• A Paradise of Birds: The Puffins of the Remote Island of Skellig Michael

    Robert L. Harris on Communication with His Avian Neighbors

    Birds fill the air of the island over the summer months. Puffins put on miraculous displays at dawn and at dusk, but they are active all day long, bringing fish to their chicks waiting in the burrows pocketed all along the steep slopes. There are over five thousand of them. They remain wary but over time, if I remain quiet, they will become curious.

    Little heads peek out from burrow openings from early June as the chicks wait for the parents to bring food. The adults repeatedly sweep out to sea, dive sixty feet or more, and rise into the sky again with beaks filled with shimmering fish. Over the months of June and July the young are reared, and by early August the burrows are all deserted. As time has gone by, they have come to ignore my presence and to realize I am unthreatening.

    In 1991, two ornithologists arrived on the Skelligs to reestablish an annual census of nesting birds on the island. Over the course of a weekend, they plotted sections of nesting areas on a master map, in order to indicate as many nests and resident adults as they could. Obviously this was a difficult undertaking in the more inaccessible regions of the island. At night a mist net would be set up on the slopes, and an unnaturally enhanced—so it seemed to me—tape of a calling storm petrel was broadcast out upon the night island air.

    The plan was to attract wandering petrels toward the net, catch them there, stick them in pockets, or loosely in boxes or bags, place a tiny, almost weightless, ring on one of their legs, and release them into freedom once again. By the time these men came to the island, this had been standard practice on coastlines all over the world for decades; and it is by means of this and similar ringing that we have begun to realize the intricacies of flight that seabirds worldwide undertake. Over the intervening years, these visits have continued; they have become an annual feature of life on the island.

    The first year that Oscar and Alyn, the ornithologists, came, they brought with them a hundred plastic yellow bands, marked with clearly visible black numbers (00 to 99), to place on a hundred adult puffins. The birds were trapped briefly and ringed with these yellow tags, along the southern slopes of the island and above the huts. After that weekend, these hundred were easily distinguishable from their thousands of companions. Their yellow bands were caught by daylight in flight, and were discernible along the steps when the birds were resting outside burrow entrances, as they stood guard protecting their chicks inside.

    I must admit that, early on, I felt sorry for the birds and for the intrusion on their lives. At that time, we were less informed about the whereabouts of puffins in wintertime than now. No one really knew where they went when they left the island in late July and early August. “Out there…” was the answer always given about their movements away from nesting sites, implying a general dispersal across the North Atlantic, to return to nesting sites in late spring.

    There was undeniable joy, and a great thrill of participation, when a quivering young chick would be released over the lighthouse wall to fly down and away, its wings suddenly catching flight just at the furthest extent of visibility or in a dim torch beam.

    Tens of thousands of puffins were nesting on cliff edges across northern European coastlines, yet relatively few of these were spotted on their winter migrations. Occasional loners were 65 by shipping during winter months. Given that puffins had provided a major food source at many places for centuries, these disappearances in some ways secured and blanketed them from continual culling.

    For long—and in some places still—fresh and preserved puffin meat has been eaten in the Faroes, Iceland, Scandinavia, Scotland, and Ireland. Coastal monastic middens hold puffin bones. And there are nineteenth-century accounts of men climbing precariously down the cliffs along the west coast of Ireland, hunting for fattened puffin chicks. It seemed only right that these birds were lost in the relative obscurity of the wide Atlantic from August until May.

    Our puffins, though, did not seem disturbed by these yellow rings, and some returned, still wearing them, twenty-five years later.

    Unusual observations were sometimes made at these nighttime listening posts. Once, a little storm petrel was picked up, last ringed in the late 1960s, indicating an age well over thirty years. The calls of unusual petrels and shearwaters, inhabitants of waters much further south, began to be occasionally heard in response to tape calls.

    And I began to know what to listen for and how to distinguish between calls. Between returning male and female Manx shearwaters, making the most unusual and eerie vocal connection on cloud-covered, rainy, misty nights (they don’t usually travel near nesting sites on bright nights for fear of detection). The strange elongated call of a Cory’s shearwater, with a high-pitched, piercing cackle at its conclusion, standing out, from time to time, from the tens of thousands of regular petrel and shearwater calls each night.

