The puffin is one of the most enchanting of our seabirds. It is unmistakable, with its bright yellow, red and blue bill, and its bright orange feet.
Each summer huge breeding colonies form on remote islands and coastal cliff tops along the north and west coasts of Britain. These can comprise several thousand and sometimes tens of thousands of pairs. In winter the breeding colonies become empty as the birds return to the ocean to spend the winter. This usually happens virtually overnight, sometime in mid-August, and the birds do not return until the following spring.
Puffins are members of the auk family, which includes guillemots and razorbills amongst others, all of which are superbly built for swimming under the seas. These birds have relatively short, stubby wings, which give them a characteristic whirring flight. There seems to be a lot of flapping in relation to the forward progress gained, especially when compared to other ocean going birds, such as gulls and gannets! But underwater these birds become graceful swimmers, and are agile enough to catch a beak-full of small sand eels, their staple diet, on each dive.
The guillemot is another member of the auk family that nests in huge colonies on coastal cliffs. Indeed, they nest so close to one another that they are often touching, which means that the guillemot defends one of the smallest territories of any bird!
They occur throughout Britain, but especially in Scotland. It is interesting to note that the birds in southern Britain tend to be a dark chocolate brown colour, and the further north you go the darker they become, until in Shetland they are deep black. There is also a colour variant which has a white eye stripe, called the bridled guillemot, that is more frequent the further north one goes. The reason for this is not clear.
These birds fish at depths of up to 50 metres in search of sand eels.
Argyll is perhaps the most southerly place in mainland Britain to see this delightfull little bird. In summer this is easily distinguished from other auks by the bright white wing stripe, and bright red feet which can be seen in flight and even when the bird is underwater.
They do not breed in large colonies like other auks, and do not spend the winter as far out to sea as other auks, so can be seen along the coast and in harbours throughout the year. However, in winter they turn a pale grey colour, and can easily be overlooked.
In common with other members of this family black guillemots are vulnerable to oil pollution. They are also prone to losing their eggs and chicks to predatory mink.
The gannet is the largest seabird of the North Atlantic and the north and west of Britain hold over half of the World's breeding population.
They have a staple diet of small fish, such as herring and mackerel, which they catch in spectacular dives from a height of around 100 feet, splashing beak first into the water at around 60 MPH.
Unlike other birds, the gannet does not have a brood patch to keep their egg and chick warm, and so they warm the egg under their huge webbed feet, and when the chick is hatched it is sat on top of the feet to keep it warm.
The shag is a very close relative of the cormorant, and it can be very difficult to tell the two apart. In the early breeding season shags develop a small crest on top of their heads, but this is lost after only a short time. The cormorant has no such crest, but as well as being a little larger has a white throat patch and white thigh flashes. Again these are lost over the summer, and so birds in winter plumage and juveniles (which are a sort of pale brown in both species) require a trained eye or a bird book and lots of patience to tell apart!
This bird is a summer visitor to our coasts, spending the winter as far away as South America. They nest in burrows on remote islands, and only return to swap with their partner under cover of darkness, and so can be a hard bird to see. We are very fortunate because the none-nesting bird spends its day at sea, and we often see rafts of 200-500 birds resting up in the relatively sheltered coastal waters.