Na­ture Notes

Monthly Chronicle - - The Outdoor Life - NICK HODGES

THOSE WON­DER­FUL, COM­I­CAL PUFFINS

The is­lands off the west coast of Scot­land have al­ways in­trigued me - windswept, rain-lashed, dis­tant. More­over there were things I had to see there.

It must have been some­thing to do with the pa­per­back books I read when I was younger. Ever since I was a boy I'd wanted to see pen­guins and puffins, es­pe­cially the lat­ter: amus­ing-look­ing lit­tle seabirds found only in the North­ern Hemi­sphere.

And then there was Fin­gal's Cave, an un­usual nat­u­ral struc­ture that the Ger­man com­poser Men­delssohn vis­ited in the 19th cen­tury. He sub­se­quently wrote a piece of mu­sic called the He­brides Over­ture (or Fin­gal's Cave) which haunts me for days when­ever I hear it.

And so I set out by boat one spring day for the is­land of Mull. Once there I had to take a ferry to the is­land of Ulva, then an­other boat to the un­in­hab­ited is­land of Staffa - and Fin­gal's Cave. As we ap­proached the strangely an­gu­lar, basalt stacks, the boat­man played a record­ing of the over­ture for all to hear. It was a spe­cial mo­ment.

Then on to an­other un­in­hab­ited speck: the is­land of Lunga. Here there were huge colonies of nest­ing seabirds. Amid the aw­ful noise of thou­sands of ful­mars, guille­mots and ra­zor­bills, I had to pro­tect my head. Terns, sim­i­lar to gulls, de­fend­ing their nests at­tacked and drew blood. Hats were es­sen­tial and bald­ness un­think­able.

Sud­denly there they were - puffins stand­ing sen­tinel out­side their bur­rows which they dug in the soft, turf-cov­ered cliffs. Un­de­terred by ap­proach­ing hu­mans, they were as cu­ri­ous about me as I was about them.

Puffins re­sem­ble minia­ture pen­guins with black backs and wings, white faces and un­der­parts. Their legs are a bril­liant or­ange but it is their tri­an­gu­lar, mul­ti­coloured bills, half as big as their heads which give them their trade-mark com­i­cal ap­pear­ance.

Scores were re­turn­ing from the sea, their bills crammed with sand eels. Dozens were en­joy­ing a wing flap buf­feted by the wind. Oth­ers were preen­ing them­selves or hav­ing a scratch. Hun­dreds were fly­ing out to sea, their wings a blur.

Then a squall of rain hit. The puffins didn't mind; they looked happy. So was I.

Pho­tos credit: Ju­dith Ra­m­age A pair of puffins

Fin­gal’s Cave

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