Puffin Passion

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by Rebecca Nason on January 27, 2011 · 3 comments

in Birding Western Palearctic

One of the members of the Auk family,  Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica, is one of my all time favourite birds and probably the most photographed seabird in the world – but I don’t think you can ever have too many Puffin images! Who could not be hooked after their first encounter with one? their endearing character, quizzical nature, that incredible rainbow bill, the clown-like eye pattern, their bright orange webbed feet and of course their tendency to allow humans in very close proximity, they’re just magic!!

In the Summer months, Shetland is home to nearly a fifth of the Scottish population of Puffin, that’s over 125,000 pairs! Fair Isle has approximately 30,000 pairs of these so I’m sure you can imagine the Island , just 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide is pretty much dominated by this species throughout the Summer! Puffins spend the Winter out at sea and return in May to breed, having just one chick each season, they nest in burrows under the ground, which they have either dug themselves using their sharp claws or by taking over rabbit burrows. The chick lives at the base of the burrow until it is ready to fledge and does so in August when it leaves with the adults out into the open ocean under the cover of darkness to avoid predation. So you never normally see a Puffin chick, but on Fair Isle they are ringed as part of long-term seabird studies and the opportunity can arise in mid-summer to see a chick in daylight! Here is one below! Quite something, a dark fluff ball without a hint of colour!

The colourful bill is made of kerotin, like our own fingernails. The adult birds shed the colourful, thin layer from their bills in the Winter, revealing a dull, dark bill underneath.  This diagnostic colourful bill is then replaced in time for the next breeding season. This chick will grow his first colourful bill next Spring, it will also be a bit chunkier by then too!

I have photographed Puffins many times over the last 7 years or so on Fair Isle/Shetland and they have become of one of my trademark species and a very popular subject! I find the best time to visit Puffin colonies is in late June, early July when the Puffins are actively going back and forth from their (depleting!) fishing grounds to their burrows to feed their hungry chicks. Early in the morning or late afternoon can be superb if the weather is good, with softer, interesting light and more exciting Puffin interactive behaviour. Sometimes they even interact with the photographers, pecking at shoelaces or checking out the lens! It can be quite an experience and is highly recommended. Here I share with you a few of my Puffin shots . . . the first but by no means the last, there will be more to come, I have a passion for Shetland Puffins!

A classic ‘Puffin with Sandeels’ shot.

and Puffin love at sunset . . . . .

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