This is the time of year when our pufflings (young puffins) have been fledging from their burrows and making their first flights out to sea, without any help from their parents. The pufflings make this first flight under cover of darkness, as at this time they are particularly vulnerable to predators such as black-backed gulls and bonxies. Unfortunately, a small proportion of the fledgers seem to be attracted in to the noise and lights of the Base, and so we all make a special effort just now to switch all unnecessary lights off and to encourage everyone to draw their curtains (not normally a necessity in such a sparsely populated place!). Even so, we always get a few birds attracted in, and they seem to particularly like hiding round the Power Station and under the kitchen extractor fans – maybe the noise reminds them of the sound of the sea in their burrows so they feel safe there? It’s also not unknown for a puffling to occasionally wander into the bar, the Puff Inn, of a dark and stormy evening if the doors are left open, which must be a bit of a confusing start for a young bird expecting to be bobbing about on the ocean instead!
Once they land on the Base, the birds will huddle into the nearest corner and seem to be unwilling or unable to take off again. To help them on their way, we walk round the Base early each morning and search all the places that a puffling may be found. Any we find are put into a box in a quiet, dark place for the day, and are released from the jetty at twilight, when most predators will hopefully have gone to roost. It’s always a moment of great satisfaction when they fly out to sea, with a fresh start in life.
When I first spent time on St Kilda, in the mid 1990’s, we were getting nearly 1,000 birds flying into the Base of a season, whereas now, with all our light reduction measures, it’s just a handful. I remember one night where we found over 100 birds. We started off by putting them in the empty bath, then when that got full we just put them on the floor of the bathroom and kept the door shut. When we felt the bathroom was getting a little too crowded for comfort, the kitchen floor was the next place. The noise of 100 pairs of puffin feet scrabbling away on the floors could be heard all over the house, and we were pretty glad to release them the next day and get a bit of peace and quiet. One interesting tip though if you ever find yourself in a house full of restless pufflings – play the mouth organ to them, as they all go instantly quiet and stare up at you in a fascinated manner. Now what the evolutionary significance of that is, I have no idea!
Sarah, Seabird and Marine Ranger