Country Matters: Pretty puffins sail across the wild and lavish ocean

The iconic image of a puffin (F ratercula arctica), the colorful-beaked seabird favored by graphic designers and loved by children, cast a lone sentry captured on a TV camera set on Sceilg Mhichíl, Co Kerry’s famous island , which juts out of the Atlantic. Newsworthy due to a recent rockfall. Tourists are taken there by boat to follow in the footsteps of the monks who built churches and beehive shelters of solitude more than 1,000 years ago.

he small island has recently been catapulted onto the world stage as war of stars film set. There will always be the daredevils who get excited about a sea voyage and get a step closer to ancient history, as well as those who like to see out of the confines of a motorboat with scopes and binoculars. Respect for the seabirds it is home to – for some part of the year and for others 24/7 – raising their young amid the screeching and overcrowding of other species protecting them from predators is often of secondary importance.

A lone puffin, drawn by Kate Boxer, illustrates the dust jacket of Adam Nicolson’s book on the lives of puffins and gannets, The cry of the seabirdand Seamus Heaney contemplating in see things: “What came first, the cry of the seabird or the soul imagining itself screaming in the morning chill?”

This is about the birdlife of Scotland’s islands; Scelig and its islands lie off the coast of Kerry, and puffins spend their summers there nesting in sheltered crevices and soft cliff-top cavities, nursing a lone chick on sandeels, porb and mackerel sprat. They share a space with shearwaters, petrels, kittiwakes and fulmars from June until next month, when they begin migrating. Almost overnight they went into the wild Atlantic, swimming and flying thousands of miles to Newfoundland. You will be gone for eight months.

For years, the birds’ destination was a mystery until UCC’s Marine Research Center began tracking them, only to learn the migration was motivated by a small oil-rich fish called capelin found off North America. When that harvest is gone – with competition from other seabirds, seals and whales – puffins sail the ocean in search of zooplankton and sprat until returning here the following June.

The stocky little bird with the huge triangular variegated beak of red, blue and yellow markings, large round head and off-white face bordered by a black crown and upperparts, and powerful bright orange-red legs is unmistakably beautiful . Puffins stand and waddle merrily through their narrow little territories, periodically noisily clinking their beaks when not walking, and returning with beaks full of silvery sandeels to feed hungry young.

The parent birds can hold up to 12 fish in stout hinged mandibles. As each fish is caught, it is grabbed by small hooks in the palate – freeing the lower jaw for further catches. When pursued by hungry seagulls sighting the dangling eels, she will dive into the sea to escape.

The spectacular beak is lost when moulting begins next month and is replaced with a smaller, grayer one for its time far out on the ‘wild and prodigal ocean’ when it can easily be confused with other auks. The population at Irish sites, estimated at around 10,000, is tiny compared to around half a million along the coasts of Britain, particularly the Scottish islands. Country Matters: Pretty puffins sail across the wild and lavish ocean

Fry Electronics Team

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