Sunday, 1 November 2015

Puffin away

The small island of Skomer lies of the south west coast of Wales, and is accessed via a small fishing trawler, refitted to hold a few hardy souls. The journey is not a long one, but when the sea swells, it can feel like a reasonably arduous endeavour. As the little boat, which has been bobbing quite wildly in the water, rounds a particular headland, it wrestles wth an evil-looking swirl of water, and sways alarmingly from one side to the other. The extent of the tipping is so wide that, at one point, I genuinely wondered whether it would right itself, or if this is how shipwrecks feel, when they begin.

All being well, however, in a little under half an hour, you arrive at the foot of a set of steps cut into the cliff on Skomer. At the top of them, the warden greets you, and sketches out the island's points of interest and, before you know it, you are wandering among the last of the bluebells, seeking out the puffins. The puffins are what makes Skomer famous, and a Mecca for bird-lovers.

The island is not large, but as one starts to explore it, it feels like the chances of seeing a puffin, other than as an ambiguous black dot, bobbing away in the sea some distance away, might not be great. As is often the way with such sights, you start by doing your best to appreciate the initial somewhat unsatisfactory views. "Well, well," you think, slightly disappointedly, as you squint at some kind of seabird, no bigger than a pin-prick away in the sea, "Now I can say I've seen a puffin."

Then, you round a corner, and walk down a path between the burrows, and you see one of these enigmatic creatures, less than half a metre away. When this happens, you forget the rough sea crossing (and the inevitable replay of it that awaits you to get back to the mainland) and the vague sightings of earlier. They are such familiar birds, that being in such close proximity to them - and there are several of them close by, pottering around, sometimes posing for photos - slightly takes you by surprise. It's almost like coming face to face with a famous film star or musician, except these birds seem to have no objection to having their picture taken.

The puffins of Skomer are, and no other word quite seems to do them justice, charming. Up on the cliffs, where their burrows are, they stomp around, quite oblivious to the snap-happy visitors, like a group of sad-faced clowns going about their daily lives. Every now and then, one of the puffins that has been flying around the little bay comes in for a somewhat awkward landing. As they appear to crash land - every time - it is hard to resist anthropomorphising them, and imagining them thinking "Oh, no! Oh, no!" as they skitter to an inelegant stop among the clover, before they right themselves with dignity and stomp off, as if nothing had happened.

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