Bird Haunts and Nature Memories/Chapter 1


WILLUGHBY, speaking of "some remarkable Isles, cliffs, and Rocks about England, where Sea-fowl do yearly build and breed in great numbers," says that Priestholm is "a small uninhabited Island near Beaumaris in the Isle of Anglesey, belonging to my Lord Bulkley," whereon build "the Anates Arcticae of Clussius (here called Puffins), Razorbills, Guilliams, Cormorants, and divers sorts of Gulls." 0n the Ordnance map the island is called Puffin Island, and below in brackets are Priestholm and St. Seiriol's Island. Giraldus called it Ynys Lenach, or Priest's Island, "because many bodies of saints are deposited there and no woman is suffered to enter it." Other early writers spoke about it as Glannauch or Glanach, but said it was more generally known as Puffins' Island. Now the possessive is dropped; it is called Puffin.

Puffin, visible from many a popular seaside resort on the North Wales coast, is well known. During the holiday season it is a show place, pointed out as the tourist steamer passes, visited from Llandudno, Beaumaris, and Llanfairfechan by sailing-boats. It is private property; visitors are not supposed to land and wander where they will, but if they behaved themselves no one would object. Unfortunately a certain class of holiday-maker refuses to respect property; a party will land with guns to shoot rabbits and sea-birds, even ruthlessly slaying the latter during the breeding season; the eggs of the fowl are robbed without regard for law or mercy. The keeper visits the island from time to time, but is not resident; the damage is done before he can reach the scene.

In size the island is about five-eighths of a mile long by a quarter broad, and everywhere, except at the southern end, nearest to Anglesey, it rises steeply from the sea, weathered limestone cliffs providing ledges and cracks on which birds can nest. The actual crags are not high, but above the rocks a steep grass slope rises to 100 or 160 feet; on, or rather in, this slope the puffins nest; only a few find holes in the rocks below. The whole of the top of the island resembles a great rabbit-warren, honeycombed with burrows; some of these are the occupied or ancient homes of rabbits, but the majority are the work of the puffins.

Strictly speaking, the ovate or oblong island points north-east and south-west; it is, however, convenient to speak of the eastern and western sides. At the northern and highest point is the only habitable, though usually uninhabited, house, originally built as a signal station for the Liverpool Dock and Harbour Board; by semaphore messages were passed onto the Great Orme's Head and thence transmitted to Liverpool. When telegraphic communication was more perfect the station was abandoned, and it was taken over as a marine laboratory by the Liverpool Marine Biological Society, who, when they moved to Port Erin, handed it over to Bangor College. It was, at the time of one of my visits, neglected and dirty pellitory of the wall had pushed its way through the woodwork of the windows and shed its seeds over the rotting bedsteads. Later, I found it dismantled—doors burst open and windows smashed, slates scattered over the cliff beneath; the next tenant will have a heavy bill for repairs. Close to the house are the ruins of a smaller storehouse, and in the centre of the island stand the remains of St. Seiriol's Church. No part of the old church is left standing except a stout square tower, said by some to be part of the original building, but probably kept in

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repair, after the decay of the monastic buildings, as a useful watch-tower or look-out. The ruins of a small cottage, close to the tower, are not of great antiquity, but hard by are curious narrow tunnels, evidently part of a former and very ancient building. A little way from the tower are low, broken stone walls, which probably mark the site of the conventual gardens; near the landing place are other enclosures, where, in a hollow, a few stunted thorns and brambles "shrink landward from the scathing storm."

Towards Anglesey, from the southern extremity of the island, a spit of sand stretches half-way across the narrow channel; a perch at the point warns the navigator of the dangerous shoal. South of the perch is an ancient causeway, uncovered at low water; pilgrims, it is said, crossed the Lavan Sands, and by means of this causeway overcame the obstacle of the last gutter. Now it would be difficult to walk from Llanfairfechan; there is a deep channel between the Dutchman's Bank and the causeway. Seiriol flourished in the sixth century, but little is known about him; he appears to have been related to a Prince of Lleyn, and by him to have been made chief of a priestly sect at Penman. Tradition tells that even the Vikings came to the holy man for instruction, but it is far more likely that the warlike priests kept watch and guard at Penmon, and that such foreigners who were captured or wrecked upon the coast were instructed in hard labour for the benefit of the community. It was when he wished to retire from public life that he crossed to Priestholm, and there he died and was buried.

