Auk Summer: Part 3 Puffins

Part 1 was razorbills, Part 2 was tysties and now Part 3 of my 'Auk Summer' reflection is all about puffins.

The puffins are undoubtedly the star turns of the summer at Sumburgh Head - in the spring the question on the lips of every visitor (including the local visitors) is "Are the puffins are back?".  As the season goes on the question every year is "Have you been to see the puffins yet?" then finally (in August) it becomes "Are the puffins still around?".  Maybe we need a big puffin clock marking off time in puffins?

And, I know I'm biased, but is there anywhere better to see puffins than Sumburgh Head?  There are probably places to reliably see bigger groups of puffins, there might be places where you are more likely to get puffins wandering around your feet but I'm pretty sure there's nowhere where it's easier to see puffins.  I'm also not aware of anywhere else where you watch puffins and eat fantastic cake at the same time.

Every summer I say that I'm going to keep track of how much time I spend at Sumburgh Head - and every year I lose track of the number of visits never mind the number of hours spent looking over the walls just watching what the puffins are up to.

So did I have a favourite picture from the 2021 Season?  

In getting to this I found I needed to divide the pictures into three groups.   Firstly, there's the puffins just hanging out on the cliff-tops category. I still can't decide the winner here - it's either the puffin in the rain or the puffin in the mayweed.

The next catagory is the pairs catagory - a heady mix of bill-rubbing and fighting!  Favourite here might be the first picture (taken at the end of the season as the puffins are making plans to head out to sea)

And finally, the puffing category.  I really don't think I've ever seen more pufflings at Sumburgh Head - I can think of three explanations - there were more pufflings this year, there were more pufflings in accessible burrows or I've just never spent as much time peering over the walls at Sumburgh Head!

And the winner of the puffling category... 

I didn't give all the pufflings names, but this one is LB (it's a long story) posing beside his Mum (or possibly Dad) - and I think this is probably my favourite puffin picture of the season!

Next year?  More of the same please. And more cake.

Auk Summer: Part 2 Tysties

Auk Summer: Part 1 was all about razorbills - Part 2 is about Black Guillemots, known locally on Shetland as tysties.  

Unlike the other auks, the tysties stay around Shetland all year round. In the winter they are mottled black and white, but in summer they are a gorgeous solid black with very distinctive white wing patches.  The constants throughout the year are the dramatic red legs and even more dramatic red gape.

There are a lot of breeding tysties at the south end of Shetland.  Trouble is, unlike the puffins or common guillemots, they don't gather in big colonies so you have to go out and find them.

Tysties seem to like nest sites that face straight out to sea - and while this is certainly an effective way to stay out of sight and reach of (land-based) predators it also makes it a wee bit challenging for your average land-based photographer.  In my (limited) experience the key to locating a tystie nest site is to keep your eyes and, particularly, ears open while wandering the cliff tops.  

Tysties will regularly roost close to their nest and will call to their mates to encourage them onto the same area of cliff.  The tystie call is a very characteristic high-pitched whistle and, once you recognise it, is a very reliable alert that there are tysties around.  Very regularly the call will let you know there is a tystie around and you'll be able to get a good idea where the nest is - and you'll realise that there isn't going to be any way to see it!

Just occasionally though you'll be able to find a nest site on a curved cliff face, and you'll be able to see the nest entrance without falling into the sea - and maybe you'll even be able (if you are sufficiently patient) to get a glimpse of the nestling inside the nest site.

Last summer I identified an active nest site but wasn't able to spend enough hours watching to see anything more than the shadow of the young tystie.  This year I was able put in the hours (alongside watching other auks) to see (from a distance, I should add) the parents regularly bringing food into the nest, and even occasionally to see the youngster emerging from the nest hole.

My favourite tystie picture from the season was of the almost-ready-to-fledge tystie peering out the mouth of the burrow.

