In Search of Puffins, May 2019

It happens almost every year about this time.  I suddenly get the urge to pop up to Shetland because it’s time that the grass got its first cut of the year.
Actually, this is just a thinly veiled excuse.

The real reason is so that I can check in on the newly returned puffins around Sumburgh Head.

So last Friday morning at 04:00 I was standing at a bus stop in Oxford, waiting for a coach to Heathrow and about 8 hours later I was standing at the lighthouse on Sumburgh Head waiting for puffins to appear.

So, did the puffins appear?  Yes, but only in limited numbers.  

I got the impression that there were quite a few birds around but they all seemed to keeping to themselves rather than gathering in gangs on the cliff tops.  Maybe, despite the bright sunshine, the temperatures just weren’t quite high enough for sun-bathing.  The puffins I generally spotted were either flying straight in to the burrows, or were emerging and heading straight back out to sea.

Puffin and razorbill discussing burrow ownership
Puffin at Sumburgh Head

One observation suggested that there might be another reason for the puffins being reluctant to sit around on the cliff tops at the moment.

As I was packing up on Saturday evening,  I got beckoned over by a local couple to one of the spots from where there are a set of fairly visible burrows - usually a good spot for watching puffins loitering.  

Just outside one of the burrow entrances was a young otter busily tucking in to a freshly caught puffin.  The otter clearly wasn’t happy to have an audience for this Saturday night dinner and he (or she) soon dragged the puffin remains down into the burrow.  I waited around trying to keep sight of the burrow the otter had darted down (hoping that it was one of the simple burrows with a single entrance) and eventually it did reappear to see if the coast was clear, it took one look at me and disappeared again and I didn’t see any further evidence. 

Otter 1, Puffin 0 
Did any one notice?

I gather there have occasionally been otters sighted around the lighthouse but I’ve not seen any other pictures of them around the puffin burrows.  There are also stories of predation around the guillemot colonies, which are generally much closer to sea level, where I’d expect the otters to be found.

I’m willing to travel a long way to spend time with either otters or puffins - but I really would prefer it if the former wasn’t eating the latter.

In between fixes of puffin (and otter) spotting I was able to spend time on some of favourite headlands and beaches at the south end of Shetland.  

As the spring draws on the regular summer visitors are reappearing. 

The  guillemots always get back early and by mid-May they're sitting on eggs, and I was pleased to see more razorbills than remember from this time last year. 

Guillemots at Sumburgh

The bonxies (great skuas) are back patrolling the cliffs (they’re happy to take a puffin given the chance), the wheatears are around and the tirricks (terns) are getting in their early season harassing-visitor practice.  And the air is filled with the sound of bird life too - from the bubbling calls of the guillemots and puffins, to the trill of the skylarks and the endless peeping of the oystercatchers.

The tourist attractions are also getting back into operation - the Sumburgh Head visitor centre re-opened for the season a few weeks back, and there is again coffee and splendid cake on offer (although not yet in the wonderful Stevenson Room, which is still getting some TLC).  I was also delighted to hear that Old Scatness is opening much more regularly this summer - it’s always been one of my favourite bits of Shetland archeology - I’ll get there next time I’m back.

Sunny Scat Ness
All calm at the West Voe of Sumburgh
Low tide at Quendale Bay

And yes, I did get the grass cut.

Half Cut