The PuffinPortrait of a seabird
More than 300 marine bird species use the Faroe Islands as a breeding ground during the summer months, including one of the most famous residents, the puffin. I think I can confidently say that the puffin would be a contender for the title of The World’s Most Popular Bird.
One of the first things you notice when you set foot on the Faroe Islands is the utter lack of trees. There are rolling, mossy green hills as far as the eye can see but not a single sapling. Strong westerly winds and an abundance of sheep means that vegetation here, although luscious, barely grazes the ankles. This lack of foliage, in turn, results in a bird population that is predominantly of the seafaring variety.
More than 300 marine bird species use the Faroe Islands as a breeding ground during the summer months, including one of the most famous residents, the puffin. I think I can confidently say that the puffin would be a contender for the title of The World’s Most Popular Bird. In the lead up to my trip, any mention of the word ‘puffin’ induced a singular response from most humans. It was something close to that expression reserved for baby animals and stuffed toys. Much to the chagrin of the puffin, no doubt. The fact that this adorable creature with cartoon features is a highly skilled fisherman who has mastered both swimming, deep-sea diving, and flying, doesn’t mean that people take it more seriously. And, with all due respect, the flight of the puffin – its short wings flapping furiously at up to 400 beats per minute as though it might collapse from exhaustion at any moment – is frankly, comical.
The first time we encountered a puffin – in fact many puffins – on this trip was during the boat ride to Mykines. This most westerly island (which we immediately christened ‘Mykonos’) is the summer destination for locals and birdlife alike, although the birds greatly outnumber the humans. On our approach, a variety of birds, including gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, and puffins announce their riotous presence by swooping, diving, and skimming across the glassy topped waters of the North Atlantic in the manner of a chaotic air show.
Once we’ve moored and stocked up on sandwiches, we set off on foot from the sole village on the island (population 11 permanent residents) toward the lighthouse. On the way, we’re able to get up close and personal with all of this birdlife. There are literally thousands of puffins to be seen and the ground is riddled with their burrows (a word to the wise: stick to the path, as it’s easy to slip into these metre-deep holes). At one moment, we come within half a metre of a puffinry of five birds, each with its plumage proudly puffed out and brilliant red beak shining in the sunlight.
Humans don’t seem to bother them. On the contrary, they’re happy to turn their heads this way and that, as though offering up their best angle to the camera. Such a lack of timidity and their ground dwelling status was once a disadvantage to the puffin, as the locals use to hunt them for food. The fortunes of the puffin have improved in recent years, and while they are no longer found on the menu, you can pick up a stuffed toy version almost anywhere in the islands.