Archives for the month of: February, 2012

The 29th of February is a special day, since it only comes round once every four years. If it happens to be your birthday, you never get very old, and it makes you a little bit special too! My Aunt Ruth and her twin brother were born on February 29th, so although they are both grandparents now, they have only just turned eighteen!

The reason why we have one extra day every four years is very interesting. As you know, every day is divided up into 24 hours. That is how long it takes the earth to spin around once on its axis. (It’s funny how it can be spinning at quite a speed and yet we don’t feel a thing!) But that is not all it’s doing…

At the same time, the earth is travelling in a big circle (called its orbit) around the sun. To get all the way around takes exactly 365 and 1/4 days. We call that a year. But because you can’t have a quarter of a day at the end of each year, we have to save those quarters up until they make a whole day (every fourth year). Because poor little February only gets 28 days most years, it seems only right that it should get the extra day!

As you may have noticed, if your birthday falls on a Saturday one year, it will be on a Sunday the next, moving forward by a day each year. But every fourth year when that extra day is added, your birthday will leap over a day and be on the next day instead.

That is why this special year with the extra day is called a Leap Year. The 29th of February is Leap Year Day, and people born on that day are called “leaplings.” It must be especially exciting for them when their birthday comes around after such a long wait!

But even if it’s not your birthday, this extra day in February is something we can all enjoy. It’s like a little bonus day you get for nothing. I think it calls for a treat of some sort! Perhaps you can enjoy a delicious Leap Cake?

Maybe the best thing to do on February 29th is to visit an ice cream parlour for a Leap Cone! What flavour would you choose?

Some people are keen to see Leap Year Day become a public holiday. They want to celebrate the beauty of nature and the universe, and draw our attention to the amazing scientific discoveries that have helped us understand how the world works.

I must admit I find it pretty incredible that scientists like Copernicus and Galileo used only telescopes and mathematical calculations to work out how our earth and the other planets orbit around the sun.

Whatever you decide to do with your extra Leap Year Day, I hope you enjoy it!

When I was doing research for my Puffin Pack, I found out all sorts of surprising things about puffins. For example, they are sometimes known as “Clowns of the Sea,” something I hadn’t realised when I wrote Lewis Clowns Around. As it turns out, Lewis the puffin had the right idea when he decided to join the circus!

I was also amazed to learn that there is an island off the southwest coast of England (12 miles from the coast of Devon in the Bristol Channel, to be exact) where puffins have an important history. The island is called Lundy, and this name probably comes from the old Norse word “lundi” which means puffin. Although it is small with high cliffs and rough weather, there have been people living on the island for hundreds of years. These have included Vikings, medieval monks, knights, pirates and convicts!

In the 1920s a man named Martin Coles Harman bought the island and declared himself king of Lundy. He decided to make his own coins and stamps, and instead of pennies he called them puffins. Here is a picture of a two-puffin stamp:

Martin Coles Harman decided he should have his face on the one puffin coin as well, since he was the king! He looks pretty serious, doesn’t he?

Making his own coins got Martin Coles Harman into some trouble, and he was fined £5 by the House of Lords in 1931. He had to pay up and stop making the coins, but the stamps are still printed today!

Lundy must have once had lots of puffins living on its cliffs, but now there are hardly any. This may be because people have been fishing all the sand eels, leaving very little for the puffins to eat. It may also be because baby puffins and eggs were easy prey for brown rats that used to be common on the island.

Today Lundy Island is looked after by the Landmark Trust, and fewer than 30 people actually live there. It is possible to visit the island and stay in holiday cottages there, and the Landmark Trust is working to conserve the wildlife and natural habitat of Lundy.

But Lundy isn’t the only island that has puffins on its stamps. This one comes from the Faroe Islands, which lie in the North Atlantic Ocean, half-way between Norway and Iceland and directly north of Scotland. This is definitely puffin territory, and in fact the Faroese (people of the Faroe Islands) like to eat them!

I think puffins are far too cute to eat, and since they’re only the size of a pigeon they wouldn’t make much of a meal. Luckily for them, puffins live in burrows dug into very steep cliffs, and they spend lots of time out on the open ocean, so it’s quite hard to catch them. Their biggest enemy is the Great Black-Backed Gull, which can swoop down and catch a puffin in mid-air!

Puffins mate for life, and build a nice soft nest in their cliff-top burrow using grass, seaweed and feathers. When mum lays an egg, both parents help look after it until it hatches, and then they bring the chick little fish to eat. It takes about 45 days for the chick to grow strong enough to fly off and find fish for itself.

Photo by David Tipling Getty

Puffins eat herring, sprat and sand eels, and you can sometimes see them with a huge mouthful of fish all jammed in together. They hold them in with special ridges inside their beaks. I think the record is sixty little fish in one puffin’s mouth!

In Iceland puffins are becoming more scarce because of a shortage of sand eels (also called sand lances). The National Geographic have made a short video about the problem on YouTube which you can watch here.

A while back I went to the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick, where I read my story Lewis Clowns Around. The centre has lots of information about seabirds living on Scotland’s coasts, and puffins are really popular! (I especially like the shop where you can find puffin toys, calendars, postcards, keyrings… even my book!)