Northern Ireland news

Puffins `leap' ahead with early return to Rathlin Island

Among the thronging masses, they spotted a pair of orange feet the very first puffin had arrived. Picture by Ric Else

THE puffins have returned to Rathlin Island a day earlier than scheduled - or is it?

Their arrival is an eagerly-awaited spring event on the island off the north coast, which is also home to an immense colony of breeding seabirds, including kittiwakes, razorbills, fulmars and guillemots.

They descend on the sea stacks at the RSPB Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre to nest and raise their young before returning to their life out at sea in late summer.

Birds start making brief visits to the cliffs from December onwards, but the puffins are always the last to make an appearance.

In 2017, 2018 and 2019, the first Rathlin puffins were seen on the exact same date - March 27 - and as the day approached this year, island residents Hazel Watson and Ric Else used their daily exercise slot to check the cliffs each day.

"A calm period of weather arrived on Wednesday - surely ideal conditions for the puffins to make their debut, but there was no sign of them," Ms Watson said.

"(Then on March 26), as we approached the cliffs, we could see and hear that there had been a big arrival of seabirds. guillemots and razorbills - the puffins' cousins - were present in their thousands.

"And then, among the thronging masses, we spotted a pair of orange feet - our very first puffin had arrived. And it was a day earlier than usual."

Or was it? With 2020 being a leap year, it could be argued that they are perfectly on schedule once again.

The couple, who both work for the RSPB as visitor experience staff at the Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre, should be getting ready to open it to the public in April, but that is on hold due to coronavirus lockdown.

Anyone missing the sights and sounds of the island can connect and share photos and memories of trips to the Seabird Centre on its dedicated facebook group, which already has close to 1,000 members.

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