They are often called the clown prince of the cliff tops and with good reason, given their comical appearance, but for many nature photographers in Britain the summer wouldn’t be the same without heading to the coast to spend some time with one of the most enigmatic and amazingly approachable birds, namely the Puffin.
It is probably a safe assumption that they are one of the most distinctive and recognisable of all British bird species, something that is actually quite surprising given that outside of our photographic fraternity not many people have actually seen one in the flesh. During the summer months they come ashore to breed but their colonies are generally in places that are not particularly easy to get to, and in the winter months they simply return to sea; so, unless you are embarking on a cross Atlantic or North Sea crossing then you simply won’t see them, as they are not a common sight in the way that a Robin might be. The fact is that because they have such an unusual shape and colour and possibly because, like the equally popular Penguins, they appear to stand upright in an almost human-like posture, they seem to capture people’s imaginations.
For me they are an addiction. Not simply from a photographic point of view (although I have tens of thousands of Puffin images on my hard drives) but also because of the sheer enjoyment that I have had over many summers spending time in their colonies. These colonies have been spread far and wide too – from the nearest major one to my land-locked home county of Shropshire at Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire, through the Farne Islands in Northumberland, multiple colonies in the Shetlands, their main breeding grounds in Iceland and also in Norway. This spread of their population is entirely apt for a bird whose correct name is actually the Atlantic Puffin (there are two other Puffin species – the Horned Puffin and Tufted Puffin but they occur on the Pacific coasts of North America and Asia).
Given this obsession you can imagine my delight when I was given a commission by London-based publishers Bloomsbury, along with my former school days birdwatching colleague (and pretty successful writer of all things bird and animal related since) Dominic Couzens, to undertake all the photography for a new book to be called The Secret Lives of Puffins: he would provide all the erudite prose. It has now been published and the images accompanying this article are among the 130 or so that make up its pages.
Why do Puffins capture our hearts and lenses?
I have often tried to analyse why I simply have to get my annual Puffin fix and why this commission really was like manna from heaven. In part it is down to their charismatic appearance, which does indeed make them highly photogenic. They are portly, upright and plump with relatively long legs, which allow them to walk and run quite well, but their most obvious and imposing feature is the remarkable, triangular and highly coloured bill, often described as parrot-like in its size and colour. In fact, the beak only looks like this in the summer months when it is a key part of their general communication – in the winter months the colourful coating falls off and a much dowdier smaller bill is left along with a darkening of the whole of the bird’s face. When visiting colonies at the end of the summer season it is not unusual to see young birds born the previous year return to socialise for the first time that season and they sport this seldom-seen winter look.
This use of the beak for general interaction purposes provides the real clue as to why they are such an enjoyable bird to spend time working with. There is always something going on in a Puffin colony, especially if you have an eye and a love for such things. Whether it be their head-shaking, bill-raising acts of courtship, the digging of a new burrow, the bill tapping communication that can sometimes lead to aggression and some amazing beak-locked squabbles, the appearance of a new parent on the cliff top with a beak full of sand eels for the below ground Puffling to consume, the agony of watching the effort of said fishing expedition grabbed away by a marauding gull, or the delight of a late summer evening when the youngsters make their first wing flapping ventures above ground before literally jumping off the cliff to the sea below probably not to return to shore for a year at the very least. A Puffin colony is much like a classic soap opera and the more time you spend there, the more you understand how these little birds live and interact.
Preparing a portfolio
Preparing a portfolio of this much-photographed species was quite easy (I already had a huge array of images) but daunting at the same time – how could I end up with a selection that had anything remotely different in it? Dominic and I decided that the best way to approach this was simply to try and capture as many engaging images of them in as wide an array of behavioural circumstances as possible (and “no” I told him, “that does not involve floating around in the North Sea during the winter trying to find some rafting up in the middle of nowhere”). We tried to give as much of a sense of place and location as possible – to act as a reminder or pointer to people who have seen them in the flesh, just as it was them that might have done so.
Aside from using a wide angle lens to give a true sense of place in an individual image, the subtleties of different colonies and their settings genuinely become clear when you start to think about the nature and colour of the settings there, how the light works (you can’t get a sunset silhouette image at Skomer for instance), or the timing and variety of coastal flowers that you might want to see them in and so on. The result meant a lot of planning and a lot of travelling to both old and new colonies and included a week-long trek to northern Norway earlier this year (once the book had actually been designed and the anticipated images had space pre-allocated to them – no real pressure then) to photograph some early season returners while there was still snow on the cliffs.
As a planning exercise and an overall experience, this amount of time with just one species really does remind me that this is the best way to work in this photographic field: sadly, this is not always possible these days, given the commercial realities of looking to earn a living in this competitive arena. Whether it has ultimately delivered what was intended, well, that’s for the Puffin-loving public to decide: irrespective of this, roll on next summer, as I will be on the cliff tops once more.