Puffin – 1894

Fratercula arctica – Resident.

This is the last of the Pembrokeshire birds that is left to us to describe, and, in the summer time, is by far the most numerous on the whole list; we do not believe that we should exaggerate were we to say that the Puffins, in number, are then equal to all the other birds in the county added together!

They occur on almost every station that is visited by the other cliff birds, wherever there are facilities for making their burrows, but like some other species, have their favourite quarters, being found on Ramsey only on the north end of the island, while the Razorbills and Guillemots chiefly occupy its western and south-western cliffs, and the large rocks standing out in the water to the south. On Skomer, where their numbers are marvellous, the Puffins are distributed all over the island, and there is scarcely a yard of ground free from them, so that we were both surprised and amused by coming on them at the least expected places. In walking over the island every now and again, our feet would slip through into a Puffin’s burrow, and sometimes, we fear, we sadly discomposed the bird sitting within upon her egg.

The Rev. C. M. Phelps has remarked that the eggs of the Skomer Puffins are very fine, and, in some cases, unusually richly marked. The same characteristic would seem to apply to the Puffins eggs from any part of the Welsh coast, as some we obtained from the neighbourhood of Barmouth, in North Wales, are very handsome, being of a pure white, and sparsely dotted over with grey patches. The average Puffin egg is a dirty white egg, far from ornamental in one’s cabinet.

We had frequently been informed by friends of the vast numbers of Puffins that inhabited Skomer, but from their descriptions we were but little prepared for what we actually saw. As our boat approached the island we first came upon an immense mass of birds upon the water, that proved to be acre upon acre of Puffins ; flocks were continually arriving, and others leaving the main body, and all over the surface of the sea there were smaller flocks. As we drew near to the shore we found the cliffs in front of us so thickly covered by Puffins as to look as if they were sprinkled with snow, and the air was thick with single Puffins flying off the water with ribbands of fish hanging from their mandibles, on their way to feed the young in their burrows.

The birds were ridiculously tame, and when we landed, and were close to them, took but slight heed of us, only fixing their little round eyes upon us, and seeming to sit a little more upright upon the rocks. But there was a continual movement amongst them of those arriving and departing, and sitting down among the fern we for some time watched the wonderful scene, and as we remained quiet some of the birds were emboldened to alight almost within arm’s reach, and presently we saw a pure white Puffin, white all over, save for the wings that were black, fly within a few feet of us. In Mr. Vaughan Davies’ house there is preserved a beautiful specimen of a perfect albino Puffin that had been obtained on the island, and we were informed that varieties are rare, and that this was the only albino that had ever occurred.

Mr. Dix relates that on Caldy Island, where Puffins are also numerous, there was in his time a very cruel custom that we heartily trust has been put a stop to by the Sea Birds’ Preservation Act, viz., the men and boys of Tenby used to slaughter the Puffins wholesale on Whit Monday, and adds: “It is as much an institution with them as May Day with the sweeps.” We are told that on Grasholm the Puffins are a week or ten days later in nesting than they are on Skomer and Ramsey.

In the winter the Puffins disappear from all the islands, and are distributed over the seas. They do not appear to go far up the Bristol Channel, as the Guillemots and Razorbills do, as we have never met with any, and there are but few instances of stragglers having been noticed on the Somerset coasts. The singular fact is reported from one of the Light Houses at the entrance to Milford Haven that Puffins strike against the light annually at the beginning of September, and do not do so at any other season of the year. At Caldy they visit the Light House in the spring; twenty occurred there at 6 a.m on March 4, 1886.

Mathew M.A. 1894, Birds of Pembrokeshire and its Islands

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