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Puffin - Fratercula arctica

An unmistakable bird with its black top and white underparts, and distinctive black head with large pale cheeks and a tall, flattened, brightly-coloured bill. Its comical appearance is heightened by its red and black eye-markings and bright orange legs. Used as a symbol for books and other items, this clown among seabirds is one of the world's favourite birds. With half of the UK population at only a few sites it is an Amber List species.

Did you know?

The puffin's colourful bill has given the bird many apt nick-names, including 'clown of the sea', sea parrot' and 'Ailsa parrot'. Tufted Puffins breed on islands and rocky cliffs in the arctic waters of the North Pacific, which includes the Arctic, Bering, and Okhotsk seas. They are most commonly seen flying near land, coming or leaving the breeding colonies to feed their young. Tufted Puffins are the size of pigeons, but weigh nearly twice as much (1 kg, 2 lbs)!

Puffins moult their colourful bill every autumn, and re-grow it the following spring.

Puffins wings are adapted to efficient flying under water, giving the birds great agility when diving for food. They swim under water using their wings to propel themselves and legs to steer.

Puffins are able to carry large numbers of fish in their bill. Contrary to the common belief, the birds do not stack the fish with heads alternatively on each side of the bill, but the orientation is random. The normal load is 5-10 fish, depending on size, but the maximum recorded is 62 fish, mostly sand-eels.

Nesting

The adult birds return to the colonies in late March or early April, and initially spend a long time on the sea in large flocks called rafts. Where possible, the birds excavate a nesting burrow into the soil. Sometimes they will make use of Manx shearwater or rabbit burrows. Where burrowing is not possible, the birds nest under boulders or in cracks and cavities in cliffs. The birds defend the nesting site and its immediate surround, and use it in subsequent years.

Puffins lay only a single egg, in late April or early May. Both parents incubate it for 36-45 days, and they share the feeding duties until the chick is ready to fledge. The fledging period is very variable, ranging from 34 to 60 days, depending on the area and year. The adult birds desert their young shortly before they are ready to leave the nest. The timing of the breeding in puffin colonies is highly synchronised, and so the departure of all adults takes place within a few days. The young birds leave their nest burrow and make their way to the sea, normally under cover of darkness to avoid predators. In some colonies, for instance in Iceland, nearby bright lights confuse the young birds, which then fly into the light and end up on city streets. Puffins usually only reach breeding age at 5-6 years old, and often live for 20 years.

Population and conservation

The puffin is one of the commonest seabirds in northern Europe. While the largest breeding populations are found in Iceland and Norway, the British Isles hold c. 10% of the worlds puffins. The puffin is included on the Amber list of UK Birds of Conservation Concern. It is very vulnerable to adverse changes in the environment because its breeding population is concentrated on a small number of sites. There have also been large population declines over much of its European range.

The main threat to puffins is the changes in distribution and numbers of small fish, while ground predators (eg rat, mink, cat) introduced to breeding colonies and pollution are also serious hazards.