Pennant, Bingley, and other writers at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, describe Puffin Island as being thickly populated with puffins, but there is a general idea that for a time the place was forsaken. It is said that they were driven away by rats, the descendants of refugees from a wreck, but that now there are but few rats left. Although I have heard this story repeated by an old rabbit-trapper, who pretended or imagined that he remembered the absence of the puffins, I doubt if it is true; very likely it originated from someone who visited the island at the wrong time, unaware that the birds leave during summer. There are, on other parts of the Welsh coast, islands which are less accessible and further from watering-places, where the puffin colonies are very much larger. On these islands the birds are tamer, standing round the holes and flying up and down, from and to the water, without much concern; here the eggs are but a few feet from the entrance of the burrows, and the birds, wheeling overhead, are comparatively fearless. At Puffin the birds soon leave the slopes; every few minutes one will dart from a hole and fly straight to the water, where with crowds of companions it swims at a safe distance; they are shy. Many of the eggs are ten or twelve feet down the burrows, quite out of arm's reach in most cases. Constant persecution has had its effect both in numbers and habits.

Most of the puffins breed on the western slopes, the tunnels being under great masses of thrift, a wonderful sight when the flowers are out. Old Squire Pennant's description is quaint, but it contains many careful observations. In it he says: "The slope is animated with the puffin auk, which incessantly squall round you, alight, and disappear into their burrows, or come out, stand erect, gaze at you in a grotesque manner, then take flight, and either perform their evolutions about you or seek the sea in search of food." There are two noteworthy points, the first being the words "stand erect." Until recent years, even in Saunders’ "Manual," the puffin has always been represented as sitting on the flexed legs or tarsi, like a guillemot; really the bird stands upright on the so-called feet, actually the toes, and when it rests on the tarsi sinks forward on to its breast. Photography has brought this fact to light, but before the days of photography Pennant had noticed it. The other is the word "grotesque"; what is it about the puffin which is, in our eyes, grotesque? The big. highly coloured beak, the squat, upright figure, and the bird's actions have caused much hilarity. It is what Dr. F. Heatherley calls its "Chinese" eye that gives its solemn countenance the quaint appearance; but the eye is not oblique, not Chinese; the curious effect is produced by its deep setting in the full cheek and the conspicuous backward curving groove.

"The young," says Pennant, "are hatched in the beginning of July. The parents have the strongest affection for them; and if layed hold of by the wings will give themselves most cruel bites on any part of the body they can reach, as if actuated by despair." Now the puffin, which possesses a brightly coloured and very powerful beak, certainly can bite when "layed hold of," but it generally manages to seize the hand or clothes of the aggressor, and leaves its mark. I have seen it stated that the bird will not bite in the dark, so that it is safe to handle it in the burrow; my experience does not confirm this. A lighthouse keeper who was with me on one visit carefully wrapped his hand in his handkerchief before pushing it into a burrow; "I know Tommy Noddy," he remarked. When seized the puffin utters a deep growl, and the same note may be heard from birds in the holes and on the water, but the best emphasis is from the handled victim. It "is horrible," according to Pennant; "not unlike the efforts of a dumb person to speak"; perhaps it is as well that we cannot understand the language!

The description supplied by the Rev. J. Evans in 1804 is more fanciful and less correct; he repeats some stories about the bird fighting with and overcoming the raven, a table told by Stanley in his "Book of Birds." According to Evans, "the fierceness of the parent is incredible; no bird nor beast will venture to attack them; sometimes the sea-raven will dare to be so rash, but generally he forfeits his life for his temerity. . . . The parent catches him under the throat with her beak and darts her claws into his breast; the raven, wounded, screams most dismally for quarter, but the offended bird is deaf to the entreaty and makes directly for her proper element, the ocean, where the raven is quickly drowned, and the puffin returns in triumph to the nest." Oh, Mr. Evans, and you a parson! Ravens have bred on Puffin, and a pair still nests in the neighbourhood; I have often seen the fine birds passing the island; they have not all been drowned! But the ferocious puffin has foes, very dangerous ones, nesting near by, for there are, as a rule, a fair number of disembowelled puffin corpses on the grass; the lesser black-backed gull could explain, no doubt, and, if not, we can guess that a pair of great black-backs, visitors if not occasional residents, know something about the slaughter. One day, in the nest of a lesser black-backed gull, we found one egg exact in size and markings to that of the larger species, but no great black-back was about, and it may have been an abnormal egg.

