Edinburgh; The capital city of Scotland: known for its castle, the Military Tattoo, quality woollen garments, deep fried food, Holyrood Palace, a movie about heroin abuse and for being home to probably the world’s largest and most famous international arts festival. An eclectic mix by anyone’s standards! And all of this wrapped in the flavoursome blanket of whisky, roadside pipers, tartan souvenirs and ‘proper’ Irn Bru… Only in Scotland!
Built on the remains of an ancient volcano Edinburgh is a truly three-dimensional, multi-layered city, steeped not only in the spillages of a billion heavy student nights out but also in history and culture. It draws tourists from all over the world. With such a lively historical, architectural and geological landscape at their fingertips (as well as some of Scotland’s best pubs!) these visitors are rarely at a loss for things to see or do. But one thing which often gets overlooked (pun not intended!) is Edinburgh’s attendant flotilla of islands which lie eternally at anchor just off Leith in the Firth of Forth. And on those islands: Thousands upon thousands of seabirds.
From gluttonous gulls to elegant eiders, the variety of avian life in the Forth estuary is impressive. During the warmer summer season both resident and transitory seabirds nest here in abundance, seeking the security island life offers from land-based predators. And, with numerous islands to choose from, some species-specific strongholds have sprung up. On the Bass Rock for example, so many gannets have settled that this towering, sheer-sided volcanic fortress of an island appears bright white, even from tens of miles away. Meanwhile, on Inchmickery – easily mistaken for a battleship at a distance, so densely packed are its abandoned wartime ruins – several species of tern are known to breed. These include Arctic terns which alight after their long seasonal flight north from Antarctica, settling down to raise their chicks before tirelessly making an about turn and re-tracing their steps south in an endless pursuit of summer. Both birds are a joy to see – gannets for their awe inspiring full-body spear fishing prowess and terns for their graceful flight and delicate trill-like call – but perhaps top of most people’s list of ‘must see’ northern seabird species is the puffin.
Puffins, like penguins, virtually ooze charisma. Their hyperactive, almost panic-stricken flight style, characterised by invisibly fast wingbeats, give them a kind of underdog appeal, almost as if the poor things were afraid of flying! More iconic than this though is the puffin’s dress sense. Their technicolor bill and painted, clown-like faces –unique amongst seabirds the world over – are irresistibly striking.
Puffins nest in numerous places around the coast of the British Isles (as well as in various other Arctic and sub-Arctic coastal lands), but on the east coast of Scotland they have only one major colony. This is located on The May Isle; the most easterly of the Forth’s island group. This island, like its westward companions, is composed of volcanic rocks; the remnants of geological events which occurred more than three hundred million years ago when the landmass which would eventually become Scotland lay somewhere in the vicinity of where the Caribbean is today. These hard crystalline rocks are very resilient,their closely knitted crystal structure enabling them to stand hard and fast against the worst the North Sea can throw at them. And so the May Isle boasts a coastline of impressive cliffs topped with thin sandy soils and grassy tussocks. This is perfect for birds like the puffin which nest either in burrows or in hard-to-reach cliff-bound rock fissures.
With or without birds the May Isle is a beautiful place, but during the nesting season its landscape – a pleasant vista painted with bright meadow flowers and golden lichens – becomes animated by the calls and wingbeats of countless terns, razorbills, gulls and puffins, all fervently engaged in the arduous but irresistible task of bringing another generation into this world.
Unfortunately, access to the Firth of Forth islands is very difficult to arrange as there are no facilities or public services to any bar two. The May Isle however is one of those two, the other being Inchcolm, site of an ancient abbey. And so, on a sunny but brisk morning in May we made the drive from Edinburgh to Anstruther in Fife (less than an hour’s journey) to board the visitor shuttle boat ‘May Princess’, bound for puffin city. And the island was in the thick of it. Seabirds abounded, and within mere moments of eventually stepping off the boat at our destination – reached after a pleasant hour-long crossing attended by scattered gannets – we were being assailed by dozens of parentally charged terns, all aggressively defending their nesting sites. It was a memorable welcome, leaving us in no doubt that this place really belonged to the birds.
We scuttled up the slipway approach like soldiers going ‘over the top’ into no-man’s land, hunching down beneath the aerial assault laid on by the amassed Arctic terns which circled overhead. They trilled and stooped, almost messerschmitt-esque in their attack style. Each bird would bank in the sky, stoop low and snatch once at your hat, hair or head before sweeping away in preparation for a second approach. And they certainly weren’t afraid to make contact! More accustomed to Antarctic terns, which rarely actually deliver on their threat of a peck, I had set off boldly, boorishly confident of a beak-free bimble.
