Time to party with the puffins
- Credit: Ray Hennessy
The plucky puffin is a welcome visitor to Yorkshire's shores at this time of the year - and in May they even have their own festival
Standing proud on Yorkshire’s chalk cliffs at Flamborough, the celebrated and plucky puffin draws a crowd every spring but its future remains far from secure.
These hardy fellows spend most of the year out at sea, landing on coastlines to breed at a few select areas of the UK and raising their single puffling.
Puffins are more commonly associated with the Outer Hebrides, Shetland and Skomer but these beautiful yet isolated islands are not as easy to pop out to as Yorkshire’s coast when we have an open window of glorious weather.
Here in Yorkshire we’re unbelievably lucky to host a puffin colony at Flamborough Cliffs nature reserve and we look forward to welcoming them back every April for the few weeks that they’re with us.
Other colonies in the UK require a boat trip but Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s reserve is one of the best places in the UK to see them from land, a short walk from the car park at North Landing. They are joined by a myriad of other loud, pungent and gorgeous seabirds, collectively referred to as ‘Seabird City.’
Sometimes referred to the ‘sea parrot’ or ‘the clown of the sea’, the Atlantic puffin is instantly recognisable from its brightly coloured parrot-like bill. They are black above, with a white belly and cheeks, and beautiful orange, webbed feet. These vivid feet can help you pick them out on the cliff ledges amongst the throng of seabirds.
Puffins are striking but they’re smaller than anticipated. It takes a bit of patience, some luck and maybe a pair of binoculars - but spend a summer afternoon watching the white cliffs from the land and you’re in with a good chance of spotting more than one precocious puffin perching on the cliffs, especially looking intently for those orange markings and supersize bill. You can also spot them dashing back and forth on a fast wing beat over the water, home in time to deliver a fish supper to their chick.
Puffins are best suited to life at sea. With their waddling walk and habit for bumpy landings, the sea is where they prefer to be. Here they spend most of their year; bobbing around, far from our coastlines, in large groups called rafts. Surprisingly, the stubby wings and gangly legs that makes movement awkward for them on land are perfectly adapted for diving and swimming. Underwater they have great agility, using their legs like rudders to direct them toward their catch.
Their serrated bills also allow them to carry multiple fish at a time. In fact, one puffin was recorded as having 83 small sand eels in its bill all at once!
Unlike any of Yorkshire’s other seabirds, puffins raise their young in burrows at the top of cliffs (sometimes making use of old disused rabbit burrows) where they remain safely protected from predators until they’re ready to go to sea. Puffins are loyal to one another, each year mating with the same bird and producing one puffling.
Puffins only return to Yorkshire for a few week each year and have mostly left the cliffs by August but Flamborough Cliffs is one of the most important seabird colonies in Europe. Each summer, thousands of seabirds, including puffins, kittiwakes and razorbills, flock to these stunning chalk cliffs to raise their young amongst the nooks and crannies. At a glance, these ancient breeding grounds may seem as busy and raucous as ever, but each year, due to the impact of human activity, fewer seabirds are returning to Yorkshire to nest and breed.
Sand eels are a hugely important part of the North Sea's ecology. In fact, the fledging success of Yorkshire's puffins entirely depends on them. But as the climate crisis causes temperatures in the North Sea to rise, sand eels are being forced to move further north in search of colder waters. As a result, puffins must travel further and further away from their nests in search of this vital food source, leaving their vulnerable chicks alone, defenceless and increasingly hungry.
Every summer, more puffin nests fail and fewer pufflings fledge. If these worrying trends continue, we could lose our beloved, colourful Yorkshire visitors forever.
At Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, we’re so proud that our Flamborough Cliffs nature reserve plays host to puffins every year, and we want it to stay that way!
The first step is to ensure our families, friends and fellow nature-lovers fall for our Flamborough feathered friends and have a chance to see and help save them, before it’s too late. This was our drive in May 2018 when we launched the first annual Puffin Festival, at Flamborough to coincide with the puffins coming home to the cliffs.
We’re delighted that it’s becoming something of an annual event and this year, Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 May, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s popular Puffin Festival returns to Flamborough to celebrate the UK's most colourful and charismatic seabird to raise awareness of our very special puffin colony! The bunting will be out, and the rugged coastline will provide a stunningly wild backdrop for a host of varied and fun activities.
Festival goers can experience the sights and sounds of Yorkshire’s seabirds through a packed programme of events designed to give the best chance of spotting a puffin including, cliff-top guided walks with expert guides, boat trips on a traditional fishing cobble and seashore safaris on North Landing beach. Look out for our festival mascot, Cliff!
The global climate emergency, pollution and exploitation of our seas are all impacting on puffin population numbers and so the festival reminds us just how precious our wildlife is and the positive action we can all take in securing its future. The programme also features a beach clean to help look after the coastal environment and our interactive and crafty challenges at our North Landing base are a great way to learn all about Yorkshire’s important seabirds.
For the full Yorkshire Puffin Festival programme and to discover how protecting puffins starts at home, head to our online hub: ywt.org.uk/puffin-festival. We look forward to seeing you at Flamborough this summer to celebrate Yorkshire’s delightful, surprising and not to be missed puffins.