The Atlantic Puffin, also known as the Common Puffin, is a species of seabird in the auk family. It is native to the Atlantic Ocean while the two related species, Tufted Puffin and the Horned Puffin, are found in the Northeastern Pacific.
They live at sea most of their time but during the nesting period the Atlantic Puffins move to the edges of the North Atlantic. One such location is the “Isle of May” National Nature Reserve, approximately ten miles from North Berwick harbor in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was only in 1956 that the Island was made a National Nature Reserve. Way back in year 1145, there was a monastery on the island to pray for the souls of kings. In the 18th century, a lighthouse was built on it.
Every year, over 250,000 seabirds such as Atlantic Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Arctic Turns arrive in April for breeding and nesting till August when they head out to sea with their new ones.
During a three-week business/holiday visit to Europe and the UK last June together with my wife Lilani, I joined a photographic group of eight on the 13th of June on a half a day’s tour to the Isle of May. The tour was conducted by an experienced bird guide organized by the Scottish Seabird Centre. We were fortunate that the weather was good for boat travel as the tours scheduled for the previous day had been cancelled due to bad weather. It took about thirty minutes by speedboat from North Berwick harbour to reach the Isle of May.
On the island, visitors are restricted to a footpath demarcated by the Seabird Centre authorities. On the first few hundred yards of our trek, we were accosted by the Arctic Turns, when they tried to attack us thinking that we may disturb their nests. It took us a few minutes to reach the site where the subject of my main interest was, located at an edge of a cliff top.
How exciting! To see and photograph these birds at such a close distance, less than a few meters. I learned that the Isle of May has the largest Puffin colony estimated at over 80,000 in number on the east coast of Britain. On land, it has the typical upright stance of an auk while at sea; it swims on the surface and feeds mainly on small fish, which it catches by diving underwater.
Most of the puffins that I photographed were holding fish from their beautiful colorful beaks to feed their chicks hidden underground in burrows. The female lays a single egg, usually in early part of May. It is interesting to watch the movement of these magnificent birds when they are in flight mode, especially when carrying fish. They can reach speeds of 88km/h by flapping their wings at a rate of up to 400 beats per minute. This bird is nicknamed “clown of the ocean”. The average life expectancy is around 25years.
I have photographed the Tufted and Horned Puffins at Seward in Alaska. The Atlantic Puffins are slightly smaller and do not have horns compared Horned Puffins while the Tufted is the largest of all Puffins.
Apart from the Puffins, I photographed other seabirds nesting on land. I managed to take an image of a rare sighting of an adult Kittiwake in flight, after stealing a chick from a nest of the same species, with the mother of the chick chasing the predator. According to our bird guide, this was unusual since these seabirds do not feed on their same species.
On the way back to North Berwick harbour, we passed a small island packed with a colony of seabirds known as Northern Gannets. These birds are spectacular high-speed divers.