As you may, or may not, know I am a biologist by trade. I’ve worked with birds for the past six years, but prior to this I was by no means a “birder.” However, there was one group of birds that I found absolutely endearing long before my bird nerd days. And that was the puffin. I remember being 19 years old and going on vacation with my mom visiting the Washington coast. We were staying near Forks (yes the Forks, Washington from the Twilight series, and no we didn’t go there because of the books) when we took a day trip up to Cape Flattery. We planned to see the cape because it is the northwesternmost point in the contiguous United States, exceptionally beautiful, and surprisingly accessible. How could you pass that up? But what I learned on the way there was that a resident colony of Tufted Puffins lived nearby. I was over the moon about it, certain I was going to get to see a puffin. That trip was going to prove a vital learning lesson that I took with me into my career, wildlife is completely unpredictable. Just because they’re supposed to be there does not mean they will be. And so began my ten year search for puffins.
After being thwarted on a few other occasions, when planning our trip to Scotland I came across an article by Années De Pèlerinage on Pinterest all about his experience seeing Atlantic puffins on Lunga Island. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to FINALLY see one. Because of this passion/mild obsession to see a puffin in the wild I knew that I had to include a visit during our trip. It took a bit of begging and convincing to get Erik on board, but he agreed.
We booked our trip through Staffa Tours, which is a locally run and owned company. We took their Tobermory, Staffa, and Treshnish Wildlife Tours since we were staying in Oban, but they do offer tours starting off in other locations on and around Mull as well. Since we were staying in Oban we had to catch the ferry over to Craignure on the Isle of Mull. And that is how we found ourselves leaving Jess’s house in Oban at 0620 to catch a ferry that took us one step closer to Lunga. To get to Lunga from Oban is a bit of a mission. It includes a CalMac ferry ride over to the Isle of Mull, second largest island of the Inner Hebrides and still mostly unpopulated, a bus ride to the northwestern tip of Mull, and then another 45 minute boat ride. Thankfully the transit was included in the purchase of our tour. Much of the road up the coast is one lane, which was rather exhilarating in such a large bus. What the isle lacks in people it more than makes up for in gorgeous landscapes. I wished we had more time to explore, but we were on a mission to find puffins.
After arriving in Tobermory we awaited our boat to take us out to the Treshnish Islands. From a quick headcount on my part while on the bus there appeared to be about 10 people in our group for the day. As we waited our grew continued to grow and grow until we saw closer to 40 people. Our boat was not a large one, and there was very little inside space. Normally this wouldn’t be much of an issue as these boats are made to be used strictly for sightseeing with plenty of outside space, and not necessarily leisure cruising. But unfortunately it was unseasonably cold that day, even the captain of the boat commented on it. To combat this issue they provided very warm, and very fashionable, yellow rain slickers for us to wear. As I am always cold I took them up on the offer . All loaded up we were off. Much to our surprise we had gone about 15 minutes and made another stop at Kilchoan Port to grab even more people. By now the boat was feeling a bit tight, but thankfully all we had was the cold as there was barely any wind and the seas were smooth. If I had to pick, I’d take a cold boat ride over a bumpy one any day!
Keeping our eyes peeled as we went we were treated to a host of seabirds along the way to the Trenish Islands. We struck up a conversation with a fellow birder on board and he helped us ID what we were seeing. The site of Manx shearwaters surfing the wake around the boat was hypnotizing, and we were even lucky enough to catch site of a pair of sea eagles flying off the western coast of Mull.
We both saw our first black guillemots, and no shortage of the appropriately named common guillemots out on the water. The scenery along the way was absolutely stunning and would have been reason enough to come on the tour. But still no puffins. As the weather was cold and cloudy, and potentially turning to rain that afternoon, the captain decided to make the first stop on Lunga instead of Staffa Island. As we approached the Treshnish Islands we were given a brief history that I’m going to share with you, so feel free to skip ahead if you aren’t interested.
The Treshnish Isles are a small archipelago composed of eight main, unsheltered islands and were permanently inhabited until 1824 when the last family living on the islands left Lunga. Archeological artifacts, and even some of the island names, date back to the times of the Vikings. Eventually the islands fell into the hands of the MacDonald clan, also known as the Lords of the Isles, who ruled the west of Scotland. Cairnburgh castle, located on the isles of Cairn na Burgh More and Cairn na Burgh Beg, was occupied until the 1700’s when it was finally abandoned. You can still see the ruins of the castle today as you go cruising past them en route to Lunga. But in my opinion what really makes these islands special is the diversity of wildlife found on them. Being largely unoccupied by humans, and with no good access points onto the islands, seabird species have wholeheartedly adopted them as their homes.
Lunga has the largest populations and most diversity of the archipelago with over 6,000 birds seabirds including: razorbills, guillemots, skua, fulmar, kittiwakes, shags, puffins (of course) and more. Because of wildlife and history the isles have been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and recently as a Special Protection Area under the Conservation of Wild Birds Directive.
As we approached Lunga we saw grey seals sunning themselves on the surround rocks and a large swirl of avian activity. As I mentioned there is no really good way to get onto the islands and so the boat companies have devised a rather ingenious solution. Anchored just off the shore is a set of wooden stairs with a gang plank that seemingly lead to nowhere. When we pulled up next to these stairs one of the crewmen grabbed a hook and and wrangled the stairs up next to the boat. After a few attempts they were successful attached and we motored on for a few meters more until the plank reached out over the shoreline. From here we all jumped on the stairs and began storming the beaches of Lunga. It probably seemed like a scene from the beaches of Normandy to the birds.
