Puffins and Other Stuff

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There are the things Ireland is known for. Guinness. Leprechauns. Guinness. And then there is the thing that it should be known for. Namely, puffins.

Why puffins, you ask? Allow me to explain. But to properly set the scene, you must first close your eyes and take a journey … to the set of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Whether or not you are a Harry Potter fan, this is a necessary exercise to set the tone. The island and seascape pictured in the scene (near 1:15) are exactly what I saw on my way to Skellig Michael, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world’s greatest puffin sanctuaries.

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I’m not one to get seasick easily, but the ride from Portmagee on Ireland’s Kerry coast to the rocky isle of Skellig Michael was enough to make me wince. There were 12 people on the boat, many of whom had booked the trip far ahead of time. We had been incredibly lucky to catch spots due to a last minute no-show. The captain explained that the puffins were due to leave any day for their annual migration south to Morocco and the Azores Islands, trading in their hard-earned cash to spend the winter kicking back on the beach sipping pina coladas.

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As we approach, we see the sharp pyramids of Skellig Michael and its smaller twin, Little Skellig, rising from the water. The sharp, angular forms create an ominous first impression. Their names do them justice; ‘Skellig’ comes from the Gaelic ‘sceillic’, meaning ‘steep rock’. The islands were formed on land as tall mountains nearly 300 million years ago. When sea levels rose, they were separated from the mainland, only their peaks left standing above the water. I wonder what the view must have looked like 300 million years ago, their jagged spires towering over the landscape.

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On the island, the only way to walk is up. A steep stone staircase climbs the slope to the ruins of a monastery. Active from the 6th to the 12th Century, the monastery, now nearly worn away, adds to the ghostly air of the place. One of the factors that lead to its abandonment was the cooling of the climate as the Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age. This made the winters less hospitable and agriculture more difficult.

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At the bottom of the staircase, we are given a safety talk. With no guardrails and often slippery condition, fatalities are not uncommon here. Looking down from the top, all you can see is the sheer drop as the slopes fall away suddenly in each direction.  Yet it is hard to focus on the hike with thousands of little cooing distractions darting across the path. We have reached puffin heaven.

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It is hard to describe the experience of seeing a puffin. Photos cannot do justice to their level of cuteness.  For starters, they are smaller than photos make them seem. You can imagine cupping one comfortably in both hands. They sound something like a cross between a tribble and a miniature lawnmower. It took us a while to figure out that the high-pitched electronic whirring was, in fact, the sound of business as usual in puffin central. When they fly, they choose an appropriate rocky overhang and jump, falling flat through the air for several seconds, as if in anticipation of a belly flop, before comically beating their little wings and setting a course.

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Since I am, after all, a scientist, I must at least give you three facts about these charming creatures. (I can’t have my readers telling their friends that a science blog described puffins as small, cute, and sounding like lawnmowers.) So, here you go.

– In air, puffins beat their wings up to 400 times per minute.

– In water, puffins swim by flapping their wings and steering with their webbed feet. The main component of their diet is fish, so they spend much of their feeding time ‘hunting’ underwater.

– The colorful beak grows only during the mating season and is afterwards shed, exposing a small, duller beak below.

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And if there’s one thing in the world more adorable than a puffin, it is of course a baby puffin, scientifically termed a puffling. In this context, i believe the scientific phrase “it’s so fluffy, I’m gonna die” is appropriate.

This has been your daily dose of mostly harmless science.

If you enjoyed this article, please comment below and check out more of my posts! I’d love for you to follow me on WordPress or on Twitter @harmlessscience (just click Follow on the right sidebar). Thanks for reading!

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10 responses to “Puffins and Other Stuff

  1. Well I’m glad you made this visit, suffered the sea sickness, climbed all those steps (worse coming down) and took the pix. I can now enjoy the puffins vicariously in the comfort of my pyjamas. Thank you.

    • On the plus side, it turns out I’m not the only one who’s in love with them, so you can find tons of adorable BBC videos.

  2. I knew exactly what you were describing when you brought up Harry Potter!! Hopefully I’ll see these little guys soon. Thanks for the incredible pics.

    ~Rachael at thewanderita.com

    • Glad you liked them! It was funny to hear all the locals talking about that Harry Potter scene. It seems to be their claim to fame now.

  3. I’m always surprise that people who see puffins for the first time are surprised by how small they are. I think they must think they’re like penguins. Lovely pictures.

    • Firstly, yes, I always imagined them to be like flying penguins. Probably because the last time I really heard mention of puffins was in elementary school, and that seemed like the obvious conclusion 🙂 But secondly, the pictures you see online don’t usually have anything to give scale, so it’s hard to tell. Thanks!

  4. They are so adorable and lovely. I didn’t know puffins were so small. I imagined them to be larger and around the size of housecats for some reason.

    • I expected them to be bigger too! I think it an earlier comment said that we automatically make the assumption that they’re like penguins, which I totally agree with.

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