THE dumpy puffin is one our most easily recognised and endearing birds, with its black and white dinner-suit plumage and large multi-coloured bill giving it an almost comical appearance.
But behind the clown-like façade there is a darker story to tell due to a significant decline in numbers in many parts of Scotland over the last decade or so.
One such place is the Isle of May in the outer Firth of Forth where monitoring of the birds has shown a decline from around 69,000 breeding pairs in 2003 to only 45,000 pairs when the last intensive survey was held in 2008. Prior to 2003 the population had been increasing by 11 per cent per annum. This recent downward trend has been mirrored at the closest major colony on the Farne Islands in Northumberland, and the declines in northern Scotland are thought to have been even more severe than this.
Scientists are still unsure as to the exact reasons for the decrease but the marking of birds by researchers from the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) working closely with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) have found that the number of adults returning to breed on the Isle of May each spring has fallen. Usually 88 per cent of the marked puffins return, but to the dismay of scientists this had fallen to below 60 per cent.
It would appear that the driving force for this decline was an increase in mortality on their oceanic wintering grounds in the north-east Atlantic. Preliminary studies tagging puffins from the Isle of May with geolocaters have shown that the birds can travel a considerable distance from the Firth of Forth during winter, with some staying in the North Sea, but others travelling north to the Faroes or spending time off Ireland.
“The big problem with puffins is that we still don’t know much about where they go in winter and their feeding ecology, but presumably this problem they are encountering on their wintering grounds is due to a lack of food, which could be driven by climate change,” states Mark Newell of CEH.
According to Dave Pickett of SNH, who is the reserve manager for the Isle of May, puffins are long-lived birds who have evolved to play the “long game” by laying one egg per year, but having the opportunity to breed many times over their lifespan to compensate for occasional years of nesting failure.
“This high level of adult mortality on their wintering grounds effectively means a large number of breeding years are being lost, which if sustained over a period of time would be very bad news for puffins,” he says.
However, all is not lost and there are now signs that the decline in puffins on the Isle of May has levelled-off with returns of adult puffins nudging back up to the 88 per cent level again. Scientists won’t know the exact population trend until the next detailed five-yearly population survey is conducted in 2013, but there are certainly grounds for optimism.
Other ecological changes are happening closer to home with the nutritious sandeels brought back by parent birds to feed their chicks being smaller in size compared with the 1970s, which means that more of them need to be caught on each fishing trip. But at least the sandeels are now there, in more recent years they were scarce and puffins were often resorting to feeding on nutrient-poor snake pipefish, whose numbers had mysteriously exploded.
Maggie Sheddan of the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick, which operates boat trips for visitors to the Isle of May, believes the good numbers of sandeels are an encouraging sign. “It has been marvellous over the last couple of years to see puffins whirring overhead again with their colourful beaks full of sandeels,” she says.
The plight of the puffin underlines the complexities of our marine ecology and the changes that may be happening in our seas, but what is certain is the remarkable public affection for the bird.
Dave Pickett says: “Puffins are one of the great attractions of the Isle of May and people are always enthralled by them. It is a great place to see puffins because it is so easily accessible from central Scotland, and sometimes you get spectacular “puffin days” when the air is full of these wonderful birds.”
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Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
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