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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Puffins Charm Visitors to Ireland’s Skellig Michael

SKELLIG MICHAEL, Ireland — Looking like the half-pint progeny of a penguin and toucan romance, the Atlantic puffin seems tailor-made by the Creator to inspire stuffed toys, cartoon characters and Disney fairytales.

And when you stand among puffin burrows and hear them growling like revving chainsaws, you half-expect one to step out toting a miniature Stihl or Husqvarna.

But don’t sell puffins short. Yes, these big-billed seabirds wear tuxedos, stand a mere 10 inches tall, and sport orange on their leggings, eyeliner and webbed feet. But they’re hardcore deep-diving predators that spend most of their lives afloat in the vast North Atlantic, far from land and adoring humans.

Atlantic puffins live ashore only from April through early August when nesting on remote crags like Skellig Michael, a 44-acre spire 8 miles off Ireland’s southwestern coastline. Puffins often live 20 years or more, mate for the long haul, and produce one egg annually per pair. They number 3 to 4 million worldwide, but are declining in some areas of the North Atlantic, likely because of declining fish stocks caused by warming waters and commercial overfishing of hake, herring and other small fish.

Most visitors to Skellig Michael don’t make the hour-long boat ride from Portmagee in County Kerry to gawk and photograph puffins. Folks mostly come to climb the 600-plus step slate staircase to tour an ancient monastery 700 feet above the water where Christian monks lived from roughly the 600s to 1200s AD.

Still, you can’t help but be charmed by puffins as you ascend steep staircases toward Christ’s Saddle, a green expanse about halfway to the monastery. Puffins are neither shy nor pesky. Some lounge atop rocks as if sunbathing while others stand erect like soldiers on watch, alertly scanning their surroundings. Vigilant or relaxed, puffins let you approach close enough for selfies, but they don’t beg for handouts in return.

Maybe that’s because they’re too busy fishing and feeding their young. Puffins constantly launch their stubby bodies from Skellig Michael’s cliffs, knocking loose enough stones and rock that tour operators long ago installed roofing over part of the entry trail to protect arriving visitors.

Seconds later the puffins disappear into the Atlantic, diving to depths of 200 feet to catch prey. They swim with speed and power, deploying their feet as steering rudders while pumping their stubby wings to accelerate through water as if flying. Their dives can last up to a minute, but usually go only half that long.

They fly back up to their burrows after securing a mouthful of small fish, and alight at the entranceway in a blur of wingbeats that reach 400 beats per minute. For comparison, a hummingbird’s wingbeats flutter 10 times faster.

Try as I might, I couldn’t get a “grip-and-grin” photo of a puffin with its catch. Just as I’d raise the camera to my eye, the puffin would duck into its burrow with fish tails drooping from one side of its beak and fish heads sticking out from the other. I shrugged, knowing their obligations rest with a hungry chick, not photographers.

According to Audubon, puffins rack up average catches of 10 fish per trip, but the record in Britain stands at 62 fish at once. Both numbers seem high. The two puffins I spotted with a fresh catch had only four or five small fish clasped in their beak, with little space remaining.

The more time you spend watching puffins, the more you understand why people give them human traits. As Audubon notes, their scientific name is Fratercula arctica, which is Latin for “little brother of the North.” That name might also mean “little friar,” which makes sense, given that puffins have black and white plumage that resembles a friar’s robes. Close observers also suggest “little friar” might reference the puffin’s trait of holding its feet together when taking flight, as if clasping them in prayer.

When puffins land by their burrow, they’ll place one foot in front of the other, much like a ski-jumper’s “Telemark” landing, with wings extended sideways and head angled downward. And if a puffin is passing through a crowded colony and intruding on another’s turf, it will lower its head and walk rapidly, as if saying: “Don’t mind me. Just passing through.”

Puffins also communicate intention and feeling through body movements. Mating pairs sometimes perform “billing,” in which couples rub their beaks together. That can cause enough excitement to draw crowds of puffin voyeurs. On the other extreme, antagonists often square off by “gaping,” which means puffing up and opening their wings and beaks. The wider open the beak, the more they’re upset.

When really mad they stamp a foot. They’ll lock beaks when brawling, and try to wrestle each other to the ground. That, too, attracts puffin spectators, who have witnessed their neighbors roll off rocky ledges while tangled in combat.

Beyond that, puffins simply look cool. Some folks call them the “sea parrot” or “clown of the ocean” because of their bright facial markings and colorful beak. Those colors peak during the bird’s breeding season, and fade to more muted tones the other eight months.

Despite the puffin’s looks, charms and human-like traits, they’ve been called something else throughout time: food. In fact, many Icelandic families today have hunted puffins for generations with nooses or rectangular-shaped nets atop long handles. Some still travel hundreds of miles by car and boat to carry on their clan’s annual heritage.

Tradition or not, I doubt we’ll ever see puffins starring in a cookbook or gracing its cover photo. Most folks simply have no appetite for birds so devoutly humanized.

The Atlantic puffin lives ashore only four months of the year to nest, roughly from April to early August. Each pair raises one chick annually to maturity. — Patrick Durkin photo

Flying puffins can reach speeds exceeding 50 mph. — Patrick Durkin photo

Atlantic puffins often stand erect like soldiers on watch. — Patrick Durkin photo

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