egg during the breeding season. The Young Puffins usually have an excellent chance of surviving the first year so long as good conditions prevail. Recently there have been problems with the availability of Sand-Eel in some parts of the UK which has led to a drastic increase in the mortality of the young birds. The usual suspects of over fishing and global warming are thought to be to blame although it is difficult to prove.
If you get the chance to see these birds then take it as they are a marvel to see circling at the base of the cliffs before whizzing out on their fishing trips. By reaching speeds of over 40mph they can cover vast distances in search of food. They are also an excellent bird to photograph as they are very trusting of humans if approached quietly and cautiously, allowing for a really excellent UK wildlife experience.