It has been suggested that we adore puffins, or ‘sea parrots’ as they are traditionally known in northern Scotland, because their rotund features and comical gait on land remind us of human babies. That may be a little far-fetched, but there’s no doubting the affection in which we hold these charismatic auks.
Despite being pint-sized seabirds just 27–28cm in length, Atlantic puffins are extremely tough, braving storm-tossed seas throughout autumn and winter, out of sight of land.
The UK’s puffins spend the winter out at sea (there’s a reason our puffin species is properly called the Atlantic puffin), so you need to schedule a trip to a breeding colony during spring or summer if you want to see these comic delights.
Adults return to their breeding colonies on grassy cliff tops in March and April, departing again in mid-August, and the sight and sound of a puffin rookery has to be experienced to be believed.
Parents spend the summer catching fish, mostly sandeels (the record beakful is 61, plus a rockling), and carrying them to their hungry youngster in its burrow.
After hatching the puffling remains safely below ground for six weeks before heading to sea under cover of darkness to avoid marauding gulls and skuas. It will be four or five years old before it breeds.
When you visit a colony, approach the puffin groups slowly and quietly, but don’t get too close. If you stay at a safe distance you should be able to watch them moving around, investigating burrows, meeting and greeting, fighting and posturing.
Look for two birds ‘billing’ by repeatedly and loudly hitting their beaks together, which is thought to strengthen the pair bond. The behaviour can attract a crowd of other puffins as onlookers, one of which may try to join in. A fight can break out if one of the pair rejects the interloper and gives them a bite.
Never, ever disturb fish-carriers taking vital sustenance to their young. Puffin life is hard enough without having to contend with human interference.