Have you noticed my new header image? If not, please go look.
Oh, who am I kidding. Here’s the picture in its full glory.
In October 2008, I booked one night’s accommodation on an island where Atlantic puffins return each year to their cliffside burrows to breed, before returning back to the deep sea in late July.
I adore birds. When we moved to the UK, I finally understood why people say birds sing. In Australia, birds do not sing. They squawk, they screech, they cry, they chatter – but they do not sing. The most musical bird I have ever heard in Australia is the bellbird, where each call is like the tinkling of a doorbell in a quaint second hand bookshop. The most awful bird I have ever heard is the black cockatoo; its mating call sounds like someone dying painfully and slowly. The most haunting cry I have heard is that of the curlew at dusk: a mother calling desperately for a child, whom she knows can never return.
In England, the birds have songs. Lilting melodies that change in pitch and tone, rising and falling. I first heard the song of a robin, and it was the characteristic twitter twitter tweet tweet that books tell me birds sing but that I had never before experienced. The tree outside our little flat’s living room window were visited by tiny blue winged birds with yellow breasts and black markings that look like they were wearing ties. I had to identify them. Naturally, I joined the RSPB. (They are blue tits.)
Pictures of puffins adorned RSPB paraphernilia. And no wonder: they are very cute birds. My knowledge of puffins was as the brand of the children’s paperback books spinoff from Penguin Books. They are shaped a lot like penguins, and being sea birds, I just assumed they were roughly the same size – even though I know the size of penguins ranges a lot (from the tiny Fairy Penguins all the way up the huge Emperor Penguins). My RSPB magazines kept telling me that puffins were small, so I readjusted my expectations until I read a description that they were about the size of a large potato. I just had to see one, in real life.
Every time I read the RSPB’s description of puffins, I misread it and it makes me giggle like a 5 year old: “An unmistakable bird with its black back and white underpants…”
A bird with underpants? Oh, I have to see one. First, a bird wearing tie. Now, a bird wearing underpants. The northern hemisphere is just too, too funny. I have to see one.
Mostly, it seemed that puffins had their breeding colonies somewhere north. We are somewhere oh-so-very south. Then, I found Skomer Island, serendipitously, while researching accommodation on islands and in lighthouses. I tried to book a visit in 2008 but discovered they were all booked out and that I would have to book for 2009. On the very first day that booking opened to the general public, I phoned. I spent 3 hours that morning phoning until I got through. When I did get through, we only had two choices: one early in the season and one late. I chose late. I have never, ever been so committed to booking anything. Even tickets to a Tom Waits concert only took me one hour of hitting the ‘refresh’ button on TicketMaster’s website.
Since October 2008, I have been eagerly anticipating our visit and whenever I remembered we would be going, I would grin and clap my hands like a pleased child. Oh, puffins!
Shortly before we left, I read on the Skomer Island Blog that the puffins would be leaving soon. I tried not to let it happen, but stirrings of anxiety started to undercut each pleased clap of my hands. Please, please let them still be on the island, I chanted quietly to myself. I went googling photographs on the web of ‘Skomer puffins’ to see how late photographers had managed to capture images of these (I hoped) adorable birds to try to reassure myself that they would still be there when we arrived, mid-July.
We planned a cycling trip around the puffin visit and I told myself that even if I did not see puffins, the cycling, the countryside would be worth it. And they were, the cycling was challenging and great fun; the landscape was beautiful and I would probably be quite happy to be on the island even without puffins; after all, there would be other seabirds. (But I really did want to see puffins…)
The morning before we caught the ferry across from the mainland to Skomer Island, I started to worry about whether we would be able to get on the ferry. Everyone had told us how people queued for the ferry early. I also worried about whether the weather – it had been variable – would let us cross and if it let us cross, whether it would let us come back again. I was pretty gleeful with the idea that we would be stuck on the island. That would have been brilliant.
As the ferry crossed the choppy waters, little birds darted nearby. I gasped and grabbed at my partner. “Is it a puffin?” I whispered into his ears. (I did not want to say it any louder in case the other people on the ferry, many clearly birders and experienced, heavily equipped photographers scoffed at my ignorance.) “Not sure,” he whispered back. And then one flew close enough and I saw unmistakable flashes of orange, whether it was beak or feet did not matter at that stage, “Puffins!” I exclaimed, clapping my hands. The rain had started in earnest now and was coming in sideways, but I could not care. As we neared the island, more and more puffins flew past, and many of them floated in the ocean beside the high cliffs.
Nothing could disappoint then, and nothing did. All the anticipation and even most of the anxiety was worth those first glimpses of puffins, and then the much later up-close viewings of them.
Along with day visitors to the island – not many that day due to the poor weather – were a number of men laden down with all manner of expensive photographic equipment and enormous, unwieldy lenses.
I bear a lot of affection for this photo, though I am well aware of its faults (exposure, composition, focus you name it). Notice the second guy from the front, with his camera down. As I edged closer to look at the puffins, he murmurred at me, “Aren’t they magical?” and I had to resist the temptation to hug him. I loved that he was so awed and so taken with the puffins, rather than trying to capture The Shot. I didn’t even compete. I wanted a few decent photographs, but then I put my camera away and just marvelled at these magnificent, charismatic, characterful creatures. All the hype puffins gets? They can take it.