The accidental death of a seaside entertainer
Friday 28th February 2014
The recent, unprecedentedly violent, sea storms decimated the population of the lovable puffin, writes PETER FROST
Some of the worst sea storms for decades have wreaked havoc among our coastal wildlife. I reported on the way our seal population had been hit some weeks ago and now it is becoming clear that sea birds too have suffered huge losses in the storms.
Among the worst species hit by these storms are the colourful and comical puffin (Fratercula arctica).
This striking bird with its large brightly coloured bill is sometims known as the sea parrot.
Thousands of puffins are feared to have been killed in the recent storms that have hammered Britain for the last month. Dead puffins, as well as the corpses of many other seabirds such as razorbills and guillemots, have been found along many beaches.
Reports have also come in from further afield. The British Trust for Ornithology said it has received record numbers of reports of puffins being washed up dead on the coasts of France and Spain.
These are mostly ringed birds and their unique-numbered leg rings indicate they are from Britain.
Puffins venture far out to sea in winter as they hunt their favourite food, sand eels. Most will fly out to locations in the North Sea but many travel as far as the wild Atlantic Bay of Biscay.
In a normal winter very few dead puffins would be found all along the Bay coast from Brittany to northern Spain. This year, however, the body count has been as much as 10 times higher than normal.
Puffin populations have long been a cause for concern. The large-scale commercial dredging of sand eels – a key part of their diet – for fish farm food and fertiliser has been one major reason of their decline.
Native puffins which head out into the Atlantic for the winter months usually ride out the worst that the weather can throw at them.
Later some head back into the Bay of Biscay before returning home to the same breeding cliff-top burrows they used the previous summer.
The puffin is not a parrot despite its nickname. It is in fact an auk. Other British members of the auk family include razorbills and guillemots and small auks.
Ungainly on land, once at sea they swim well. Puffin feed mainly on small fish, which they catch by diving underwater, using their wings for speedy yet graceful propulsion.
Adult male and female puffins are identical except that the male is usually slightly larger. They nest in cliff-top colonies, digging a burrow in which a single white egg is laid.
The birds are often seen returning with their huge and colourful bills full of wriggling silver fish and sand eels which the chick swallows whole. It is a familiar but always thrilling sight for seaside bird-watchers.
The squarking puffin chick grows fast on such diet. Nest burrows and young chicks are at risk of attacks from other sea birds including gulls and skuas.
Skuas, in particular, have discovered they can easily steal a beakful of fishy food from a puffin just about to feed their chick.
After just six weeks the young puffin is fully fledged. Amazingly, one night it will abruptly swim out to sea and not return to land, or its parents, for several years.
Despite the terrible losses this winter our comical friend the puffin will be back breeding on Britain’s cliffs this summer I have no doubt.
We will expect the adults to arrive back at their breeding colonies in March and April and they will be gone again by mid-August.
Here are a few good places to see puffins. There are impressive breeding colonies at Bempton Cliffs in North Yorkshire; South Stack on Anglesey; on the Farne Islands and Coquet Island off Northumberland; the Isle of May off the Fife coast; and my own personal favourite puffins in Shetland and the Orkney Islands.