Colourfully clown-faced, the puffin is probably the best-known and most popular of Pembrokeshire seabirds.
Its image appears on advertising for local potatoes, coastal shuttle buses and various food products, and it is one of the most photographed of the auk family which inhabits the Skomer Island nature reserve. It bears some resemblance to a penguin but is no relation and spends most of its life in the vastness of the wild North Atlantic, impervious to huge waves. Very buoyant on the water, its narrow wings make flying an effort and the wing beats are so rapid with the effort of keeping their chubby bodies airborne that they look like the blur of a dragonfly’s wings. They land quite heavily on their large orange feet as they fly in to their burrows and when landing on the water they simply splash down rather ungracefully. The boat trip out to the island from Martin’s Haven gives visitors their first glimpse of puffins as they raft off the island with their auk cousins the guillemots and razorbills. The Puffin was considered as a possible emblem of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority when it was founded 50 years ago, but the committee plumped for the “Eligug,” the south Pembrokeshire name for the Razorbill.
The world-wide population of puffins is estimated at about 15-million, 60-percent of them breeding around the Icelandic coast, and some 700,000 around Great Britain and Ireland, the same number as in the largest single European colony at Røst, Norway. Skomer has about 7,500 pairs and is the best place in Wales for a close-up of these comical ocean-wandering seabirds, many of which nest in clifftop burrows on the northern side of The Wick only a few yards from the footpath. Awkward on land they are masters of ocean flight, never more than a metre above the sea’s surface, and also of ‘flight’ beneath the waves in pursuit of their diet of small fish, Expert observers have said they do not swim, but virtually fly beneath the water chasing some 36 species of fish including sand-eels, small herring, sprats and capelin, pelagic worms, shrimps, crustaceans and molluscs. The average lifespan of the puffin is about 20 years although some ringed birds have reached 30.
Visitors watching puffins ferrying food to their fledglings on Skomer are intrigued by the number of fish they can carry in their large ungainly-looking triangular beaks, and how they can catch more when they have more than one in their mouths. The secret lies in the fact that they have a thick, rough, muscular tongue with which they can drag the fish back and grip it in the hind part of the beak, leaving the gape open for more. Photographs show they can hold as many as 20 sand-eels at a time, but they often drop them when attacked by opportunist gulls and jackdaws.