You know those vague ideas you keep on a dusty shelf at the back of your brain - "I must do such-and-such some day"? And the years go past and that shelf gets ever-dustier. I decided a few years ago to turn some of those "I musts" to "Let's dos" and whilst the old barriers of time, money and opportunity threaten to raise their heads, every now and then I manage to break down some of those barriers.
Last Friday presented me with two of those opportunities.
It was only within the last 10 years (i.e., after birds became more of an entity in my life than flying feathers which went "tweet", thanks to New Zealand's birds opening my eyes to some of the many variations) that I realised that puffins nested within about 3 miles of where I live in Edinburgh. I don't know anyone who doesn't love puffins. There's something tragi-comical about that clownish face with that soulful eye and all that variation of colour in the bill, which is only present in the breeding season - for the rest of the time, they're out at sea with much more muted colouring. And of course 3 miles is as the puffin might fly were it a land and sea-loving bird. In order to get close to them in this part of Scotland, however, boats must be involved.
I did take a trip on the "Maid of the Forth" from South Queensferry about 8 years ago, but we weren't able to land on any of the islands on which puffins breed. They flew past at a great rate of knots, considering how relatively small their little wings are for their body size. The same thing happened in Iceland, and until last week, the closest I came to seeing puffins in the wild was from a zodiac in Russia and a small boat in Alaska. But the puffins there are the other two different from "our" Atlantic Puffin - the horned and tufted Puffins.
It was in a conversation with one of my "clicky chick" friends, Jane last week that the suggestion of the Isle of May cropped up. A small group of classmates from our Photography days at Stevenson College still meet up every now and then, and there has been the intent to go out and take photographs together at some point. So there was the first "I must" which Jane was turning into a "Let's do" for me, and the second was in her suggestion of going to the Isle of May. We were mulling over the possibilities and as it's nesting season at present, it was something that crossed my mind, but Jane had already visited a few times, so knew the drill. We decided we'd work on Plan B if the weather was against us, but Friday dawned bright and sunny, so off we went round to Anstruther in Fife, from where we could get a boat to the Isle of May. (It is possible to take one from North Berwick, but it involves quite a bit more sailing time.)
There was a strong Westerly wind creating quite a swell, so although we enjoyed seeing gannets flying around offshore and rafts of puffins and eider ducks bobbing on the water, we were glad to land and quickly made our way up to the East side of the island. What I had failed to factor in was the cliffs. I get vertigo! Never mind - there was plenty to look at. Shags, kittiwakes and common guillemots aplenty, plus great and lesser black-backed gulls. Lots of rabbits. Lots and lots of burrows, but no puffins. So we turned our attention to the cliffs and started to photograph. Just before we moved on, I spotted one puffin flying off behind us, and that was that.
We moved round clockwise and I was thrilled to see nesting razorbills, birds which like puffins, I've seen on the wing or from afar, but never close up. Far below on the rocks, we spotted 4-5 grey seals basking in the sun, which didn't last for much longer. We moved on and passed a bay in which a large group of male eider ducks were mobbing a couple of females - most of the females were already up on nests - and a couple of CCTV cameras which form a live-stream back to the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick. Shortly after we moved out of CCTV range, I glanced behind me and there was a puffin on a cliff edge! I called Jane and we spent the next five minutes photographing it - as it turned out, our only decent opportunity of the afternoon.
There wasn't much more time thereafter to complete our circuit of the island by which time the rain was starting to fall, and we managed to see 4-5 puffins speeding to or from their burrows, just too fast to catch any movement. We couldn't blame them - the burrows were surrounded by sentinel lesser black-backed gulls just waiting for the slightest opportunity of a free meal.
The harbour is only accessible at high tide, so all too soon we had to leave again. Had the trip been exclusively about the puffins, I'd have been rather disappointed, but we were afforded excellent opportunities to view an array of birds, and not just seabirds. There were also rock pipits and swallows to catch the eye. We were told it was a "bad puffin day", so perhaps I'll have to look back at that dusty shelf and turn that "I must" into another "Let's do" at some point...