Puffins – the upstairs neighbours from hell

Bird cliffs are wonderful things.  Home to thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of birds living in close proximity to one another, they are a cacophony of noise and a maelstrom of action.  On the cliffs birds mate, lay their eggs, raise and feed their young, and fight off predators.  All life – and sometimes death, too – is here.

And then, of course, there’s the delicate matter of having a poo.

We all know that when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.  And we also know it’s best not to mess in your own back yard.  But how does the fastidious bird cope with this, without leaving – and therefore possibly losing – its favourite spot on the crowded cliff?  During our visit to Sumburgh Head on Shetland we were pleased to see a puffin demonstrate how it’s done.

We’d been watching the bird for a while.  It was standing motionless on scrubby grass close to the cliff edge, staring out at the ocean as if deep in thought.  Finally, it seemed, the puffin reached a decision. 

The bird shuffled around until its head was facing inland and its tail out to sea.  It then engaged reverse gear and inched gingerly backwards.  At last, teetering on the very edge of the cliff, just inches from disaster, it dipped its head, raised its backside into the air and casually did the business. 

Except for its bill a puffin’s face is unmoveable, an inscrutable mask.  But I’m sure I could detect in that bird’s eye a mischievous twinkle, the barest hint of smug satisfaction.  I swear the puffin was quietly rejoicing in a job well done as it waddled away from the cliff edge, turned and resumed its previous position to stare serenely out to sea.

It was a fine performance, and Mrs P’s photo captures for posterity the exact moment when the foul deed was done.  But spare a thought, if you will, for the poor fulmars and guillemots nesting on the cliffs below without a care in the world, unaware that just a second or two later they’d be showered in puffin poo, courtesy of the upstairs neighbour from hell.

Sometimes people disgust me: puffin trophy hunting

My last post described how puffins at Sumburgh Head were the highlight of an otherwise miserable visit to Shetland earlier this year.  I hope future generations will have the same opportunity to enjoy them, but the prospects are not good.  The Atlantic Puffin is now identified on the BirdLife International/International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as a vulnerable species.   Massive population declines are projected over the next 50 years because of food shortages due to climate change, as well as pollution, predation by invasive species and adult mortality in fishing nets. 

Iceland is one of the puffin’s strongholds.  Mrs P and I have visited Iceland on a couple of occasions, and were impressed by the Icelanders’ ability to carve a decent living out of that bleak, inhospitable lump of rock in the North Atlantic.  To do so they had to use whatever nature offered, and therefore included seabirds as an important part of their diet. 

Harvesting and eating puffins is traditional in Iceland, and I can – reluctantly – forgive the locals for doing so, even though I myself would no more snack on a puffin than I would dine on broken glass.

But I cannot forgive Icelanders for allowing puffin trophy hunting.

The Metro newspaper reported recently that trophy hunters are paying to kill up to 100 puffins at a time.  Follow the link for photos of the gloating hunters and their “trophies”, but prepare yourself to be appalled.

Where, for god’s sake, is the sport in killing 100 puffins, not for food but simply for the “fun” of it?  All life is precious, and no creature should die simply to enable men – it’s usually men, isn’t it? – to show off their prowess with weapons.  There are times when people disgust me, and this is one of them.

What also disgusts me is that it’s legal to import puffin trophies into the UK.  Surely we, collectively as a modern, environmentally-aware society, and individually as responsible citizens of a fragile planet, should be better than that. 

It’s all about the puffins

I wish I could tell you we had great holiday in Shetland earlier this summer, but as the Platypus Man never tells porkies I’ll simply say that it was, sadly and for all the wrong reasons, an unforgettable experience.  We were there 17 days, and it rained on about 14 of those.  On several days it didn’t stop raining at all, while a bitter wind from the north made us wish we’d packed our thermals. 

Shetland is an island group at the northern extremity of the British Isles.  It’s much closer to Norway than to London, and it’s a different world up there.  We’ve been before, nearly 30 years ago, and when the sun’s out it’s strangely beautiful in a stark, barren, pared-back kind of way.  In June 2019, however, we barely spotted the sun at all.  Gloom and despondency settled upon the Platypus Man and Mrs P, and we bitterly regretted not going somewhere more congenial, like Antarctica, or maybe Everest base camp.

But of course every cloud has a silver lining, and in this case it was the puffins.  Shetland is one of the best places in the UK to see the Atlantic Puffin, and although their numbers are falling steadily due to the impact of climate change on the fish that make up their diet, they are still present in good numbers. 

Sumburgh Head, at the southern tip of Shetland, has an easily accessible puffin cliff.  We went twice, and on both occasions a miracle occurred: the rain stopped and the sun came out, though the wind buffeted us mercilessly, howling like a banshee and tugging roughly at our hair and coats like an old woman stroking a cat.

Mrs P and I are seasoned birders – bird-nerds, some might say – and enjoy nothing more than spending time watching birds of all types.  The average Brit is less keen, but I defy anyone not to be enchanted by puffins.  Some people call them sea parrots, others cliff-top clowns, but what’s in a name?  They are, quite simply, the most iconic and instantly recognisable of this country’s seabirds.

And they came in their droves to the cliffs at Sumburgh, ordinary folk who’ve probably never done a day’s birdwatching in their lives, to be captivated by the puffins.  Some of the birds are so close you can almost touch them, and they seem to pose for the camera.  It’s difficult not to take a good photo of a puffin.

Everyone loves a puffin, wants to see them, wants to get up close and personal with them, wants a selfie with them.  It was just the same when we visited Newfoundland a couple of years ago.  In coastal areas, wherever the birds were known to nest, the conversation between ordinary tourists was dominated by one subject: where is the best place to see a puffin? 

In coastal Newfoundland, as at Sumburgh Head in Shetland, one thing is beyond doubt: it’s all about the puffins.