Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The Puffins of Lunga

Atlantic Puffin on the Island of Lunga
Firstly, I have to apologise for the delay in posting this latest blog. It has been a very busy summer for a variety of reasons but also a very frustrating one. I had several plans for interesting photography shoots over the summer months but the appallingly wet weather here in Scotland made it all but impossible to find time when the rain had stopped, the light was favourable and I was available. I could have used the time away from my camera to write more but I was missing the photography that for me is so much an integral part of what I write about.

I did manage a few days here and there and latterly spent some time with my macro lens photographing dragonflies and damselflies along the fringes of midge infested ponds. As I discovered, that posed a few interesting challenges. However that is a story for another day.

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to come second in the Scottish Wildlife Section of the annual photography competition held by the Scottish Seabird Centre. A photograph of three Icelandic Whooper Swans secured that runner-up place for me. My prize was a weekend with professional photographer Philip Price of Loch Visions. He is based near Oban on the west coast of Scotland and when he isn't taking photographs he offers a variety of wildlife photography workshop experiences  From the available options I selected a trip to the island of Lunga, one of the Treshnish islands off the west coast of Mull. 

So it was that on a Saturday morning in July my wife, eight other photographers and I joined Philip and his assistant Renate at Oban harbour for the sail north through the Sound of Mull to the Treshnish Islands and on to  Lunga. This was one of the few trips that worked for me during the course of this year with the sun shining kindly and the wind and rain ceasing for at least one of the two days of the weekend!

Portrait of an Atlantic Puffin
It was a two hour trip stopping at Tobermory on Mull on route. Once safely on Lunga we made a short climb to a grass plateau at the top of some cliffs and then further to a rock pinnacle known as the Harp Rock stack. There we were presented with the stunning sight of thousands of breeding Guillemots, Razorbills, Shags and Puffins amongst others. It was so incredible that staying focused on the purpose of the trip was harder than focusing on any given subject. Birds with beaks full of sand eels and fish were within touching distance and seemed unfazed by the arrival of the paparazzi! It wasn’t difficult to see why these islands are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and also a Special Protection Area for the conservation of wild birds. 

Puffin with a beak full of fish
After hundreds of shutter ‘clicks’ we sat on the cliff tops eating a superb picnic lunch prepared, I believe, by Philip’s wife and his mother; many thanks. Curiosity finally got the better of the Puffins and they gathered around their nearby burrows providing several hours of incredible photography.

I opted for this particular trip because first and foremost I wanted to photograph puffins. It was many years ago but I have never forgotten the moment I saw my first puffin. It was at Auchmithie, a small fishing hamlet on the east coast of Scotland, birthplace of that culinary delight the Arbroath Smokie! I remember watching the waves rolling in from the north sea when a bird with a very unusual orange bill flew past. It was immediately recognisable as a puffin.

Puffin with a beak full of fish
Puffins belong to the Auk family and there are three species found in the North Pacific Ocean but only one in the North Atlantic Ocean. Slightly larger than a pigeon, the Atlantic Puffin is the smallest and most common of them all. Sometimes referred to as ‘Clown of the Sea’ or ‘Sea Parrot’, on account of its unusual beak and head markings, it has been characterised in animations, comic strips, book illustrations and on postage stamps. Widely distributed, it can be found from eastern America to northern Russia and from northern France to Iceland but falling numbers in recent years is giving cause for concern.

Approximately 10% of Atlantic Puffins breed in the British Isles with Scotland playing host to large colonies on some of its rugged coastlines and islands. The birds, which are monogamous, arrive at their breeding grounds towards the end of March and pairs begin reinforcing the bond between them with much rubbing of their bright orange beaks. They are highly social birds, living along the edge of cliffs where they create their nests by digging burrows in the soft earth.

They lay a single egg and parents share all responsibilities including burrow digging, egg incubation, fishing and feeding the chick that will hatch around June or July. The main sources of food are sand eels and sprats and catching these can necessitate swimming to depths in excess of 50 metres! Once hatched, the pufflings as they are known, will fledge by making their way alone, usually under cover of darkness, to the cliff tops and then to the sea below.

Portrait of an Atlantic Puffin
It would be reasonable to assume that by living in remote locations puffins are protected from many of the dangers affecting other birds. Sadly, this is not the case and they are especially vulnerable to environmental disasters such as oil spills or the introduction of a predator, such as a mink or rat to remote nesting grounds.

North Atlantic Puffin numbers have fallen significantly over the last decade although some colonies are presently doing well. Overall, there is reason for cautious optimism, but concern is such that at present the Atlantic Puffin is on the Amber list of UK Birds of Conservation Concern. 

Razorbill with Sand-eels
Apart from photographing the puffins of Lunga there were also guillemots, razorbills and shags by the dozen. The photography was fantastic but I have often said that getting the photograph is tremendously satisfying but witnessing the moment is far more important. I witnessed so many 'moments' on Lunga that the ones I captured in the photographs here represent just a fraction of them. The rest will live on in my mind and that is why I love wildlife and nature photography.

It was a terrific trip and a great opportunity and I hope to catch up with Philip Price again on another of his workshops in the not too distant future.  

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Articles and photography copyright of Tom Langlands

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