This blog post should really be entitled: ‘How my search for puffins led to two amazing coastal and seabird colony discoveries’ (not the catchiest title though). I hadn’t realised until last week that you could see puffins in the Aberdeenshire area, and what started as a fun idea for a family day out ended up in the discovery of so much more.
Last week I wrote about my trip to the Bullers of Buchan just north of Cruden Bay and how completely I was swept up in the views that rolled out to sea. After reading that I was unlucky in my puffin-spotting there, RSPB North East Scotland helpfully tweeted me a link to their ‘Pick Out A Puffin’ guided walks at the Fowlsheugh Reserve just south of Stonehaven. I live in Peterculter (Culter to locals) which is a short drive from the reserve and I realised that when we visited Dunnottar Castle a couple of months ago, we had been only a stone’s throw from this amazing seabird colony. I’d had no idea that the castle ruins are not the only treasure clasped by that coastline – but, it seems, I’m not the only one.
Not many people seem to know it’s there. And this isn’t just any reserve – Fowlsheugh (meaning ‘bird cliff’) is, the guide told me, the second most important seabird colony on mainland Britain. Not only is it an incredible sight, it is extremely accessible – a brief detour from Stonehaven and a short walk from the car park takes you to a stunning stretch of coastline and a swirling mass of seabirds. Often, the guide, John, told me, people find out that you can spot puffins there and that is what draws them to the reserve (people just like me then, I laughed). Yes, I was delighted when I had my first glimpse of a puffin (they really are so adorable) but the seabird spectacle had me completely entranced.
I would highly recommend one of the RSPB guided walks if you get the chance – it was really interesting to have John’s commentary as we walked, and as always when I join a guided walk, I felt that I got a lot more out of the reserve than if I’d just wandered along on my own. We left the car park at 4pm and we were happy to go at a slow-ish pace (returning to the car just after 6pm); taking time to soak up the sights of the coastline running in a jaggled line towards Stonehaven as well as the seabird-packed cliffs.
With the huge expanse of sea reaching out to meet the seam of the skyline, it is not surprising that it also a good place for dolphin, porpoise and whale watching. Our little group fell silent as five Canadian Geese shot past the cliff like an arrow. The first cliffs we reached were packed with razorbills and guillemots (who look confusingly similar) as well as kittiwakes. The choir they formed was wonderful (the collective smell, not so much). As tentatively as the previous week, I tried to creep close to the edge to gaze down at the waters below and the cracks of cave without alarming anyone. (Again there are signs to remind you to take care on the cliffs – but it is a good, level path which would be perfect for your Sunday afternoon stroll).
I had never given much thought to seabirds before – the Bullers of Buchan and Fowlsheugh were my first experiences of seabird colonies (and what an introduction that is!) – and I suddenly felt sorry for the birds that people must look past in their search for puffins. Sunday was the day that I saw my first puffin, but it was also the day that other seabirds firmly held my attention. I was captivated by the swooping of fulmars, in particular one cheeky show-off who soared in circles close to us (and seemed to be in a game of ‘how close can I get to that photographer?’). The bird looked in his element flying in the afternoon sunshine, just gliding on the air current. ‘Just because he can’, John said with a smile. The fulmar’s full wingspan is quite a sight, and a lovely pattern of greys.
The path meanders along (the purple flowers again a gorgeous frame to these glorious sunny days) and I suddenly caught a glimpse of the mass of birds in the distance. I’ve never seen anything quite like it – a mesmerising city of seabirds; wheeling, diving, swirling, swooping. (There are round 130,000 nesting birds at the reserve in the summer). John left us to take in the spectacle before he said anything at all about it, and with binoculars we were able to spot our first puffins waddling along the rocky cliff face. The sight of them did fill me with joy – often described as ‘comical’, it is easy to see why they are so beloved. Even as John talked I listened with my eyes on the cliffs; flicking between the whirling birds and a puffin at the entrance of a cave, chasing away anyone who dared to sit beside him.
From the other side of the cliff, looking back towards the hide, I saw four or five puffins closer up. Unfortunately the zoom on my camera isn’t up to puffin photography, and these were the best of the many snaps (using some editing to help focus in on them). There are around 20 pairs of breeding puffins at Fowlsheugh and I think we must have spotted around 10 puffins in the time we were there. (My favourite puffin fact? That the young are called ‘pufflings’). It is ironic that I tried to see puffins once when holidaying on the Isle of Mull (my boat trip to the Treshnish Isles was cancelled due to bad weather) and since then I have often thought about when and where I might be able to spot them during my travels – and my first puffin experience turned out to be on my own doorstep…
I reluctantly dragged myself away from the cliffs as clouds chased the afternoon out and tugged the evening in. Before returning to the car, I walked down to the end of the road where a ruined cottage wall stands above the rugged coast, the window a lonely eye on the sea.
John had told us his interest lay particularly in ecosystems and his comments stayed with me as I walked back to the car. I had driven there only with thoughts of spotting some puffins, but I knew that they would not be the main focus when I looked back on the afternoon – they were part of a much bigger, and beautifully painted, picture.
Visit the RSPB website for more information on visiting the reserve and the remaining Pick out a Puffin walks in June.