Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Lundi Pysja!

Lundi means puffin in Icelandic. Pysja is baby puffin, or puffling. Baby puffins, people! They are so, so adorable! I was lucky enough to be in Vestmannaeyjar just as the pufflings, late this year, began to emerge from their nests and head out to sea. After a poor years with few pufflings, this was a good year, and everyone in town was very excited about it.

Adult puffins nest on the cliffs of Vestmannaeyer, laying their eggs and raising their babies in nests dug into the cliff face. All summer, both parents travel to and from the nest, bringing food (mostly sand eels) for their hungry but helpless babies. At the end of the summer, the pufflings come out of their nests in the ground and fly out to sea, drawn by the moonlight as the constant light of summer yields to dark nights in August. This is the first times these babies test out their wings, and they basically have only enough instinct to make this one flight out to sea.

The day I hiked around the island, I stopped at a cliff face on the far side to the south with a particularly high number of puffin nests - steep and grassy. Puffin parents were continually flying to and from the nests, close enough that I could see their brightly-colored bills and even sometimes the fish they were carrying back to the nests. Between their bright colors (only found on the adults, not on the babies) and their very rapid wing motions while flying - they look as if they are constantly on the verge of crashing - I can see why they are known as "clowns of the ocean." Though my camera wasn't fast enough to capture them, this is what one looks like, complete with sand eels in its bill (picture taken in the Aquarium & Museum of Natural History in town).
While I was watching, I happened to run into a scientist I had met during the week - not a fisheries scientist, but a puffin scientist. He has been checking up on the puffin nests on this cliff to see how many baby puffins were hatched, how they have been growing, and when they leave the nests. Over the past few years, there have been far fewer young pufflings born, possibly because of a decrease in the population of sand eels (also a mystery, since there in no commercial fishing on sand eels). Between the worries about declining populations and the cuteness of his research subjects, it's not surprising that everyone wants to hear about Puffin Guy's research. This particular afternoon, he was accompanied by a German TV crew producing a documentary. He invited me to watch along with them as he checked up on the pufflings. Though the Germans seemed concerned I'd get in the way, I was thrilled.
He used a camera basically on a wire tether, much like an underwater camera, which he inserted into the nest. The camera, which was designed for good visibility in the dark conditions inside the nests, feeds a black and white image to a pair of goggles he put over his eyes, allowing him to watch the inside of the nests in real time while he manipulated the camera in the field.
Of course, since it was for a documentary, after he finished doing the actual science of checking in the puffin nests, they had to ask him to redo much of it in a sort of scripted, posed fashion to they could get better shots. To make their documentary seem more authentic/exotic, they also insisted that he answer all of their interview questions in Icelandic, which none of the Germans understood. Since they asked the questions in English and he feels completely comfortable with the language (he did his PhD research in the US), they kept having to start over because he kept trying to answer their questions in English. So I learned something about television, in addition to learning about puffins.
While they changed the camera tape, I even got a chance to try out this fancy camera myself and look in one of the nests, though I wasn't nearly so adept. I did see that one of the nests that had had a puffling earlier that week was now empty, a good sign that the pufflings were beginning to head out to sea.

Each year, some are confused by the lights in town and on the pavement instead of on the water. The pufflings have instincts to navigate once out on the ocean, but they have no idea what to do when they find themselves on roads or in houses and gardens. They huddle in dark corners or wander in the streets, likely to be run over or eaten by local dogs or cats unless someone rescues them and gives them another chance to make it out to sea.

The children (and visitors like me) rescue the pufflings by searching for them in the streets and dark corners, armed with flash lights to help lure them out and cardboard boxes to hold the catch. Kids compete to catch as many puffins as they can, but the past few years there have been few to find. This year has been better, and I went along with two families to watch children release the puffins they had caught the night before.

The proud father with his son's puffling. You can see that it's not just the kids who get excited about puffling season.
Here he is with his son as they send the puffling out to sea.
This boy is releasing the first puffling he has caught in two years, not for lack of trying but for scarcity of puffins.
He throws the puffin up in the air, giving it another chance at its first flight, hoping to send it as far out to sea as possible so that it can get a head start on surviving to adulthood.
After a few trips watching local kids release their pufflings, I was not only excited - I wanted one too. So when two local women (they were originally from the US and Canada, which was how we met, but both long-term residents of the small island of Heimaey) offered to take me out looking for a puffling, I was ready to go. Unlike the kids, who search with flashlights, these women used the car headlights to try to lure out and spot the scared little birds. We had cruised the whole town without seeing any and were considering just going home when we spotted a little puffin in the middle of the road. Both other women insisted that I should be the one to catch it, so I got out of the car and headed after it - and after some combination of chasing and stalking, letting it out of my inexperienced grasp, I caught myself a puffling.
Since it was much too late and dark to be throwing baby birds out to sea, I put it inside a cardboard box (the women had one in the car; like most islanders, they always had one this time of year, just in case). The puffling and I went back to the hostel for the night until I could take it to the cliffs the next day.

Unfortunately, my little puffling had a hard night. At first, I kept it and its box in my room (the attic, which is technically the dormitory and thus the cheapest place to sleep, but there weren't any other guests, so instead I had the biggest room in the place all to myself). But the little puffling was so scared and confused, it wouldn't stop flapping and trying to get out of the box, which created quite a ruckus. So I moved the box downstairs to the hostel common room. But in the morning, when I went to check on it, the box was open and there was no puffling inside!

Luckily, it hadn't made it very far. I found a very scared puffling huddled in the corner...and bird poop all over the room. Oops. It was definitely time to send this puffling out to sea.

But first, we had one last stop together. For science.The poster advertises an ongoing project to collect information about the puffin population in Heimaey - they ask all the children on the island to weigh their puffins and submit their data at the Aquarium & Museum of Natural History, conveniently located at the end of town near where I was planning to release my puffling. Some children, like the son of the scientist who heads the Marine Research Institute branch in town who brought his son and his son's puffling to work, can figure out how to weigh their puffling on their own. For everyone else, there is a small puffling-sized scale outside the museum so you can weigh the pufflings any time of day. This was a Saturday, though, and the museum was open and there were lots of kids and pufflings taking their birds inside to have them measured - so of course, I went in too.

Rather than a giant smiling puffin like the one on the poster, I found the proprietor of the museum surrounded by children, weighing and measuring the wingspan of each of their pufflings before sending them on their way.I waited my turn (for once mostly ignored by the local kids - I was for some a point of curiosity since I was hanging around "local places" like the library, but I just can't outcompete cute baby bird). And then got a chance to weigh and measure the wingspan of my own puffling.
And that was it. It was time for my little puffling to head out to sea. I walked out to the steep cliffs on the northwestern side of the island, hoping to give my puffling a head start out to sea by throwing it from high up and helping it get farther out on the second flight of its life. I took some final pictures, and then off it went.Good luck, lundi pysja!

I am a great fan of this tradition on Heimaey that has developed over the past few decades. It helps the puffins, provides a fantastic source of entertainment and local tradition for the kids (and adults) - imagine something like Halloween every night for weeks, and is a great learning opportunity, both for teaching kids to respect and learn about nature and for explaining the value of science in a very hands-on way. When people talk about puffins in Iceland, they often mention that people here eat puffins and puffin eggs, yet another example of strange Icelandic tastes. It's true - and people still do eat puffins and puffin eggs as a delicacy - but even more notable, I think, is this relationship the island has developed with its puffin population. Hopefully a tradition that will last for generations to come.

No comments: