Forth puffins in 1,000-mile quest for food

PUFFINS have been forced to abandon one of their familiar bases in the Firth of Forth and fly more than 1,000 miles in search of food.

Scientists have discovered that the birds on the Isle of May reserve are abandoning it during winter.

Professor Mike Harris, who has studied the birds for almost 40 years said his research suggests food stocks had declined.

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He believes stocks of sand eels, plankton and other small fish species eaten by puffins in winter may have dropped to such low levels that the birds are being forced to look further afield.

The number of birds on the Isle of May, home to the largest colony of puffins in the North Sea, has declined by 30 per cent in recent years.

Puffins from the reserve there, which is managed by Scottish Natural Heritage, were tracked using tiny "geolocation" gadgets, which revealed their unusual winter behaviour.

Harris, emeritus research fellow at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said: "The quarter of a million puffins that breed in north-east Britain head out to sea during the winter and we previously thought that they stayed in the North Sea.

"We now know that some make long trips into the Atlantic during winter. This is vital new knowledge, which should help us explain recent declines in numbers."

He added: "Until now, all the evidence was that they stayed within the North Sea. Now we have found the majority we followed went out into the Atlantic. So there seems to have been a change in the last few years."

Data was gathered from 13 puffins during the winter of 2007-8. It showed that more than three-quarters made excursions for between one and four months into the Atlantic, before returning to their home waters in the North Sea.

One puffin flew as far as 1,800 miles.

That year was known to be particularly bad for survival rates among North Sea puffins during winter, adding to the theory that they were forced further afield due to low food stocks.

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"Our hypothesis is that puffins were having problems and some of them left the North Sea," said Harris. "The hypothesis is they were going in search of food."

However, Harris said he was not concerned about the future of the puffin colony. "There's no reason to think they are going to become extinct or even very rare," he said. "There may have been recent declines, but when I first started looking at puffins on the Isle of May in 1973, we had 2,000 pairs. Now we have got 40,000 pairs."