Puffins are in the mood for socialising
Wildlife artist Robert Fuller enjoys the banter of the puffins on the Farne Islands as featured in the Yorkshire Post August 2012.
WITHI their bright orange legs, colourful bills and comical, waddling, walk, it's hard not to feel cheered by the sight of puffins. These plucky little seabirds spend eight months out at sea before flying in to our shores each spring to breed. And when they arrive, they're in the mood for socialising. It's as though they've been away so long they're keen for a good catch up on all the gossip and it is a joy to watch them as they busily meet and greet.
But despite their jovial appearance, these spirited little birds have their work cut out from the moment they land ashore. There's the fighting over females and nesting sites to get through, the cleaning out of last year's nesting burrows, and of course the daily fishing to feed growing chicks. This year extraordinarily heavy rains have added to their workload.
Normally I would go to the RSPB sanctuary at Bempton to see puffins, but last month I travelled to the Farne Islands in Northumberland where the colonies are larger and easier to study close up.
The Farne Islands are just off the Northumberland coast near Seahouses. Each year huge colonies of kittiwakes, terns, razorbills, shags, guillemots, eider ducks and an estimated 74,000 puffins amass on the islands to breed. The spectacle attracts visitors from all over the world and I had planned to watch and photograph as many different birds as I could.
I was there for three days, but I couldn't tear myself away from the puffins.
Puffins nest in three-foot long underground burrows which they dig out with their beaks.
They lay a single white egg at the end of this long tunnel, seemingly to safeguard the eggs and chicks from the many gulls that crowd the island searching for an easy meal.
The chicks or 'pufflings' fledge at night and so it is rare to see one. The only way you know they have hatched is when you see the parents ferrying beaks full of sand eels down the burrows to where their chicks are safely hidden.
Sadly this safeguard was their downfall during the heavy rains in April. An estimated 2,000 burrows were flooded on Brownsman Island, a low lying island in the Outer Farnes, leaving 4,000 adults homeless and their nests and eggs destroyed. And as if the floods weren't bad enough, while I was there low flying jets caused mass panic amongst the bird colonies.
As I photographed them, the puffins took off, along with 1,000s of other birds, in alarm. It was quite spectacular watching them take flight in a huge cloud of clattering wings, but I later learned that a significant number of kittiwake chicks had also fallen into the sea and drowned during the mass flight. Thankfully the RAF has since responded to concerns by issuing a no-fly zone over the islands until the breeding season is over.
According to a warden from the National Trust, many of the puffins whose burrows had been flooded in April were now having another go at breeding. This gave me a chance to watch their courtship when I visited, something I wouldn't normally get to see this late in the season.
Puffins have a very endearing courtship display in which the pair rub their beaks together excitedly. Known as 'billing' the action often attracts a rowdy crowd of puffin 'onlookers' and invariably fights break out amongst jealous males. An aggressive encounter between two puffins often begins by gaping. This involves a puffin puffing up its body to look bigger and opening its beak and wings slightly. The wider the beak: the more upset the puffin.
I watched as one stomped its foot in dramatic indignation. It wasn't long before that dispute descended into a full-scale brawl. The pair locked beaks and flapped their wings and twisted, trying to topple one another. Although the serious flooding happened in April, the continuing heavy rain hasn't made things easy for these small birds.
Judging by the wet mud that clung to the adult birds as they emerged from their holes, conditions inside must have been squalid. I dread to think how the chicks were faring.
And as if all the mud and rain and fighter jet planes weren't enough to contend with, puffins are under constant attack from black headed gulls, herring gulls and lesser black backed gulls.
These gulls are much larger than puffins and routinely mug the little birds for their catch as they return from fishing trips. Black headed gulls often work in gangs, while herring gulls and lesser black backs will work either alone or as a pair attacking them either in the air or on the ground. I even saw one herring gull pull a puffin's leg, knocking it out of balance so that it dropped its catch.
Lesser backed blacked gulls are a real threat as they can actually kill and eat an adult puffin. If a puffin is under attack from one of these, it will immediately drop its catch to divert the bigger bird's attention. Puffins try to fly straight off the sea to their burrows and then tend to scuttle down as fast as their legs will carry them.
I saw one puffin dive down the wrong hole in its rush to escape a gull's clutches and then emerge, sheepishly, at the entrance, and look about for its own home. But as it ventured a dash for it, a gang of gulls spotted it and brutally ripped its catch from its beak.
The breeding season has been tough this year, but in spite of the difficulties puffins carry on with such courage and good-humour they really are inspirational to watch.I took lots of really great photographs of them and am now looking forward to turning these studies into a new painting that hopefully gets across just how special puffins are.