Auks, I have heard said, are awesome. And it's very hard to argue with this.
They spend about eight months of the year at sea - and the other four months hanging about (and raising the next generation of auks) on remote cliffs and headlands. One of the best places to see breeding auks in the UK is the Shetland Islands, and I've been fortunate enough to have spent the last few weeks hanging about on the cliffs and headlands at the south end of Shetland watching as the auk chicks become bigger and bigger and get ready for their first winter at sea.
There are four species of auk that breed at the south end of Shetland - puffins, guillemots, black guillemots and razorbills. All the pictures here were taken over the last couple of weeks - almost all on the cliffs around the Sumburgh Head lighthouse.
Puffins or, around Shetland, Tammie Norie - without doubt the best known (and most easily recognised) of the auks - by mid July the youngsters (pufflings) look like a black and white version of their very colourful parents, and will (if you are lucky) appear outside their burrow testing their wings to see if they are ready for that first flight.
|At the Burrow|
|Also available in Black & White|
Guillemots/Longwi - don't really bother with nests and just lay a single egg on the cliff edge. Without a protective burrow to hide in the chicks are vulnerable to predators - the first line of defence being lots of adult birds gathered wing-to-wing. The second line of defence is to get off the cliffs as possible so as soon as they are big enough to swim the youngsters (called jumplings) are summoned into the water by their parents and escorted away from the shore.
|All Lined Up|
|Ready to Jump?|
|On Top of the Cliff|
Black Guillemots/Tysties - are stunning little birds. They nest in isolated holes in cliffs and it is challenging to find the nests or to even get a glimpse of the chick. The best bet is to listen for the characteristic high pitched whistle that the adults make - and maybe that'll help you find a nest!
|I'll come out when I'm ready|
|Deep in Conversation|
Razorbills/Sea Craa - are probably my favourite auk. This stunning bird - dramatic black and white plumage and an awesome bill - lives in small groups close to either puffin or guillemot colonies and has a single chick that (like the guillemot) jumps to the sea as soon as it can.
|Centre of Attention|
|Beak to Beak|
As far as I'm concerned this has been a fantastic year for auks - at least in terms of the weather and amount of time I've been able to spend with them, it'll be interesting to hear, from the proper surveys, what the official word is.