On the ledges of the steep cliffs guillemots sit solemnly on their single eggs; it is amusing to watch them alight, somewhat clumsily on the narrow ledge, whir their short wings for a second or two until they adjust the balance of their upright body, then poke the big green or white mottled egg between their legs. Razor-bills crouch in cracks, and do not sit upright like the guillemots; and in one place in particular a fair-sized colony of kittiwakes is established. These dainty and small gulls, delicate grey and snowy white, nest in the most impossible-looking spots; their weed-built nests Seem to be stuck against the rock face. And so they are; a very tiny ledge gives foundation for the structure, for clay and mud are moulded with the wet weed, padded down hard, and the gale fails to dislodge the small but solid nest. As the birds sail gracefully near the cliff, visiting their mates, the cheery "kitti-wa-a-ake, kitti-wa-a-ake," almost a question, is evidence of identity.

The larger herring-gulls nest in considerable numbers all over the upper part of the island, placing their bulky, untidy nests on the turf, amongst the thick vegetation, and on the ruined walls. The situations Selected look more secure than those of the kittiwake, but the visitors find them very much easier to rob. 0n the eastern slope the lesser black-backed gulls have a colony, and the fiercer, deeper call of the bird is mingled with the shrill, wild "hehoh," the laughing "ha, ha, ha," and the angry "wow-ow-ow" of the paler gulls, though the notes have a similar ring. Sheld-ducks nest in some of the rabbit-burrows; a dozen or two may be seen gathered in rather noisy conclave, but what the discussion is about in the middle of the breeding season is puzzling.

As a rule the sheld-duck likes a low sandy shore and nests freely in sand-dunes, but here the nests are fully 100 feet above water. When the eggs hatch the parents lead the young to the sea, and they must know their way well on Puffin, for there is only one portion of the island down which a downy infant could safely trot.

The peregrine has often bred on Puffin, but it does not always escape molestation; on several visits I have found the pair nesting on the Anglesey cliffs within sight, but not on the island itself. Crows occasionally nest, but are not encouraged, and one young bird. barely able to fly, was having a rather feverish time with the angry gulls, for the lesser black-back in particular seems to look upon the carrion crow as a dangerous egg-robber, quite forgetful of the maxim that "those who live in glass houses should not throw stones." Oyster-catchers, one or two pairs, nest in the thrift, and sit, apparently indifferently, on some mound or other elevated position to watch the behaviour of any visitors; all the time they keep up a steady "pic-pic," probably a warning to their mates or young when they are hatched. Rock-pipits by their anxious peepings reveal the fact that they have nests in the cliffs, and their rather smaller relatives, meadow-pipits or titlarks, find plenty of cover for their brown eggs. Stunted bushes shelter an odd pair of blackbirds and the ubiquitous hedge-Sparrow, which last has an occasional visit, for domestic reasons, from a mainland cuckoo. An abundance of holes in the ruins and the neglected house are an attraction for starlings; these holes are mostly tenanted. Wheatears and stock-doves make use of the old burrows, and as the Skylark may often be heard in full song on the island we may conclude that it, too, is a member of the Puffin avifauna.

"The Smyrnium olusatrum or Alexanders almost covers the south-west of the island," says Pennant, "and is greedily eaten (boiled) by the sailors who are just arrived from long voyages." Alexanders still grows in profusion, but now more on the east than the west; scurvy-grass is there, too, plenty of it; but few mariners land on Puffin after "long voyages"; it is doubtful if they ever did. In July the thick mass of stems gives shelter for the mottled grey young gulls; in September I have seen starlings in vast numbers feeding on the ripe seeds; all had not been reared on Puffin, they had come over for the feast. Hyacinths abound in spring; I have seen a herring-gull's nest decorated with a ring of these flowers, plucked by the æsthetic bird. Another gull, however, had different tastes, and had selected bleached rabbit-bones for an adornment.

The largest members of the fauna are a small party of very wild goats, the male being a magnificent animal with huge horns; how long they have been there I do not know, but they are never milked. for on the steep cliffs it would be difficult to catch them. Giraldus Cambrensis, writing more than 700 years ago, tells of another mammal. "There is a small island, almost adjoining Anglesey, which is inhabited by hermits, living by manual labour and serving God. It is remarkable that when, by the influence of human passions, any discord arises among theta, all their provisions are devoured and infested by a species of small mice, with which the island abounds; and when the discord ceases, they are no longer molested." Perhaps biologists never quarrel! Perhaps the absence of human inhabitants accounts for the extinction of these murine checks to immorality; at any rate, we are still looking for the "species of small mice."