Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Next Term, 6: Puffin

Puffin - Open Wide

Everyone seems to like Puffins, although I'm sure there's someone somewhere, other than Chris Packham who isn't that enamoured with them. Puffins, or Sea Parrots, as they were once known, only spend a relatively short time on our cliffs. They have only recently started to arrive on "the Great White Cape", and aren't yet back in their full numbers. However, by the end of the first week in July, they will all have virtually abandoned our shores until next March.‏

People are probably attracted to Puffins initially because of their multi-coloured bills, in combination and contrast with their dinner-jacket appearance. Because of the close views on TV when images of Puffins fill the whole screen, the uninitiated tend to assume that Puffins are fairly large birds, but when they see one on the Yorkshire cliffs for the first time, they are usually struck by how small they actually are. On their small island colonies they habitually nest in rabbit burrows, but this isn't practical in Yorkshire, so our Puffins are confined to small fissures, and cracks in the chalk cliffs, and they lay their single egg when they have the option at the end of a short tunnel. The comical growling noise Puffins make in their massive colonies tends to go unnoticed here, where their calls are drowned out by the noisier Kittiwakes, Gannets, and Guillemots. 
Comical Pose
Although Bempton is the most well-known Puffin site on our coast, we avoid the crazy queues there, and enjoy a location where there are fewer people, but many more Puffins. Just occasionally it is possible to get much closer views of the Puffins than you can get at Bempton. If the weather is nice it is also well-worth going on one of the many seabird cruises at the bottom of the cliffs. On one of these you may be lucky enough to get unparalleled views of the Puffins both on the sea, and flying close to the boat. 
Taking Off
 Bringing fish back
Until last summer we had never seen any young, but twice towards the end of June we managed to see a Puffling on the edge of the cliff, presumably waiting for the next high tide, so it could drop into the water, and escape the nest site. If the young Puffin survives its first year, and we aren't punished by gale-force winds, it has every chance of enjoying a fairly long life. As with many of the other seabirds on the cliffs, Puffins can be long-lived. Up to the present time the oldest ever Puffin in the UK lived to be almost 37 years old! 
Puffling behind its parent
 Autumnal Puffin - with no sheath on the bill
Not many people realise that Puffins only have that colourful bill during the breeding season. It is actually a colourful sheath which is used for display purposes and as an aid for digging out burrows. During the autumn this 'mask' falls away, and the bird is left with a much smaller bill to survive the winter on the Atlantic Ocean. 

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