The Clowns of the Atlantic
The Atlantic puffin (Fraterculaarctica), also known as the common puffin, is a species of seabird in the auk family. The only puffin native to the Atlantic Ocean, their conservation status in the IUCN list is Vulnerable (Population decreasing).
After a lonely winter, Skomer Island eagerly waits for the winds to warmup, for the sun to shine brightly again, and for the spring to return. Because spring brings with it the arrival of the Clowns of the Atlantic.
After spending months at sea, theAtlantic Puffins (Fraterculaarctica) comeback to land to breed. Skomer Island is oneof the many islands where they come to raise their chicks. The Atlantic Puffin, also known as the Clown of the Atlantic, is a member of the auk family. It has a clown like appearance, with a white face, bright orange legs and a colourful beak. Puffins spend most of the year at sea; about 60 per cent of the total population lives near Iceland. When a puffin is ready to mate,at the age of three to five, it will choose a partner to mate with for life. The adult puffins come to the UK in March to breed and leave in mid-August. Skomer Island is off the coast of Pem broke shire in Wales. In 1959, it was sold to the Countryside Council for Wales and was declared as a National Nature Reserve. Since then, Skomer Island became a popular place for bird lovers.
I saw my first wild Atlantic Puffin in June 2010. The puffin seemed to be indeed comical in every manner, from its appearance to the way it moved, but the color and beauty of its beak stunned me. The island was covered with these impressive birds, each sounding like it was quarrelling with the other. The water surrounding the island is rich in wildlife, making Skomer Island a haven for not only Atlantic Puffins, but for Guillemots, Razorbills, Manx Shearwaters and Black legged Kittiwakes.
There was a well-marked gravel path without fences on either side. I watched in awe as I saw the puffins just two to three feet away. Their lack of fear of us was unbelievable. On the cliff-top, the puffins left the island and came back a few minutes later with beaks full of perfectly aligned sand eels. However, a prized catch like this does not last long, and soon, the Herring Gulls were fast on their heels. The puffins stayed close to humans, and I realised this was the only way the gulls would keep their distance.
The puffins walked along with us until they reached their burrow and dived inside. It was surprising to see the birds remember where their burrow was even in such a crowd. We were told not to block their path in any way as the birds were restless to get back to their young and feed them. They were waiting for us to pass before darting across the gravel path into their burrow.
There are approximately 6,000 breeding pairs on Skomer and 2,000 on the nearby Skokholm Island. Puffins nestin underground burrows, and their large populations give rise to competition not just among them but also with the Manx Shearwater, which nests in a similar manner. Puffins usually nest close tothe cliff-tops for easy access to and from the sea. The female puffin lays a single egg in the nest, which both parents take turns incubating. The egg hatches afterapproximately 40 days.
The Black-backed Gull is the puffin’s main predator as it catches the puffins inflight and on the ground. The Herring Gull steals their fish and also preys on chicks from the puffin’s nests.
The puffin is under threat and is vulnerable because of the changing climate. The world population of Atlantic Puffins is decreasing, however it is still evaluated as ‘Least Concern’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. With the increase in the temperature of the water, the distribution of the fish changes, making it difficult for the puffins to find and bring them back to land. Puffins are also threatened due to over-fishing by humans, which causes shortage of food. Also, cats, rats and minks are being introduced to the islands on which they breed, spreading disease among the puffins. Oil spills are very dangerous and fatal for these birds as the oil damages the water proof feathers and also makes the puffins ill when they try to clean it off.
The Atlantic Puffin is truly one of the world’s most loved birds. However, their numbersare declining due to the increased number of hazards that the birds have to face.
This article originally appeared in 2013 September/October edition of Saevus magazine in Fawn Station category.