By Brydon ThomasonApril 1st 2024
Brydon Thomason

Shetland's Puffins return to their clifftop colonies in early April, two to three weeks later than colonies further south in Britain. As with all other seabirds, they only return to land to breed and raise their young and so may only spend one third of the year in and around their colonies. By mid-August they have already departed to spend the next seven to eight months far out at sea.

The Atlantic Puffin is surely one of the most popular and charismatic birds in the British Isles. Known to us in Shetland as Tammie Norries, they really do have the full package. Typical of other auks; Razorbill and Guillemot, their dapper black and white plumage ensures a well-turned out appearance but their colourful and elaborately shaped, patterned and coloured bills, not to mention their bright orange legs make them even more captivating. Add to this, their rather sad-looking teardrop eyes and often rather clumsy yet affectionate antics on land, Puffins are as entertaining as they are attractive.

It is easy to see why they are often referred to as ‘sea-clowns’, not least for the features mentioned above but also their movements, mannerisms and mischievous misadventures. You simply cannot help but feel endeared. And, best of all, they can be extremely confiding.

Unlike their aforementioned auk-kin that prefer lower levels, Puffins nest in burrows, usually along grassy cliff tops. It is here that if you are very careful, safely away from the edge and keep still and quiet you can often be rewarded with incredibly close encounters. It is not unusual to have a bird peck at the laces of your walking boots, straps on your camera bag or even, wander onto your boots or legs. Be aware, if you have orange laces, zips or straps, this is a colour they are known to be drawn to!

For such a small bird, they have massive personalities. Few birds are as confiding and due to this, and for any observer offer such a privileged insight into their lives. For photographers of all levels, they offer an exciting world of possibilities in any weather and whatever camera and lens you have - even if only your phone!

Puffins offer huge scope for photographers and often the opportunity to depict the wonder of these magical little seabirds. For example, you may capture a bird in flight returning with a catch of sand eels, a pair strengthening their bond by tapping bills, or perhaps two neighbours having a ferocious dispute over nest burrows or mates.

Puffins mate for life, so maintaining a powerful bond is crucial to their breeding success. During summer months, life for a breeding pair is hectic and must be extremely stressful. Not only might they have to potentially travel dozens, perhaps even hundreds of sea miles per day to locate prey, but on every commute to and from their nesting burrow, they risk being robbed of their catch - or much worse - by a predatory gull or skua.

For such a small bird, it is remarkable that they are known to live for 30 years or more, with the oldest known bird recorded as 34 years of age. They are monogamous breeders but will only start when they are four or five years old. Pairing for what could potentially be up to two decades, it is little wonder their courtship displays appear so amorous and affectionate.

Though their numbers are in decline, Puffins are widespread throughout Shetland's seabird colonies. There are four colonies where they are most accessible. Sumburgh Head is by far the easiest to visit, where they can even be enjoyed from the comfort of the wonderful visitor centre. Or, for the more adventurous, Hermaness, Noss and Fair Isle offer some epic encounters.

Though Tammie Norries may well be notoriously confiding and obliging, it is best to keep in mind that they should always be observed with caution and respect. When encountered on the clifftops of the latter three colonies, where you can sit at the clifftops in close proximity, please be aware that it is very easy to innocently sit by or even over their nesting burrow, blocking their access to their partner or hungry chick.

So, if visiting Shetland this or any summer soon, you must not miss the opportunity to meet our Tammie Norries. Good luck and enjoy!