Puffins are easily our most popular seabird: colourful, comic and confiding. Yet despite their popularity, remarkably little is known about much of their lives. For most of the year they vanish, living hundreds of miles from land, probably mostly in small groups scattered across the North Atlantic from Iceland to the Bay of Biscay . . .
In late winter the birds moult. Until this point their beaks are unremarkable – stubby, small and black, but in late winter adults develop the colourful trademark side plates which quadruple the size of their bills. Once furnished with their breeding finery, they return to our shores in about March – although they don’t make landfall until mid- to late April.
Puffins lavish all their reproductive efforts on one large egg, This boosts the statistical chances of successful fledging and the puffin’s longevity (up to 29 years) means they can expect about a dozen bites at the reproductive cherry. The egg is laid in late April at the end of a tunnel or in a crevice between boulders. Usually the pair will use an abandoned rabbit burrow, but they are quite capable of excavating or refurbishing their own, digging energetically with their feet and using their bills as pick axes.
Both parents share the childcare, first by splitting the incubation, later by endless shuttle runs between the fishing grounds and the burrow. Puffins may be long-lived, but during the breeding season they are very vulnerable to predators – particularly those that can enter their burrows to seize the young pufflings. As a result the birds almost invariably breed on off-shore islands where they are safe from foxes, hedgehogs and rats.
It is during this period that the birds are at their most engaging – at least to human eyes, not least because the backdrop of churning deep blue seas and flower-studded turf. More importantly, however, they are extremely tame and will happily pose at close range in front of the burrow, their garish beaks adorned with the silver ribbons of a dozen sand eels.
Thanks to the rich diet of oily fish, within six weeks the puffling is as large as its parents. These are brought in generally around a dozen at a time, but the record is 80; a feat made possible thanks to the hidden properties of their famous beaks. These have inner edges furnished with backward facing spikes, thus every time the bird makes a catch it pushes up with its tongue. This traps the fish against the upper mandible, allowing it to continue to snap at shoals of shimmering sandeels with its beak. By late July, however, the youngster is fully-grown and ready to make the most dangerous journey of its life. Young puffins are packed with calories, making them tempting targets for predators. Thus when the chick is ready to take its first flight, it leaves on its own in the dead of night, planing westwards before splash landing a few hundred yards out to sea. It then paddles hard to put as much distance between itself and the patrolling gulls and peregrines before dawn, usually meeting up with other youngsters fleeing from the colony. As soon as the chick has departed, the parents also disappear out to sea, to vanish from our shores for another eight months.
If you want to see puffins for yourself, Wales has several large colonies, notably Puffin Island and South Stack on Anglesey, but the birds on Skomer’s colony in Pembrokeshire are particularly tame – and there is a wonderful place to visit nearby – see www.glebeholidays.co.uk