And next year? In addition to spending more time watching the burrow with the nestling (I'm optimistic that it'll be used again), I've spotted a number of additional sites where I'd like to spend longer watching next season. 

Auk Summer: Part 1 Razorbills

This year I was able to spend most of May to August on Shetland - and that meant I was able to spend a lot of time with the various auks during their breeding season.  During those four months I took a lot of pictures - and with the long northern evenings I would regularly be out late (and occasionally early in the mornings too) watching the bird life around the various headlands at the south end of Shetland.

However, there is a downside to this.  Each evening I would attempt to do a very quick skim through the pictures I'd taken and pick out a few that gave a flavour of the day and share them on places such at Twitter and Instagram.  It generally isn't until I get back to my Oxford desk that I get time to go through the pictures again and to get a sense of the pictures from the season.

Over the next three blog posts (including this one) - I'll say a bit about three of the species of auks I've spent time with this summer and share a few of my favourite pictures of each from this season.  

Starting with Razorbills.

I think I regard these as a real bonus this year.  My perception is that there were more razorbills around this year than last, and that they were spending more time in photographically accessible places (particularly around Sumburgh Head). It was lovely to be able to watch the pairs bonding early in the year and to then be able to at least get glimpses of the chicks before they jump.

I love watching all the auks - but I've got a particular affection for the razorbills. I think it might be their crisp formal attire and the incredibly cool (and understated) bills.

My favourite razorbill picture from this year?  It's got to be the family group (looks like an old-fashioned formal group photograph) gathered around the youngster.  This was the last time I saw the youngster - mostly it had been tucked away behind a parent - the next time I visited this bit of cliff the nest site was deserted (and the time after that, a gang of guillemots had taken possession).

And for next year? I want to find a location where I can watch (and photograph) the razorbills coming into a nest site other than looking down on the nest from high above - that'll need some early season scouting next year.

Monthly Report, August 2021

From Auks to Orca

Very pleased to be able to extend the Shetland Summer through most of August - but eventually the list of things-to-be-done-in-Oxford did get long enough to require a few days back in the over-crowded southeast of England.

First week of August: Puffins start to head out for winter

  • Reporting Days: 31

  • Location: Mostly ZE3 - with a bit of OX3 towards the end of the month

  • Miles walked: 140

  • Miles driven: 928

  • Gardens Tended: 2

  • Puffins Seen: Lots (mostly in the first few days of the month)

  • Orchids Seen: None

  • Orca Seen: Six

  • Photographs Taken: Thousands (but not quite as many thousands as last month)

The disappearance of the puffins is only one part of the autumnal changes around the south end of Shetland.  The other auks disappear too - with the tysties being the last to abandon their nests. And the waders reappear around the feeding grounds having fledged their young elsewhere.  Some of the birds disappear quietly at the end of their breeding season - others seem to want to shout about it.  However by mid-August the cliffs have been left to fulmars..

Black Guillemot: Would the last auk to leave, please turn out the lights.

Black-tailed Godwit

Kittiwake: Shout

Fulmar: Reclaiming the cliffs

It's not just about the birds. Shetland is one of the best places in the UK for whale watching (OK, tell me somewhere better?). After a relatively quiet few weeks (in whale terms) the Shetland south mainland got a real treat in mid August when a pod of orca (or it might have been two pods combined forces) spent a day methodically touring every bay and voe around the south end looking for seals.  We opted to pick our spot on a convenient headland and just sit and wait until the orca came to us. 

Orca - in West Voe of Sumburgh

Most of the bird photographs were again taken around Sumburgh Head - but I also got to spend time around Quendale Bay (ideal for paddling) and the Pool of Virkie (not so good for paddling)

Sumburgh Head: everyone should have a favourite lighthouse

Quendale Bay: summer crowds

Pool of Virkie: Harper's Marina

And finally, I did drag myself away from Shetland (very temporarily).

Aberdeen: Arriving at sunrise

Oxford: C S Lewis Nature Reserve