In Pursuit of Puffins

puffins

The north of Scotland is brimming with wildlife. It’s nothing unusual to spot a horde of deer grazing unperturbed, rabbits jumping across the wide plains and pheasants hiding in the grass. But puffins play hard to get.

puffins

We get off the road and park on a stretch that Kate jokingly refers to as no man’s land. It is the land where two majestic regions of the north of Scotland meet, Caithness and Sutherland. Just a short walk away promises Kate, who organizes and runs an array of Wildlife and Sightseeing tours in this region and we will finally see the elusive puffins.

I grew up watching wildlife shows on TV. While I was impressed by many animals, scenes of puffins were so endearing that along with penguins they have made my list of top ten animals I’d like to see in the wild. In Iceland we were a few weeks too late, this time around, in Scotland 20 minute walk was suddenly all that was separating us from walking into a scene worthy of sir David Attenborough.

Putting on the sturdy walking shoes, throwing the backpack full of essentials on my back and taking the binoculars Kate was kind enough to provide for the group, we were all set to go. There was eight of us, trudging across the infamous Scottish flat peat bog and meadow. Kate was setting the tempo appropriate for even our youngest, a couple from Norfolk and a woman in her forties.

We had been staying in a small village a bit further west for a couple of days and I had been admiring the flora of the meadows, so having Kate explain more about it now, was just what I needed. On the way I’ve learned the name of now my favorite flower – cotton bog. We were instructed to stay clear from the red moss. It is known for holding vast amounts of water and should you step on it, you could easily end up knee high in water, Kate warned.

Luckily for us this was a bit of a dry season, so she said, but I can’t tell if she was being serious or not, since we had daily spells of rain. Even as we were walking and carefully side stepping small streams, barely noticeable from all the grass, the clouds were weighing dangerously down, almost close enough to touch.

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As we reached the steep coastline, Kate pointed out to a rock proudly jutting out of the water – home to the puffin colony. “There it is,” I squeaked with delight. My wish has come true as I pressed the binoculars to my eyes and followed the movement of the flock of puffins flying around the rock tending to their young.

Atlantic puffins are famous for their multicolored beak, which has earned them the nickname: clowns of the sea. They spend most of their lives floating on the rough North Atlantic Ocean, but during the summer they breed and nest on the coastal cliffs or offshore island shores of Scotland, Iceland, Faroe Islands, one (me, me, me) would say the most beautiful places on Earth. They find such remote places, Kate explained, because on rocks like the one we were staring at, there are no predators and their young are safe.

puffins

We were so busy with the puffins, we never looked around or noticed other equally majestic birds nesting on the ledges and burrows of the surrounding cliffs. Kate brought kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills to our attention and could even identify the different sounds in the cacophony of all of their voices.

I could’ve spent hours here, sitting, quietly observing and was surprised when I realized we did spend almost two hours doing just that.

How about the Coolkidz? They enjoyed all the commotion, but our youngest had trouble using the binoculars and couldn’t see the birds up close, so she grew restless soon after our arrival. The oldest however found the scene intriguing but couldn’t stay put for too long. Thus they ran around the meadow and picked flowers, while the rest of us took in the sights and sounds.

The walk back to the van, Kate uses for her tours, seemingly took less time than our first walk across the bog, with Kate pointing out a few other interesting facts and mentioning a variety of tours she offers during the rest of the year. It seems like a dream job, exploring north of Scotland with travelers from all over the world. And she isn’t complaining but wishes more travelers ventured in these remote and unspoilt parts brimming with wildlife, historical and cultural sights and natural beauties. The North Coast 500, Scotland’s answer to Route 66 is a step in the right direction and attracts many. Too bad plenty of them pass by too fast. Literally.

Wishing us a lovely stay with a couple of great local tips we said our goodbyes to Kate and the rest of the group. But not to puffins, as it turns out we were to meet again in a few days.

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