Thousands of puffins flock to the Isle of May for their annual breeding season

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Atlantic puffins flock to the Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR) in the outer Firth of Forth each year for the breeding season. More than 40,000 pairs will make their nests in burrows on the NatureScot reserve five miles off the coast of Fife, which is the UK’s third largest colony. The first puffins of the year touched down on Tuesday, over a week before the island reopens to boatloads of tourists on April 1. The seabirds, renowned for their colorful bills and comical behaviour, had not touched land for months as they spent the winter at sea before reuniting with lifelong partners on the island. Reserve manager David Steel said: “In the morning the island was shrouded in fog but in the gloom we were able to pick out a few distinctive shapes – puffins.

“Puffins had landed in small numbers on the island and then today even more. It’s great to see them back for another season but now the hard work begins.

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“This is the first time Puffins have touched land since last August having spent the entire winter out at sea. They’ll now start pair bonding and spring cleaning their burrows ready for the new season ahead.

Up to 40,000 pairs of puffins head to the Isle of May each year to breed.

“After that the important job of egg laying and rearing a chick is undertaken. For now, it’s great to have them on the island and it’s a welcome return.”

Puffins lay just a single egg, which both parents incubate for around 40 days and also share feeding duties until the puffling is ready to fledge, usually at night to avoid predators.

The first chicks – known as pufflings – will start to fledge in July. Fledglings will return to the island at around five or six years old to breed. Last year puffins on the Isle of May enjoyed their second most successful breeding season this century according to the UK Center for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), which compiles data on the birds’ breeding success. Around 80% that laid an egg went on to rear a chick. In 2017, 86% of burrows produced a puffing.

The island known as the “Jewel of the Forth” will be home to around 200,000 birds including kittiwakes, razorbills, shags, guillemots, fulmars, oystercatchers, eider ducks, and various terns and gulls.

Puffins are known as the ‘clowns of the sea’ because of their bright colouring.

Mr Steel added: “Puffins are unmistakable birds as they are stocky with distinct colours; black upperparts and white underparts, with large white cheeks contrasting against their brightly colored bill. They also have distinctive orange colored legs and feet.”Puffins are true pelagic birds as they are designed for life out at sea rather than on land. Their wings are relatively short and adapted for swimming underwater whilst in the air can beat as many as 400 times per minute.”The Isle of May is famed for its history and its carpets of flowers. The island’s 12th century monastery was a place of pilgrimage for centuries.It was built in memory of St Adrian, who was martyred on the island by Norsemen in the year 875.It was also the site of Scotland’s first lighthouse, built in 1636, while the current castle-like lighthouse was designed by Robert Stevenson.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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