    In those early years, my young family would visit from time to time. My son, Daniel, was around ten, and he became obsessed with tracking these yellow-ringed puffins. Many of them nested right along the steps. On a beautiful day, at the beginning of a season—possibly 1992—my family and I climbed the steps above the Wailing Woman (some two hundred feet above the road).

    We were all delighted to be on the island again, and everything was glistening and new in the May morning light. We were also torn, as there would be regular and sustained separation over the months ahead. Daniel was furiously looking for more puffin numbers along the steps—for me and for himself—and plotting the way along the southern flanks of the island by his own system of interior mapping.

    At a sharp corner of the stairs, high above Cross Cove (the kittiwake-filled, canopied cove all visitors walk along), just where there is a sheer drop and turn of the steps, a pair of puffins scampered into a burrow just beside our feet: number 40 and one other. Daniel was fascinated, engaged with the fact that the pair was rearing a chick, deep within the burrow they were protecting. Getting down on his knees, he saw a pair of eyes staring out at him from another world.

    He said he would provide for these birds with a small courtyard for their home, a “foyer.” So he picked up the four small stones I would allow and placed them in loose earth before the burrow. Those stones are still there, over thirty years later, though they are now practically obscured by earth and growth. Puffin 40 and mate still returned to this home burrow and foyer, rearing a chick each year, until about fifteen years ago.

    I would regularly watch 10 and 98 (the only numbered couple I could with certainty monitor, after a number of rings naturally fell off over the first couple of years they were worn) for many years. And while 03 would regularly stand above the alligator rock, 53 was usually to be found around the Wailing Woman. And, up until five years ago, I would spot 24 on occasion, just along the lower reaches of the steps.

    Thousands of creatures are always returning to home in on the tiniest of targets, on their specific burrows and ledges on Skellig Michael, a spike eight miles at sea; they move upon a map that is alive and changing, a shifting range of flight.

    Over the years, knowledge and understanding of this range has increased. This living map works in innumerable ways, and is subject to fluctuating forces. These cycles become woven, over time, into our own understandings.

    Food supplies shift, probably for a variety of reasons. In recent years, a greater awareness of these things has developed, and we have begun to see how both climate changes and the effects of commercial fishing trends might impact the stocks wild seabirds depend upon.

    Unexpectedly, for two years in the early 2000s, supplies of sprats and sand eels—the main source of puffin food on the Skelligs—were severely diminished in the waters around the island. We began to observe adults, desperate to feed their chicks, bringing in hard-scaled pipefish, which the young puffins found extremely difficult to work on and swallow.

    Some European colonies of puffins suffered a drastic decline in numbers at this time. Somehow, miraculously, the Skellig colony remained more or less intact. Perhaps this had something to do with its remote and southerly (compared to most North Atlantic puffin colonies) location, but no one is sure. For the last decade or so, though, sand eels and sprats have been more plentiful, and adults on the island are now observed bringing large mouthfuls of them into their burrows once again.

    I am always aware that Skellig Michael is the magnet on which the lives of these little creatures depend. The different species fan out in various orbits of wandering through the winter, returning to specific points on the island in spring.

    The island juts up into the sky, glistening in the Atlantic air, rising from the continuously shifting sea below; the light pinpoints the island, exposing the wide circles of influence and migration spreading out upon the sea’s and the air’s emptiness from this small rock off the southern coast of Ireland. The puffins hatch and fledge and move outward on their discursive and rambling journeys in searches for food throughout the winter months, lost to us often in mid-Atlantic.

    The lives of some of these birds correspond with those of my children. I see drawings on my wall of puffin chicks made over twenty years ago; perhaps these birds are still alive, preparing to return once again to Skellig Michael, or some other Atlantic colony, as long-mature adults. I can see my six-year-old daughter furiously trying to catch the visiting ornithologist’s attention and informing him most seriously: “Number 40!”

