Is it all good news for puffins?

After several bad summers, it is believed that the rather beautiful ‘clowns of the sea’ are finally in for a good breeding season.

Due to climate change, changes in habitat and food supply have presented puffins with a harsh living environment for a number of years. Last year the coast of Britain saw a significant number of dead puffins washed up on the shore after a year of extreme weather. There are thought to be several hundred thousand puffins in the UK, however they are restricted to only a few individual sites making them vulnerable to environmental threats and stresses. As a result, they have been classified as amber on the Royal Society of the Protection of Bird’s list of threatened species. One of the UK’s largest colonies has seen a rapid decline, with numbers on the Island of Craigleith crashing from around 28,000 to just a few thousand. This has been due to a plant called tree mallow, Lavatera arborea, which grows to roughly 3 metres in height. The plant is thought to have been introduced to the area over 300 years ago due to its medicinal value. It has spread rapidly in recent years due to the mild winters and has prevented puffins from nesting and rearing their young. It has been said to be one of the most dramatic examples of an alien plant invader affecting wildlife in Britain.

Despite this, the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick, located on the east coast of Scotland, has noted the puffins have experienced a positive breeding season. Situated on the Scottish Islands including the Isle of May, Craigleith, Fidre and Shetland the pufflings have now hatched and are ready to take wing in August.

The common Atlantic puffins, Fratercula arctica, arrive on the northern coast of Britain from mid-March to breed. They stay with the same breeding partners for life and return to the same burrow year after year. The female puffins lay one egg which is then incubated by both the male and female. Pufflings are strong enough to emerge from the nest after 4 or 5 weeks to leave with the rest of the colony in the summer.

Conservation efforts, such as the Seabird Centre’s SOS Puffin project, have been put in place to encourage the puffins’ return to the islands. In this particular project, work parties consisting of a total of over 700 volunteers are being sent out to remove the invasive tree mellow. They have seen a great success, with monitoring showing puffins returning to the islands and re-using old burrows.

However, not everywhere is seeing the same encouraging results. Last year the United States reported that puffins in the Gulf of Maine were dying of starvation and losing body weight as a result of changes in fish population, due to rising ocean temperatures. Similarly, biologist Erpur Snaer Hansen’s recent study in Iceland states that it is the 12th year in a row that they have seen a poor breeding season. The country has seen a 37% drop in the last 10 years from 8 million puffins in 2003 to around 5 million. This is troubling as one of the criteria for threatened species, described by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is a 30% or more decrease in species stock within a decade.

 

Over the years we have seen the population of puffins across the globe rise and fall. It seems that these fluctuations are a result of climate change causing extreme weather, mild winters, changes in fish supply and encouraging the spread of invasive species. Whether the overall effect on the birds population is positive or negative is still yet to be determined and a steady pattern may not be seen for a few years yet. For now, efforts must continue to be made in the monitoring and conservation of this iconic species to help them cope with their changing environment.

For more about puffins in the news:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2005/dec/18/biodiversity.conservationandendangeredspecies

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/may/17/conservationists-count-breeding-birds-puffin-wreck

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jun/03/atlantic-puffin-population-risk-scientists

http://icelandreview.com/news/2014/07/06/biologist-puffin-numbers-continue-decline

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/13/scotland-threatened-puffins-successful-breeding-season

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jul/19/puffin-numbers-recovery-farne-islands

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Abi Gardner

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