The first puffins arrive on Skomer in March and leave with almost clockwork precision by the last few days in July . . .
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, bobbing on the waves, irrespective of winter storms and blizzards. As a result little is known about their movements and behaviour, but chance sightings from trawlers suggest they stay 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 land leaving the adolescents at sea.
It has long been known that pairs breed together year after year, but recent research on Skomer has established the most successful pairs also spend most of the rest of the year together. Indeed, the closer they are for the whole year, the better their breeding success. Once back on land, all the adults’ effor are lavished 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. 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, stoats, rats and hedgehogs. Most British colonies are off the Scottish coast, but the Pembrokeshire outposts of Skomer and Skokholm much more accessible for most people (and the first alone has 6,000 pairs).
The single egg is laid in late April at the end of a tunnel or in a crevice between boulders. Sometimes the pair will use an abandoned rabbit burrow or natural cranny, but they are quite capable of excavating or refurbishing their own, digging energetically with their webbed feet and using their bills as pick axes. Generally they leave the chamber unfurnished, but line the nest cavity with dried grass. Both parents share the childcare, first by splitting the incubation, later by endless shuttle runs between the fishing grounds and the burrow.
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. The sand eels 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 eels 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. Not surprisingly, therefore, most breeding colonies are on rat-, stoat- and fox-free islands, but aerial predators are still a major risk. 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.
Skomer puffins are particularly tame. Day visits take place Tuesday to Sunday (and Bank Holiday Mondays) via a 15 min boat ride from Martin’s Haven. No dogs. There is a limit of 250 visitors each day, so it is worth catching an early boat. To find out more call 01646 636800