I’m sure you have all seen images of puffins, the colorful sea birds distinguished by their large, orange, parrot-like beak and matching feet. How about a visit to Scotland — the Isle of May to be precise — to look at the creatures up close and personal? There are quite a few things to know about the birds and you should consider the best way to spot them before you embark on your wildlife adventure in Scotland.
All About Puffins
There are four different types of puffins. The ones you are going to observe in Scotland are called Atlantic puffins because they live for eight months of the year on the Atlantic Ocean. They only return to land during the mating and breeding season.
Their plumage is white and black and their beaks are a bright orange with different colored stripes. Their feet are orange too. But, once the mating and breeding season is over after the summer, they shed their bright colors and outer bill to be replaced by a rather dull grey and a much smaller beak. If you see them at sea, you might not recognize them as puffins.
Iceland is home to over half the population of Atlantic puffins, but apart from Scotland, they have breeding grounds in Ireland too.
Despite their sturdy build and small wings, puffins are great swimmers and divers. They can “fly” underwater and dive up to 200 feet to hunt for delicious fish, but flying costs them a great effort. They need to flap their short wings between 300 and 400 times per minute to stay airborne and they often fly close to the surface of the waves. They are also called “clowns of the sea,” not only because of their Technicolor appearance, but also because of the funny way they take off and land. They literally run across the waves on their feet before they have enough speed to take off and when landing they drop or tumble rather clumsily. It is pure comedy to watch.
Puffins are faithful birds. They stay with the same partner their entire lives, which often lasts 20 years — or even more — and they return to the same breeding ground every year. They have only one egg per year and both parents care for and feed their one puffling — as the young ones are called.
Their capacity for feeding is enormous. Small as they are, only about 10 inches long, they can carry up to 10 fish in their bill on any one feeding foray. This is due to a coarse patch on their tongue that fixes the fish and the spiky patch in their mouth that holds the fish in place so they can dive and fish again and again.
Puffins do not build nests from twigs or leaves. Instead, they dig up to 3-foot deep holes or burrows, or lay the egg in the sheltered hollows of cliffs to protect from predators like seagulls, one of their biggest enemies.
The Isle Of May
Located on the edge of the Firth of Forth, approximately 5 miles off the coast of mainland Scotland, lies the Isle of May, a National Nature Reserve. The island is dominated by cliffs and rocks, although there are also three very small beaches. It’s a haven and breeding place for some 285 species of birds, among them are the cute puffins that come here to mate and lay their eggs during June and July. But, there is more to this fascinating island. It’s home to harbor — also known as the common seal — and grey seals year round. There is an interesting history too, as previous visitors include monks and Vikings. There is a cliff top path from which to watch landscape and wildlife as well as a visitors’ center and three lighthouses, one of which now serves as a bird observatory. The island is owned and managed by NatureScot. Rangers are stationed on the island from spring to late fall and they are at hand for information about the sea birds and any assistance you might need.
How To Get There
The island can only be reached by ferry and there are several choices as well as guided tours. Starting points are either Anstruther or North Berwick. Both locations can be reached by car or bus from Glasgow or Edinburgh, both of which have international airports. Plan for a few days in either city as there is a lot to do and see; then go on a day trip of puffin watching on the Isle of May. The nearest city to Anstruther is Edinburgh which is only 1 hour and 30 minutes away by car.
You can choose to visit the Isle of May from Anstruther either by the leisure boat, the May Princess, or the faster, inflatable Osprey Rib — a ride that only takes 40 minutes across the open water. And if you like Anstruther or North Berwick, you can also check out these small towns to visit in the Scottish Lowlands.
Tips For The Journey
If you opt for the Osprey Rib, be aware that the inflatable boat only has room for 12 passengers, so book in advance to avoid disappointment. This is a wet and windy adventure trip. Waterproof clothing and life vests are obligatory and will be provided with the ride.
Even if you choose the more leisurely May Princess, bring your own waterproof jackets, boots or sturdy shoes and warm clothing. It gets cold on the water and on the island.
Make sure you bring a hat. Although it might only be the inoffensive puffins you have come to see, there are also the rather aggressive terns living on the island that will descend on you as soon as you dock and may hack at your head. So, protect yourself.
2. Food And Drink
Bring your own and put it in your backpack. There are absolutely no refreshment facilities on the island. You can buy provisions on board the May Princess or in Anstruther.
3. Visitors’ Center
On arrival, head to the visitors’ center to learn all about the island and see which wildlife is currently being observed. It’s also the only place with restrooms, so if you are caught short whilst exploring the island, head back there.
You will find information about the location of the 12th century monastery and the lighthouse built in 1636, which is the oldest lighthouse in Scotland. It’s also the best way to get to the cliff path with its stunning views.
4. Keep To Designated Paths
Do not stray or be tempted to peek into a puffin burrow. During breeding season, visitors may only move around the island on guided tours to ensure the birds remain undisturbed. You will be advised at the visitors’ center. Also, be aware that there are webcams all over the island that feed images to the Scottish Seabird Center in North Berwick. Just follow all the rules and you won’t be in trouble.
5. Bring Your Camera And Binoculars
You’ll want to take tons of pictures, so a camera, or mobile phone if you prefer, are a must. Binoculars are very useful if you want to see the puffins and pufflings really close.
6. Be Prepared To Get Wet And Hear A Lot Of Noise
You are sure to get wet on the journey, even on the May Princess if you don’t ride below deck, which would be a shame as you would miss the best views. The closer you come to the island, the more you will be assaulted by the noise that all of these birds are capable of making. And yes, they can be a bit smelly too.
If You Want To Stay A Few Days
Maybe you have taken a shine to the area and want to explore more on the Firth of Forth than the Isle Of May. A great option is to stay a day or two in the coastal village of Crail, in East Neuk of Fife. The romantic Sandcastle Cottage offers decent accommodation. The cottage has easy access to the Fife Coastal Path for walks along the coast. Just choose the section you are interested in.
The cottage has two bedrooms which can sleep five. It’s self-catering, but shops are nearby. There is also a lovely back garden, central heating, and ample family bathrooms.
When traveling to Scotland you will have to get used to the very distinctive accent. But, they are lovely people and will do their best to help you understand.
The currency is the British pound sterling (GBP), but Scotland uses their own banknotes and coins. They have the same value and you can pay with GBP, but change will be given in the local currency. You may be better off with credit cards. Whether Edinburgh is your start or endpoint, do some serious souvenir shopping. There is a great choice of traditional shops in the Royal Mile, Princes, and George Street, where you can get wonderful tartan fabrics, cashmere, and tweeds. If Scottish whisky is your tipple, you’ll find that too. The Royal Mile that leads down from the castle has rather wide sidewalks, which makes shopping even more enjoyable. If nothing else, buy a toy puffin to remind you of your Isle of May adventure.