Nights of the Pufflings
by Bruce McMillan
Heimaey Island [HAY-mah-ay], Iceland in April.
Halla [HATT-lah] searches the sky every day. As she watches from high on a cliff overlooking the sea, she spots her first puffin of the season. She whispers to herself, “Lundi” [LOON-dih], which means “puffin” in Icelandic.
Soon the sky is speckled with them -- puffins, puffins everywhere. Millions of these birds are returning from their winter at sea. They are coming back to Halla’s island and the nearby uninhabited islands to lay eggs and raise puffin chicks. It’s the only time they come ashore.
While Halla and her friends are at school in the village beneath the cliffs, the puffins continue to land. These “clowns of the sea” return to the same burrows year after year. Once back, they busy themselves getting their underground nests ready. Halla and all the children of Heimaey [HAY-mah-ay] can only wait and dream of the nights of the pufflings yet to come.
On the weekends, Halla and her friends climb over the cliffs to watch the birds. They see puffin pairs tap-tap-tap their beaks together. Each pair they see will soon tend an egg. Deep inside the cliffs that egg will hatch a chick. That chick will grow into a young puffling. That puffling will take ifs first flight. The nights of the pufflings will come.
In the summer, while Halla splashes in the cold ocean water, the puffins also splash. The sea below the cliffs is dotted with puffins bobbing on the waves. Like Halla, many puffins that ride the waves close to shore are young. The older birds usually fly farther out to sea where the fishing is better. The grown up puffins have to catch lots of fish, because now that it’s summer they are feeding more than just themselves.
Halla’s friend, Arnar Ingi [ATT-nar ING-ee], spies a puffin overhead. “Fisk” [FIHSK], he whispers as he gazes at the returning puffin’s bill full of fish. The puffin eggs have hatched, and the parents are bringing home fish to feed their chicks. The nights of the pufflings are still long weeks away, but Arnar Ingi thinks about getting some cardboard boxes ready.
Halla and her friends never see the chicks - only the chicks’ parents see them. The baby puffins never come out. They stay safely hidden in the long dark tunnels of their burrows. But Halla and her friends hear them calling out for food. “Peep-peep-peep”. The growing chicks are hungry. Their parents have to feed them -- sometimes ten times a day -- and carry many fish in their bills.
All summer long the adult puffins fish and tend to their feathers. By August, flowering baldusbrá [BAL-durs-brow] blanket the burrows. With the baldusbra in full bloom, Halla knows that the wait is over. The hidden chicks have grown into young pufflings. The pufflings are ready to fly and will at last venture out into the night. Now it’s time.
It’s time for Halla and her friends to get out their boxes and flashlights for the nights of the pufflings. Starting tonight, and for the next two weeks, the pufflings will be leaving their winter at sea. Halla and her friends will spend each night searching for stranded pufflings that don’t make it to the water. But the village cats and dogs will be searching, too. It will be a race to see who finds the stray pufflings first. By ten o’clock the streets of Heimaey are alive with roaming children.
In the darkness of night, the pufflings leave their burrows for their first flight. It’s a short, wing-flapping trip from the high cliffs. Most of the birds splash-land safely in the sea below. But some get confused by the village lights - perhaps they think the lights are moonbeams reflecting on the water. Hundreds of the pufflings crash-land in the village every night. Unable to take off from flat ground, they run around and try to hide. Dangers await. Even if the cats and dogs don’t get them, the pufflings might get run over by cars or trucks.
Halla and her friends race to the rescue. Armed with their flashlights, they wander through the village. They search dark places. Halla yells out “puffling” in Icelandic. “Lundi pysja!” [LOON-dih PIHS-yah]. She has spotted one. When the puffling runs down the street, she races after it, grabs it, and nestles it in her arms. Arnar Ingi catches one, too. No sooner are the pufflings safe in the cardboard boxes than more of them land nearby. “Lundi pysja! Lundi pysja!”
For two weeks all the children of Heimaey sleep late in the day so they can stay out at night. They rescue thousands of pufflings. There are pufflings, pufflings everywhere, and helping hands too -- even though the pufflings instinctively nip at helping fingers. Every night Halla and her friends take the rescued pufflings home. The next day they send their guests on their way. Halla meets her friends and with the boxes full of pufflings, they hike down to the beach.
It’s time to set the pufflings free. Halla releases one first. She holds it up so that it will get used to flapping its wings. Then with the puffling held snugly in her hands, she counts “Einn-tveir-pRiR!” [AYT --TVAYRR --THRREER] as she swings the puffling three times between their legs. The last swing is the highest, launching the bird up in the air and out over the water beyond the surf. It’s only the second time this puffling has flown, so it flutters just a short distance before safely splash-landing.
Day after day Halla’s pufflings paddle away, until the nights of the pufflings are over for the year. As she watches the last of the pufflings and adult puffins leave for their winter at sea, Hall bids them farewell until next spring. She wishes them a safe journey as she calls out “goodbye, goodbye” in Icelandic. “Bless, Bless!”