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The best time to watch puffins and where to go to see them

Puffins are everybody’s favourite seabird and its not hard to see why. With their smart black and white plumage, comical walk and bright orange beaks, these small birds really stand out. As an artist I always think that their exquisite striped bills, edged with shades of blue, grey, red, orange, yellow and cream, and their dark eyes off-set with co-ordinated red and blue eyeliner, are asking to be painted – even their orange legs and feet are so bright they reflect a tango glow onto the puffin’s white belly.

Puffins, print by artist Robert E Fuller
Puffins Courting, limited edition print by artist Robert E Fuller, from £65. Buy now.

The nearest puffin colony to my gallery is at Bempton Cliffs. From these spectacular chalk sea cliffs it’s possible to watch puffins arrive in late April. And they are great to watch. First small dots appear on the horizon. These rapidly increase in size, then small whirring wings and a splash of colour become apparent – that’s when you know that the puffins are back. Once you’ve spotted one, you then see another and another. They gather up into a raft of puffins on the water, before braving it onto the cliffs.

These birds have been at sea for seven months and can be nervous at first. But they soon get into the swing of it and after being away so long it’s as though they’re keen for a good catch up on all the gossip. They seem so sociable it is a joy to watch them as they busily meet and greet.

Fun Fact: Did you know that when they are not breeding puffins turn a drab grey and look so different that in the 1800s they were thought to be a different species?

Interestingly, puffins return to shore wearing their full breeding plumage and so we think of them as always being in technicolor. But in winter, whilst away at sea, they undergo a dramatic dressing down and become unrecognisable – with grey faces, dull bills and insipid yellow legs. In fact, their appearance is so different that they were thought to be a different species in the 1800s.

Some puffins have already done much of their courtship at sea and get straight down to spring cleaning or digging an underground burrow to nest in when they arrive. These nests are usually three foot long, and they dig them using their beaks as pickaxes and their feet as shovels. 

Others still need to find a mate and somewhere to nest. Competition can be fierce and fights break out for burrow ownership. Their beaks can lock and they use their wings as boxing gloves. 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’ve seen one stamp its foot in dramatic indignation.

In contrast, puffins have a very endearing courtship display in which the pair rub their beaks together excitedly and offer one another gifts of grass pulled from the cliff banks. Known as ‘billing’ the beak rubbing action often attracts a rowdy crowd of puffin ‘onlookers’ and invariably fights break out amongst jealous males.

 

By May, things have quietened down as each puffin pair incubates a single egg. 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. By June you start to see the adults with beaks full of sand eels. Puffins have been recorded carrying over 60 sand eels at once in their beaks that are especially adapted for the job. They can trap fish between backward facing spines in their top bill and hold them there with their spiny tongues, leaving the lower bill free to catch more – ingenious! This gives puffins the edge over both of their closest relatives. Razorbills can only hold a few fish in their beaks at a time and guillemots can only catch one fish at a time, before they have to fly back to feed their chicks.

 

 

Once the chicks have hatched the colony starts to get busy again. Puffins seem to come and go from the colony in swathes. This is for good reason. Being one of the smallest seabirds they are very vulnerable to attacks. They fly in swathes, hoping to bamboozle their worst enemy, the greater black backed gull. With a six foot wing span, this gull can snatch puffins on the wing. 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.

 

Luckily for my local puffins, black backs don’t breed at Bempton. But then again these puffins also have to contend with herring gulls. These gulls are unable to take on a full grown puffin, but will harass one into dropping its hard earned catch and routinely mug them. I once saw a herring gull pull a puffin’s leg, knocking it out of balance so that it dropped its catch and I’ve seen one puffin dive down the wrong hole in its rush to escape and then emerge, sheepishly, at the entrance, only to be set upon by gang of gulls that brutally ripped its catch from its beak.

I once watched a gull land amongst them a group of puffins. All the puffins, bar one brave soul, immediately scattered. For an anxious few moments this brave puffin held its ground. The herring gull walked right up to it and looked menancingly down its beak at the puffin, which was a fraction of its size. At that, the puffin rocked back on its heels momentarily before fleeing. I was so tickled by the encounter I painted the scene and named my picture, shown below, Size Matters.

Size Matters: Painted by Robert E Fuller
Painting by Robert E Fuller

You can see puffins at their colonies from late April to August, but June and July are the best months to see them as at this time they are busy feeding their single chick.

The puffins at RSPB Bempton Cliffs tend to nest in crevices in the cliffs which they share with some 200,000 seabirds, including the largest mainland gannet colony in the UK.  The charity runs three hour long ‘Puffin Cruises’  Bridlington Pier throughout the season. You can book your place by telephone on (see 01262 851179 |bempton.cliffs@rspb.org.uk).

Further north, off the coast of Northumberland, are the Farne Islands where you can get a really close look at the 40,000 puffins nesting there. he Farnes are also a great place from which to see puffins as well as 20 other sea bird species, including turns, gulls, guillemots, cormorants, shags and eider ducks. (See www.farne-islands.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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