National Geographic : 1954 Sep
settling in "rafts" on the sea below their nest ing islands.* After eight months at sea the older birds naturally require a while to reacquaint them selves once again with the bay, the piece of cliff, the burrow they frequented the year be fore, and perhaps to seek out last season's mate, though we haven't enough evidence yet to be sure that puffins prove so faithful. Birds Pick Their Partners at Sea It's plain, however, that these early assem blies on the water are essential for the selec tion of partners. Here is the grand puffin marriage bureau; here on the waves all mat ings take place (never on dry land). From my post ashore I watched these rafts of puffins daily thicken in number during late March and early April. As the birds' excite ment rose, mating increased. Sometimes the course of puffin love ran smooth. But often little skirmishes would break out as a lone male would seek to seduce a mated female and be driven away by her spouse. Frater and Cula mated on the sea before Eggs May Cool, but Puffins Nesting on Skomer Island Take Time Out for Play This seagirt rock lies among a rugged group of small Norse-named islands off the southwest coast of Wales. From April to August nesting birds crowd its high cliffs. Gathering together in late afternoon, puffins stand and stare about, splash in the sea below, or stage mass "joy flights" (page 421). Rocky inclines provide per fect taxiing strips for take-offs. Few men are as familiar with these misty shores as author Lockley, chairman of the West Wales Field Society. For 12 years he lived near Skomer on lonely Skokholm Island, site of the first coastal bird observ atory and bird-marking station in the British Isles. J. Rittener they came ashore, and for days afterwards they would return to flirt and play on the water. But this phase soon ended. The egg was already developing in Cula, and more serious matters were at hand: it was time for the pair to reconnoiter an old burrow and make it shipshape for the season. Early in April, while many puffins still sported in the rafts below, my pair fluttered to land with a few hundred others. Settling on the outcrops of rock, they stared around for hours on end. Not until a day or so later did they decide that all was well with their ancient Lundaland and enter the burrows close to my tent. New Tenants Evict Rabbits These were immemorial puffin dens, the work of centuries of occupation. I would have thought they needed little repair, having been kept well in order by their rabbit tenants dur ing the winter. But Frater and Cula obviously disagreed. The rabbits, wary of the puffin's powerful bill, had not stayed upon the order of their going-they had vanished. Using their great bills as pickaxes and their sharp-clawed paddles as shovels, the puffins proceeded to scratch loose earth and debris backward out of the burrow, showering it over the green grass.t I repeat that I considered such exertion un necessary; but I suppose that if you are as full of energy as a puffin in the spring, you must relieve it somehow. Frater, indeed, was so ex cited and ambitious that he would often start a completely new burrow. He would dig fran tically for about 10 seconds, stop, then walk away, as if he had thought better of it. * See "We Live Alone, and Like It-on an Island," by R. M. Lockley, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, August, 1938. t See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Lundy, Treasure Island of Birds," by Col. P. T. Etherton, May, 1947; and "Birds of the Northern Seas," by Alexander Wetmore, January, 1936.