I was quickly put in my place though as the first bird strafed me, shrieking as per usual, and then ouch! It thrust its thin, pointed beak into my woollen beanie, snatching at the hair beneath it. That was me told!
Nursing both tingling scalps and slightly bruised egos (after being squarely scolded by a gang of small birds) we brushed ourselves down, straightened our molested headgear and turned south towards the island’s higher cliffs. Here, amidst the cracks and crevices of the islands ancient basaltic rocks, a high concentration of May’s puffins were to be found.
The track towards the cliffs was beautifully lined by purple Thrift flowers, raucously yellow dandelions and other hardy pioneering plants, but as we neared the sea once again our eyes were drawn upwards. The hues of May’s flora were indeed heart-warming, but the action was taking place above our heads as countless pairs of variously sized wings traced myriad shapes in the sky. Puffins, razorbills, herring gulls, great black-backed gulls and Arctic terns shuttled to and from their nests, repeatedly delivering payloads of tasty spoil before being despatched once again to repeat the seemingly endless task of food finding.
Surrounded as they were by razorbills and guillemots the Isle of May’s resident puffins seemed tiny. But, with their characteristic, fast-forward, “oh s**t the world’s about to end!” flying style they were easy to pick out from the crowd. One after another they would whirl in from the sea, seemingly destined to crash-land judging by their frantic, almost strobe-esque wingbeats. But on every approach their wind-up toy wings would splay at the last minute, their bright orange webbed landing gear would open and, with proud white bellies on display to the world, they would touch down with surprising precision on ledge, sedge or pinnacle. They might look like clowns, but when it comes to aviation puffins are no fools!
Puffins are a type of auk. Specifically, the UK’s scattered puffin colonies are of the Atlantic puffin; one of only three puffin species found in the northern hemisphere (and the world for that matter) and the only of those three to be found in the Atlantic and it’s neighbouring Arctic regions. This much loved little bird measures only about 26 cm and in most cases weighs less than 400g. But, despite their diminutive stature and reputation for excessive makeup, the Atlantic puffin is no princess. These birds are known to breed as far north as Svalbard, up at around 80 degrees north in the high Norwegian Arctic. There, as in their other ranges, these tough little characters feed on small fish and marine invertebrates, diving as deep as 15m in pursuit of their prey. That’s almost sixty times their own height!
In the Firth of Forth puffins favour sand eel, and in the first decade of the 20th century concerns were voiced that declining numbers of sand eels might cause the May Isle’s puffin colony to fail, perhaps permanently. But, hearteningly, breeding seems to have continued relatively unabated in the last few years and on the May Isle we were still treated to fantastic views of these beautiful little auks landing with their brightly coloured bills visibly crammed with silvery sprats, ready to feed a burrow full of growing chicks.
This habit of carrying large loads of fish at once, not in the belly but in the beak, is particular to the puffin. It makes for great action photography, every parent bird eventually returning to their burrow site with their fantastically illuminated facial fishing apparatus crammed with wriggling morsels, each one lain perpendicularly across the bill. It has always amazed me how puffins do this, arranging their catch so perfectly between their short, stubby mandibles. How do they manage to hold the fish whilst simultaneously hunting for more? And then to arrange them so well without even the use of fingers and thumbs! Its amazing, but then if I had as hyperactive a style of getting around as the puffin does then I suspect that I too would try and limit the number of return trips needed to the supermarket! When travel is such hard work, high carrying capacity becomes crucial!
No facility currently exists for members of the public to stay overnight on the May Isle. The island is managed for conservation purposes by a small group of seasonal rangers who live there for several months at a time, accommodated in historical lighthouse buildings. So, with well monitored environmental protection measures in place landings by the public are restricted. This is manifestly a very good thing, but as with all such experiences in wonderful places our three hour visit seemed all too short. Still, walking amidst the high-flying hubbub of so much birdlife, and so close to Scotland’s bustling capital city… It was a really unforgettable experience. Clown-like puffins, acrobatic terns, raucous gulls and delicate meadow birds… So many species and so many personalities all in the one…
It’s a veritable seabird circus.
Words by Colin Souness
Pictures by Nicky Silberbauer