    There is always an explosion of life on the island in the early summer. In mid-May, around the time we are arriving on the island, no voices are heard underfoot when rising on the steps. Then, usually in the first week of June—in recent years, a week or two earlier than this—one begins to hear the faint chirps of newly hatched puffins underneath the steps and on the hillside.

    In a few days, this sound gathers and increases into a continuous music of whistling sounds all along the way as I climb to the monastery and descend. From some four weeks later—from late June on—growing chicks begin to haunt the entrances to burrows, often barred from exiting by parents for their safety, preparing to flex their wings and depart for the sea, which they do from the age of six weeks or so. Gulls haunt the skies, looking to pick off the foolish or prematurely adventurous ones.

    Chicks are everywhere—furtively darting out from a burrow, whirring wings in the open air, retreating to safety once again. We see them scuttering underground, carried off in the beaks of marauding gulls high in the air, lost or fatally damaged on the road. Little stubs of wings flail unprotected and exposed in the island light. The first impulse one has with regard to these little lost young ones is to simply pick them up and put them in a pocket or box for their immediate protection.

    But to what end? The food sources at sea may well be sometimes subject to human greed, but the puffin colony on the Skelligs is robust, and this natural culling has always been a feature of their lives. Yet here, our lives—the few of us who live here—and those of the birds always overlap. We, too, are utterly insignificant in the grand extent of all things, and we share concerns with the wildlife here. There are interconnections; there is codependence between us, even if it is attenuated—at least in our human minds. And birds keep arriving at our doors.

    On many occasions, during my early years on the island, I would pick up a puffin chick astray and utterly abandoned on the road in the early morning, or else be handed one by someone working on the island or by a visitor. Often these little chicks would still be tiny balls of down, with a dull-black beak and two black “shoes” projecting above and below.

    I would often fish from the pier back then; knowing that the chick would have no other possibility of survival, I would sometimes try to pop a slice of fresh pollock into a beak pried open with my fingers. Often these attempts were useless, but over time I became more assured and adept at feeding; and, if the little ones were a bit beyond being newly hatched, they just might take to this treatment.

    One of these, Lucky, that I began to feed sometime in the early nineties, came to thrive in my hut. At that time, we lived for three weeks straight on the island, so I was able to develop a certain continuity in feeding this bird and, hopefully, not have to foist his care on others remaining on the island when I would be going ashore.

    Lucky came to stay happily with me for a few weeks. He lived in a Pampers box under my table, with one hole carved out for a window, in eyeshot of my upper bunk. He would rest his head on the little cardboard ridge of this window, waiting patiently in the morning for any sign of movement from me. The moment I made any stir whatsoever, or even opened my eyes and contact was established, his singing began. He wanted more pollock. In the evening, he would come right up under the table and rest on my shoe. I was uncomfortable, but also honored, during this nightly ritual, briefly observed.

    It was always strange to set these birds loose if they had been with us for a day or two, or even for longer, perhaps weeks. On many occasions, chicks would be fearful, exposed on the walls. While brave on the cabin floor and whirring their wings furiously, practicing flight so emphatically in their makeshift homes that boxes would actually leap off the ground, the birds, when set loose in the open air, might run right back toward human shelter. Terrified or confused by the sight of the open sea under an empty sky at nightfall, these little creatures might run back to the shelter of my coat or elbow.

    Many of those we released perhaps did not survive their first night on the open water, once released from the wall or into the landing at the pier below.

    And yet, there was undeniable joy, and a great thrill of participation, when a quivering young chick would be released over the lighthouse wall to fly down and away, its wings suddenly catching flight just at the furthest extent of visibility or in a dim torch beam—in a first extension of its world into the bird’s permanent home in the ocean, a delivery and flight toward which all its instincts had geared the little creature.

    Now, the puffins wander on the capstones of the lighthouse road just outside the door.

    Over the years, more and more of these wonderful, colorful birds have come to gather near the huts. They seem to find human company reassuring. Sometimes thirty or forty of them are lined up, just out from the window on the opposite wall. Gradually, they have come to know, and feel at ease with, those of us living in the huts. Many years ago, not long after I first came to the island, a pair began to nest in a hole in the wall directly in front of my hut, across the lighthouse road.

