Puffins at the Shiant Islands

20140720-204819-74899015.jpg
In Spindrift I tell of my first encounter with a puffin off Bolus Head, my childlike response calling out “it’s a puffin! It’s a puffin!” As I steered Coral through the tidal popple at the north entrance to the bay at the Shiant Islands, my response was similar: I could see dots of white everywhere, and those wonderful beaks: as I wrote in texts to several people, it was as if the sea surface was littered with puffins. Very soon after I realized that the air was full of puffins too. Most of those afloat seemed to be juveniles, pufflets (puffins live up to forty years but do not mate for the first five years) while those airborne were clearly adults, tirelessly flying too and from to the fishing grounds to bring sand-eels to feed their chicks. These adults seemed so intent on their business that they often seemed not to see Coral, flying toward the mast and only diverting at the last moment and passing within feet. If the sea was littered with puffins, the air was full as if with a cloud of mosquitoes (If you look very closely in the picture you can see the dots in the air; otherwise, please imagine).

It is very difficult not to anthropomorphise puffins. They do look like well turned out but rather insecure and yet self-important people. As I took Coral slowly toward the anchorage, steering through the floating flocks, the pufflets would swim energetically ahead, looking anxiously from side to side as if to say, “I am not really bothered by this great white creature”, until we get too close. They can then either dive underwater or take off. The former is the more elegant choice, a neat flip takes them underwater leaving a patterns of ripples behind. The latter is a bit of a mess, because puffins, with their wings more suited for flying underwater, have huge difficulty in taking off. so they usually splashing frantically along with water, wings and feet flapping away, until they crash inelegantly into a wave.

Once I had Coral safely anchored and looked around, I soon realized that there were nearly as many razorbills as puffins. These are a slightly bigger bird, an auk, distinguished by a black beak with a white line across it, joining a similar line across the face to the eye. The razorbills seem on the whole less nervous than the puffins: I saw one swimming quite happily within a couple of yards of Coral, it seemed quite unfazed as I moved about the deck. When it decided to dive I was able to watch it turn tail up and one underwater open its wings to fly down beneath Coral’s keel.

There are, of course, other birds: shags, various gulls, kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, the odd gannet, and for me the most impressive, the skuas, big, heavily built seabirds, brown, with two white stripes on their wing. Again, my first encounter with a skua is recounted in Spindrift, when I watched one attack a gull and make it regurgitate its meal. Skuas are known as ‘kleptoparasites’ because of their habit is stealing food this way. I climbed the heights of Eilean an Tighe, and watched the skuas cruising above the flocks of puffins and razorbills looking for opportunities to pounce. I am sure they would quickly steal a puffin chick if given half a chance. I felt I could see a section of a food chain: sand-eels feeding baby birds and baby birds feeding skuas.

The Shiants are columnar basalt, the most northern remnants of the volcanic chain that stretches all the way south, through southern Skye, the Small Isles, Staffa, Mull to the Giants Causeway off northeast Ireland. These rocks, still looking as if recently thrust out of the earth, as so different from the ancient worn down gneiss of the Outer Hebrides and the Torridonean sandstone of the northwest mainland. The islands belong to the Nicholson family, and I enjoyed reading Adam Nicholson’s account of his life on the island in Sea Room: An Island Life. I spent almost two full days and one night at the Shiants, enjoying the spectacular scenery. But really just watching the puffins.

20140720-204900-74940215.jpg

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Footnotes2Plato

"The safest general characterization of the philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." —Alfred North Whitehead

fire in the head

26 years inspiring creative & reflective writing

Richard White

explorations in place and time

Seasonalight

light seeking

The New Citizenship Project Blog

Visit our main website at www.newcitizenship.org.uk

Desperado Philosophy

rocks, buoys and riptides

Shiny New Books

What to Read Next and Why

Tidal Cultures

Explorations of cultural and natural aspects of tidal landscapes in the UK, The Netherlands and beyond

dmanzife

Sometimes I want to write things down

Joe Minihane

Travel, technology, lifestyle

Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

dianajhale

Recent work and work in progress and anything else that interests me

westcoastings

Going wild on Scotland's west coast

qualia and other wildlife

Ecological writing between ocean and land

The Dark Mountain Project

Ecological writing between ocean and land

Joanna Macy and Her Work

Ecological writing between ocean and land

The Island Review

the online home for island lovers, writers and artists

Coming Home to Story

Notes from a journeyman writer, storyteller, and narrative consultant

%d bloggers like this: