National Geographic : 2014 Jun
Puffins 85 ere they come, wings beating like a manic pulse, bodies a blur of black and white, a flash of orange from beaks cartoonishly large. Cliff tops, empty and dark for months, turn to commotion near the beginning of April with the arrival of antic, adorable-looking Atlantic puffins. Smallest of the four puffin species, they have come en masse to breed on Britain’s rumpled islands and coasts, the more remote, unpeopled, and predator free, the better. No one is certain precisely how and where Fratercula arctica (“little friar of the Arctic,” so named for its monkish, dark-colored hood) spends the rest of the year. They are somewhere in the vast northern seas, solitary, almost never seen, as they fly, feed, and float. Ah, but spring. It’s like carnival time for puffins. Breeding is the only excuse for these seabirds to go on land. They become intensely social, courting, mating, tussling. Assemblages vary from a few hundred pairs in Maine to tens of thousands in Iceland. The British Isles, scene of Danny Green’s photographs, attract about 10 percent of an estimated 20 million Atlantic puffins (nobody really knows), with Iceland claiming almost half. For the breeding season puffins change their costume. Their beaks grow thicker and brighter, white feathers replace black ones, and eye ornaments appear, the face now like a Kabuki actor’s. After pairing up, often with the same partner as in previous years, puffins use that gaudy beak and their webbed feet to dig a burrow in the soft earth. (In some locations the birds nest among rocks and boulders.) The female lays one egg, which the male and female take turns incubating under a wing. They share feeding duties too; the female makes the most trips, racing back from the water with beakfuls of fish, intent on avoiding gulls, skuas, and other aerial pirates. Unlike penguin colonies, often cramped, loud, and peckish, a puffin gathering is mostly mellow and quiet. In the British Isles, where puf- fins have not been hunted for a century (puffin hunting remains legal H Photographs by Danny Green Loading up on dried stems and fresh leaves, a puffin goes about its spring chore of picking up material to line its burrow. “They collect with a vengeance,” says expert Mike Harris. Items especially prized include feathers, bits of string and paper, and seaweed.