When did the pursuit of a particular bird acquire the status of a full-blown quest? Certainly, it was not in the spirit of a quest that I first travelled to the island of Lundy many years ago now. Puffin Island: I knew it was another name for Lundy. The island’s stamps had pictures of puffins on them. All things considered, the likelihood of spotting a real-life puffin seemed better than average but, at the time, it was not my main reason for visiting. But, in actual fact, I did spot a puffin on that early trip. It was a small, solitary bird, a long distance from the shore, floating on the sea, and which I never would have recognised without the benefit of the Lundy bird warden’s expertise and powerful binoculars, and barely recognised even then.
I could have left it there. Perhaps should have left it there. Ticked it off on my list: puffin – seen. But, the fact is, I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t feel as though I had truly seen a puffin. I wasn’t content with a distant speck bobbing on a choppy sea. I wanted to see the distinctly colourful bill; the black and white coat; the clown-like expression; see them up close and personal.
The years passed; long, puffin-less years. Until, a trip to Andenes in the north of Norway brought me within hiking distance of the seaside village of Bleik and, visible offshore, the dark, lowering presence of the rocky islet Bleiksøya, home to a reported 80,000 puffin pairs. It had been a long journey to get to this remote spot, but puffin nirvana was surely now within my reach?
The walk from Andenes to Bleik is an intermittently pleasant one but, as I navigated the crater-like sand dunes on the final approach to Bleik, I was conscious of a change in the weather. From a day, which had started so bright, a thin, cold rain began to fall; worse, a dispiriting mist began to descend, obscuring Bleiksøya altogether. When I reached the harbour, it was with little surprise that I was told the boat to the island and its puffin cliffs was cancelled.
I was not altogether despondent. Other places in Norway offered the possibility for a potential puffin encounter. Ten days later, on the island of Værøy in the Lofoten archipelago, was to see me donning––frankly unflattering––bright yellow, fisherman’s waterproofs to take a cold boat ride to view the bird cliffs on the southwesterly side of the island.
In season, thousands of puffins make the cliffs around Måstadfjellet their home. The operative words being ‘in season’. I had arrived one week too late. Only a handful of puffins remained. I was pointed out a few fast-flying individuals, but the brief sightings were no more satisfying than my earlier Lundy experience. For me, the quest continued.
Over the next year, I was to see stuffed puffins––in council offices on the island of Røst; I saw plastic puffins––on the Calf of Man. Although even these stationary auks were hard to track down (on a flat grassy plateau to the east of the Calf of Man Low Lighthouse)––and I saw puffins behind glass in the Natural History Museum of Ireland in Dublin. None of these encounters fulfilled the criteria of my quest.
And so I arrived in Northern Ireland. Walking the Gobbins Cliff Path, I wasn’t thinking about puffins. Much of the time, I was simply thinking how wet it was; the sky was grey; the sea similarly discouraging; the rain incessant. Ahead were some tall cliffs, studded with shallow ledges, from which tufts of long grass poorly concealed a warren of dark burrows. And, suddenly, there were puffins. Just as I had always imagined them. Out of the rain-soaked bleakness, were colourful, characterful, previously elusive puffins. I watched them, thrilled. Watched them bobbing in and out of their burrows; watched them stretch their little wings; watched them flying away and returning.
I would be justified in putting a big tick next to puffins on my to-do list but, the fact is, I now just want to see more puffins.
The quest continues.
© E. C. Glendenny
Travel writer E. C. Glendenny is a woman who is rarely easily satisfied.
Read more about E. C. Glendenny’s travels in Norway in her book Easy Come, Easy Go.