The Atlantic Puffin is arguably the most famous of Pembrokeshire’s seabirds, with the islands of Skomer and Skokholm forming the largest colony in Southern Britain – 2015 has seen a record count for the Puffins with up 22,000 individual birds.
The Puffin is a member of the Auk family.
They are immediately recognisable with their colourful beaks, and bright orange feet. They are often compared to penguins, and some have been known to call them ‘sea parrots’ or ‘clowns of the sea’.
The beak is only brightly coloured in breeding season for use in display, after this they are moulted leaving their winter bill which is relatively small, and blackish in colour.
Puffins live most of their lives at sea, resting on the waves when not swimming. They are excellent swimmers, using their short wings to stroke underwater with a flying motion. They steer with rudder-like webbed feet and are capable of diving to depths of 200 feet, though they usually stay underwater for only 20 or 30 seconds. Puffins typically hunt small fish like sprat and sand eels.
The Puffins’ short wings do however make flying more difficult, and they must beat their wings rapidly to stay airborne. This can also make taking off and landing somewhat of a challenge, with comical failed attempts and crash landings a common sight.
Puffins return to their nesting sites in April each year, and remain here until around mid-August.
They nest underground in burrows, which they will either dig themselves or battle with each other and the Manx shearwater for an existing one.
Puffins prefer nest sites close to the cliff top since the parent birds can come in quickly and then escape again to sea, giving the predatory gulls the minimum chance to attack them.
The female Puffin lays a single white egg which the parents will then take turns to incubate for around 6 weeks.
After being born, the chick will remain within the burrow for a further 6 weeks, where it will reach a weight of up to 300 grams.
Parents share feeding duties five to eight times a day until the chick is ready to fly the nest.
Towards the end of July, the fledgling Puffins will begin to leave the island. They leave in darkness to avoid predatory gulls and will be way out to sea by day-break. From this time on they are left to fend for themselves, remaining at sea for the next two years before returning to look for a mate and a burrow. Although they will not reach breeding age until they are about 5 years old.
Once they have reached breeding age, Puffins are very long lived birds, with an average life expectancy of 25 years, although the current record on Skomer is 38 years old!
Trackers have been attached to some adult puffins and some go to waters off Greenland or Iceland for the winter and some head in the opposite direction to Southern Bay of Biscay and the Western Mediterranean.
Puffins can be seen on Skomer from April until August, with the biggest numbers present from June to mid-July.