To see the puffins you have to climb at the hillside to get to the nesting areas. This year the puffins were apparently a bit late to start coming on shore to select nesting sites, but the crew informed us they’d likely come once we got close to their burrows. A couple of the tours earlier in the week only saw the puffins rafting (swimming and feeding in large groups out on the water) but none onland. Even Jess and the lady when we picked our tour tickets thought we had shown up a week too early to see them on land. And in my experience birds usual go nowhere near their nests when people are around so I thought these guys were yanking our chains. Luckily my bar was set so low that even if all I saw was a puffin shaped bird out on the water I would have been ecstatic! Much to my surprise and delight the crew was being completely honest. At first I didn’t see any puffins on land until basically the whole boat load of us were at the hilltop and then BAM puffin after puffin started showing up.
It was incredible! We found ourselves literally surrounded by puffins. On the ground around our feet, in the sea in front of us, and flying at incredible speed like odd shaped parrots in the skies above us. It took all I had to keep it together and not start squealing, crying, and trying to steal one simultaneously.
The explanation the crew gave us was that we scare off the bigger predatory birds that would try to come make a snack out of the dainty puffins. And they know that we won’t harm them so they use us as a form of cover to come on land. From a biological standpoint this does make perfect sense but I had to see it to believe it. As an unexpected treat we also got to see a few pairs of razorbills selecting nesting burrows mixed right up in with the puffins. Puffins are colonial nesters which is another reason we found ourselves inundated with them when we sat near their burrows. As you can see in the photos their bills become bright orange for the breeding season, which is mid-April through late July with the puffins leaving by early August, and actual fade during the winter/non-breeding season.
Pairs (Atlantic puffins mate for life) return to their same nesting grounds, and often the same burrows, year after year. Which can be quite some time as puffins have been known to live around 20 years in the wild (they don’t start breeding until 3-5 years of age). If you’re lucky like we were you can even see some of the pairs engaging in a special behavior called “billing” where the two rub their bills together. It is maybe one of the sweetest things I’ve seen in the bird world. Their nests are usually located at back of their burrows, roughly 3ft deep, where the female lays a single egg. The pair take turns incubating for 40 days and the puffling, yes that is the name for a puffin chick, will spend another 45 days there before fledging.
Since we were there in mid-April we scored by getting to watch courtship displays, nest site selection, and even nest material gathering (they use sticks, grasses, seaweed, and feathers). Admittedly, the birds were a bit shy at first but if you sat there quietly and didn’t move they quickly got over it. My heart was melting watching them “billing” or waddling by to grab comically large sticks to try and take down into the burrows. You’d be sitting there and all of a sudden dirt would come flying out of a burrow and almost pelt you in the face. It was incredible, and I felt so lucky to see the intimate moments of puffin life like this when less than an hour before I was dying just to see one flying past me. You could even hear the bird inside the burrow making a deep, grunting sound (I’m assuming this was their contact call) to their mate still above ground. That is a sound I don’t think I will ever forget.
My only complaint was I wish the crew would have given a some guidance on appropriate behavior around the birds as I did see one person try multiple times to touch them. Please remember if you do go these are wild birds, not pets or animals in a petting zoo. Give them space. It is a special enough experience getting to be this close to the puffins, don’t be the one to ruin it by trying to pet/snuggle/whatever one. As tempting as that may be.
Be observant and respectful, if it looks like the birds are nervous and don’t warm up to you move back a little. You’ll still be a hell of a lot closer than most people ever get to them. If you aren’t sure what constitutes a good distance, the Hebridean Trust has a good list of guidelines to follow to ensure the safety of the puffins. And if you’re curious, they have annual population reports gathered from banding (or ringing as it’s known in England) and surveys conducted on the island.
The two hours on Lunga flew by faster than I could have believed. We did manage to pull ourselves away from the puffin burrows long enough to see fulmars pairing up on nearby cliff ledges and to take a quick walk around the old ruined houses on the hilltop. From Lunga we headed to Staffa Island for a quick stop (45mins) to explore the geological wonder of the hexagonal basalt columns that form Fingal’s Cave and to look for the colony of puffins who nest there.
While the population at Lunga has been increasing, the population at Staffa has apparently been on the decline. We didn’t see any on land there, but did get a chance to check out a raft of them as we left the island. Which was a bit delayed as two members of the tour decided they didn’t want to come back on time so the crewman had to go find them! This and the increase in wind pushed our return to Tobermory back a bit so we only had to fill about an hour until our bus back to the ferry. At this point the day had turned bitterly cold and we were crashing from the puffin high, and in turn the ride back felt extremely long in comparison to the start of the trip.
Luckily a quick tasting at the Tobermory Distillery and a bowl of fantastic fish chowder washed down with a pint of Caledonian beer at Macgochans, that I can’t recommend enough, helped pick up our spirits. We were back on the bus and before we knew it on the ferry to Oban. Nearing a 12hr day at this point we were all ready to crawl into bed at Jess’s house that night after a quick pizza stop along the way.