The Salty Puffin

Wexford, Ireland

No, it’s not the name of a new eaterie, but a rather weak pun.  At the age of sixty-something, I have finally seen puffins in the wild.  The location was Great Saltee, the larger of the two Saltee Islands off Ireland’s south Wexford coast.  The other island, unsurprisingly, is Little Saltee.

Anyone who immediately thinks of Compton Mackenzie’s fictional Great Todday and Little Todday [1] should put them out of mind.  The Saltees are very different indeed.

According to the island’s website [2], the privately owned Great Saltee is the most famous bird sanctuary in Ireland.  It is designated a Special Protection Area under the EU’s Birds Directive [3].  Weather permitting, a small fast ferry from Kilmore Quay takes visitors almost to the shore, but the shallow approach requires a transfer into a stout rubber dinghy for the final few yards.  Wear trousers and boots that you don’t mind dunking in sea water!

There is only one occupied building on the island, a house used at times by the owning family and surrounded by several derelict barns or cottages.  There are no other residents, no loos, no camping sites, no cafés, no shelters, no “visitor centre”, and no “interpretation boards”.  Just a few day-trippers, including twitchers, and an awesome number of birds.

Most of the birds congregate on and in the cliffs on the north side of the island.  Not being a bird-watcher, my recognition skills are limited.  But from pictures I know a puffin when I see one.  And a couple of dozen were on easy view, occasionally disappearing in pairs into holes burrowed into the cliff sides.  After all, it is the breeding season.

Puffins are stunning to watch in flight.  Their bright orange webbed feet, matching the colour of their bill, flap furiously and appear to help them change direction before landing, rather like aircraft ailerons.  They are also beautiful to look at when standing still.

A striking feature of the north coast of Great Saltee is the noise.  Birds are not quiet, and when gathered in large groups sound raucous.  What the island’s website describes the “muttered growls” of the guillemot resemble a revving diesel engine when they are growling collectively.

I think I spotted choughs (though they might have been oystercatchers) and various varieties of gull, none as unpleasant – visually or temperamentally – as the scavengers of England’s westcountry coasts.

For getting to know a bit about birds in an “away-from-it-all” setting, a visit to Great Saltee is hard to beat.  I’m really glad I went.  And seeing puffins at long last will be one of those lasting pleasures.


[1]  In his comic novel Whisky Galore, first published in 1947.


[3]  A legal protection that would presumably disappear in the UK if we leave the EU.


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