    Daily, over the nesting season, we became able to mark the habits and progress of individual birds living so close by. Then, just a few years after this, something more strange began to happen. Puffins, and then razorbills, aware of the safety we provided, particularly as far as the hungry gulls were concerned, began to burrow directly under the hut where I sleep on the island. At first, one or two couples—and then several—began to set up home there in early summer, about the time I would move in. Over time, we began to notice unusual adaptations in their flight.

    When I first came to the island, I was told that puffins found it nearly impossible to get over the lighthouse road wall, which rises before the hut. This wall protects the road and is about four feet high on its seaward side. Because of their anatomy, which makes it possible for them to swim and dive as well as fly, puffins can only take off from the island by throwing themselves outward and downward at the same time. From the cliffs, this is easy for them. But along the road, they generally require a runway, of sorts, to give them a head start and propel them forward. They do learn to climb barriers over time, but the lighthouse road wall provides an imposing hurdle for them in their progress and return from the sea.

    However, over the years, we have watched the puffins gradually adapt to the newfound safety of a home under the huts: they have learned to walk up the road (a distance of some few feet—the road rises westward from the hut toward the lighthouse) and then, wings whirring furiously, beat down and up above the road to veer away, over the wall, lifting out to sea! Because of where the hut has been situated, mostly away from tourist traffic, I have been able to become familiar with this small party of puffins, who continually take off and land before my window.

    Recently, there has been a further twist to this developing relationship—the puffins have now become eager to come into my hut and walk around. I sense that these birds have discovered that the cabin might provide the ultimate solution with regard to their requirements for accommodation. It is warm and clean; no gulls dare venture inside. We seem harmless curiosities. They seem set to push me out and take the hut over! If I am not watchful, they will run through the doorway, under my feet, and make for a new haven under my bed.

    We could hear the puffin adults chattering like chain saws under the floor through the nights, over the course of the six weeks or so when they were rearing their chicks. After a few years, razorbills would make nests under the huts as well. I am not sure what caused the little colony under the hut to grow or whether it will continue to exist. Perhaps it continues to survive because of the increasing familiarity between the birds and ourselves, which has developed over time.

    Puffin chicks usually make their own way out to sea. The little balls of fluff that emerge from burrows underfoot, fed through a continuous stream of foraging flights by their parents, come to fatten and grow until, if conditions are right, some six weeks after hatching, they make their way under cover of night down the rocky slopes of the mountain. Sometimes scampering, sometimes bounding from one rock to another, sometimes not making it seaward. They are heading for the safety of the ocean below the road.

    Sometimes it takes them two days to do this. Some have already been abandoned by their parents; others depart on their own. They have none of the adult coloring yet—their plumage is black with various shades of gray, white here and there. In time this will become the bright puffin breast, so clearly marked and defined. Often these young departing chicks still retain cockatoolike tufts of down, or trail bits of fluff behind them.

    Razorbills are quite different. The chicks are identical junior versions of the adults, appareled in neat tuxedos, wandering out from hiding places under the watchful eyes of parents or sheltered on high ridges where they are exposed together in small groups.

    Sometimes, if one studies the falling darkness carefully around the island, these little birds can be seen making their first leaps into the sea. In late June and July, the piercing cries of these chicks— of razorbills and their cousins, the guillemots—is heard everywhere throughout the evening sky around the Skelligs. My first years there, I foolishly had no idea where this sound was coming from. The little creatures screaming on the evening sky are tiny, only a few inches high.

    Just over the wall in front of the hut there is a great overhanging rock, underneath which a family of razorbills has been steadily expanding in numbers over the last ten years. In the evening, as night falls, a couple of weeks after hatching, the little ones begin to emerge from the darkness under this rock with their penguinlike profiles, white breasts aglow in the near dark. Gulls hover overhead, ready to pick them off if they are left unprotected. Parents furiously patrol, sometimes in groups, keeping little ones away from the edge until their time for departure comes.

