A place for the birds - literally

Of the two island which make up the Skelligs, Small Skellig (Skellig Beag)  is the home of over 30,000 pairs of gannets, the larger island, Skellig Michael, also an important site for breeding sea-birds.

puffinsThe puffin - variously called, Bottlenose, the Sea Parrot or Clown of the Sea - is unmistakable with its black back and white underparts, and distinctive black head with large pale cheeks and a tall, flattened, brightly-coloured bill. Their comical appearance is heightened by red and black eye-markings and bright orange legs. They breed in large colonies on coastal cliffs or offshore islands, nesting in crevices among rocks or in burrows in the soil and feed primarily by diving.

Puffins are the smaller cousins of the now extinct Great Auk and are Summer visitors from March to August to sea stacks and cliffs, mainly along the west coast of Ireland. Their short wings are adapted for swimming with a flying technique under water. In the air, they beat their wings rapidly (up to 100 times per minute) in swift flight, often flying low over the ocean's surface.

Until as recently as 2008 no one knew where puffins went at the end of their breeding season.  Scientists from the Coastal and Marine Research Centre in University College Cork  solved the mystery by attaching tiny tracking devices, weighing only 1.5 grams, to the birds before they left for the winter. When the puffins returned to the island to breed the following summer, the devices were retrieved, and the information they collected analyzed to show the birds movements over the winter months. The data show the puffins, which only weigh around 400 grams, can travel across the entire Atlantic as far as Canada once they leave Ireland at the end of the breeding season. Bird experts suggest that the motivation for traveling such long-distances is the temporary abundance of capelin, a small oil-rich fish, which provides a rich source of food for numerous seabirds as well as larger animals such as seals and whales. Once their food supply is depleted, the puffins turn tail and spend the majority of the winter months in the stormy seas of the Atlantic ocean.

Other birds to be found on Skellig Michael include Rock Pipits, Shags, Gannets, Pigeons, Kitiwakes, Fulmars, Guillemots, Razorbills and the native Skellig Seagull.

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