    Screams intensify over several days, and the activity becomes more frantic. The little chicks come out to hover over the sea, which is rushing, crashing over the rocks far below. Directly underneath this ledge are further jagged outcrops; there is no straight chute down to the water. A fair leap and half-flight will always be required to make it to the sea. Looking at these tiny creatures, such a feat seems impossible. The little stubby wings, so far from full development and extension, appear to have no strength for such a challenge.

    But there is more to this story. A general sense of intuitive understanding, expressed somehow through screams and deep guttural croakings, establishes successful communication between chick and parent, ensuring a drawn-out delay to the process of departure. Sometimes they seem to dance to and fro together on the ledge for days. The tension within the young one’s cries rises to a strident crescendo, to be heard all over the island and far up in the monastery. One wonders why it is so loud, so insistent, giving away the location of these fragile and beautiful little jewels so clearly.

    What contact do we make with the great world beyond, here at this crossroads, watching the birds leaving us, departing for destinations far beyond us, into nothingness that stretches beyond on every side of us?

    It is obvious when the night for departure has arrived; the tension is palpable. The little one is screaming at the edge of the long flat stone; the deep-throated call of the parent is equally intensified. As opposed to previous evenings, the chick is left free to go toward the exposed edge of the rock. It calls repeatedly under the night sky, dancing back and forth to the safety found under the ledge, venturing out to the edge over the dancing sea below once more. The calls reverberate back and forth upon the night sky.

    It is difficult to describe what happens next, as it all occurs so quickly. After years, I remain confused about the sequence of events. It is not always the same. Usually, the chick will go first, followed by the adult; but I have also seen the adult in the water first, followed by a screaming chick.

    The little chick is poised once more upon the ledge. In a blink of an eye, there is a leap into the darkness, with a combination of forward propulsion, assisted by the furious whirring of tiny wings, and an almighty thrust from thigh muscles sprung, released for the first time. It seems, at least from this observation post, that these muscles must be specifically designed for this leap; at any rate, they are vital. This is a frog-leap, a first thrust into darkness, and into perpetual and constant use henceforth.

    One can see the little body leaping over into the darkness, to the sea, where it is immediately blanketed. The screaming from the water is sometimes ferocious. The parent’s descent is instantaneous. The cries of adult and chick reach a deafening pitch. It becomes clear once they are in the water why the screams and calls are so loud, so piercing: they must find each other in the darkness immediately. Their cries unite them. Sometimes you can hear them afterward, if they are briefly separated, calling through the darkness in the night.

    Unlike puffin chicks, razorbills learn from their parents for some time in the sea. Until they are fully grown, some two to four weeks after they leave the safety of the ledge, the high-pitched whistles are continuous.

    We hear them out upon the water. Their cries pierce the airwaves, even to the top of the steps, even at the monastery. Lying on my bed at night, on warm evenings in mid-July, if the sea and wind are still, I can hear the cries traveling far across the night sky. Somewhere down below, within the sighing sea, little razorbills are reuniting with their parents. For two or three weeks, they learn to stretch from the relative safety of the rock and into their new dwelling, the open seas beyond. Like puffins, these birds depend upon using their wings as flippers, and they dive well down into the water for fish. But by mid-July, razorbill calls are rare. And soon afterward, most of the island’s seabirds will be gone, but for the night birds, to roam the waters of the open ocean for the winter.

    Underneath and beyond everything, the world is carved away. Communication operates through a different agency of the churning deep.

    What is the nature of our communication, our exchanges with these little creatures? And what contact do we make with the great world beyond, here at this crossroads, watching the birds leaving us, departing for destinations far beyond us, into nothingness that stretches beyond on every side of us?


    Excerpted from the book RETURNING LIGHT: Thirty Years on the Island of Skellig Michael by Robert L. Harris. Copyright © 2023 by Robert L. Harris. From Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

    Robert L. Harris
    Robert L. Harris
    Robert L. Harris was appointed to the warden service on Skellig Michael, County Kerry, Ireland, in 1987, where he has been managing the guiding system and monitoring the island for over thirty years. He has lived most of his life near the sea and on islands, and he has a great interest in both monastic and natural history. He spends May to October on Skellig Michael when the island is accessible, and in winter months lives at his home in County Leitrim with his wife, Maigread. Returning Light is his first book.

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