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Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica)

The following has been adapted from original text by Mike P. Harris and Sarah Wanless in Seabird Populations of Britain and Ireland (with permission from A&C Black, London).

 

The Atlantic puffin is the most instantly recognisable and popular of all North Atlantic seabirds. It breeds in the North Atlantic and the adjacent Arctic Ocean, with strongholds in Iceland and Norway, with around 10% of the population breeding around Britain and Ireland, where it is the second most abundant breeding seabird. Atlantic puffins are pelagic and we are still largely ignorant of where they spend their time away from the colony. Those from north western Britain disperse widely outside the breeding season, as far as Newfoundland in the west and the Canary Islands to the south and even into the Mediterranean as far east as Italy. In contrast, most of those from colonies in eastern Britain remain within the North Sea though in recent decades some have dispersed as far as the Bay of Biscay.

Atlantic puffins typically nest underground in burrows dug in the soil of offshore islands, but where such habitat is sparse, they nest among boulder screes or at low densities in cracks in sheer cliffs. The species is highly colonial and most colonies occur where the nesting birds are safe from mammalian predators. However, during the breeding season a colony can appear deserted during the middle of the day since most birds are either in their burrows or out at sea feeding. At other times awe-inspiring numbers can be seen standing on the slopes, bobbing around on the sea or flying in vast wheels over the colony. Chicks are fed on small fish that the adult carries cross-wise in its beak. In the UK the commonest prey is the lesser sandeel, followed by sprat, herring and a wide range of small juvenile gadoid fish. Fish are caught by underwater pursuit, usually several at a time.

Conservation status

Atlantic puffin is currently identified as a conservation priority in the following:

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International importance

UK Population

Biogeographic Population

% World Population

580,700 AOB*

9.6 (ssp. arctica)

9.6

*AOB = Apparently Occupied Burrows

The UK population figure (rounded to the nearest hundred) was derived from data in Mitchell, P.I., Newton, S.F., Ratcliffe, N. and Dunn, T.E. (eds.) 2004. Seabird Populations of Britain and Ireland. Poyser, London. This was also the source of figures for the Biogeographic and World populations.

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UK population estimates and change 1969–2002 (census data)

During Seabird 2000 and the SCR Census, surveyors were able to count apparently occupied burrows (AOB) at most colonies. Here the main source of error is the misclassification or overlooking of burrows. However, for logistical reasons complete coverage is impossible to achieve at many colonies. In such situations the density of burrows must be determined through sample plots, the area of the colony estimated, and the measures combined to get an estimated population size. Where birds nest under boulders, in mixed colonies with Manx shearwaters, in completely inaccessible places or at low densities along stretches of cliffs (mainland colonies), counts of burrows are impractical. In these cases, surveyors must count individual birds attending the colony. Such counts can be highly variable, both within and between days, and the lack of any obvious factor influencing attendance means that such counts are of rather limited value in assessing breeding numbers, but they do at least give some idea of colony size. April and May are the prime months for counting individual birds before substantial numbers of immature birds begin to attend colonies.

For the calculation of total populations, some arbitrary decisions had to be made to allow the combination of counts of individuals and AOBs. The practice of assuming that one individual corresponded to one AOB was applied to counts from all three national censuses. This approximation may well result in a serious underestimate of the number of AOBs. However, the overall estimates of the SCR Census and Seabird 2000 should be broadly comparable. In both surveys, 83% of the total population estimates came from counts or estimates of AOBs. Furthermore, in the SCR Census, 65% of the counts of individual birds came from the preferred counting months compared to 73% during Seabird 2000.

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998–2002)

UK Population estimate (AOB*)

424,318

488,763

580,714

% change since previous census

n/a

+15

+19

*AOB = Apparently Occupied Burrows

For census results for individual countries and Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man see under relevant sections below.

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Distribution/abundance

The Seabird 2000 census provides the most comprehensive recent assessment of the distribution and abundance of breeding seabirds. Numbers of Atlantic puffin found in different regions, and a map showing the locations and size of colonies, is provided in the Seabird 2000 Atlantic puffin results page.

The locations sampled during the annual Seabird Monitoring Programme provide some information on distribution and are accessible via the Seabird Monitoring Programme online database.

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Annual abundance and productivity by geographical area

With reference to the regional accounts below please note the following.

Breeding abundance: graphs of abundance index with 95% confidence limits are only shown for a region where the trend produced has been deemed accurate (see methods of analysis). Where a trend was thought to be inaccurate, graphs of abundance at major colonies in a region may be shown instead, particularly if such colonies hold greater than 10% of the regional population, are monitored frequently and may thus help illustrate regional population fluctuations outwith national censuses. Occasionally, too few data have been collected regionally to produce either of these.

Productivity: graphs of productivity are only shown if analysis of productivity data produced a significant result for regional and/or year effects (again see methods of analysis). If results were not significant, then a regional mean productivity value is given. However, on some occasions too few data are available from which to provide a meaningful average. Furthermore, for 11 species where the quality of monitoring data available was considered high, population viability analysis was undertaken at the UK level and the results of this are also reported.

 

United Kingdom

Breeding Abundance

The logistical difficulties in monitoring Atlantic puffin colonies means that few data are collected annually and that a bias toward smaller colonies exist; these are usually counts of individual adult birds in attendance at breeding sites. For a variety of factors, counts of individuals can vary quite markedly between years compared to counts of apparently occupied burrows (AOB). The UK Atlantic puffin population increased until at least Seabird 2000 (for unknown reasons), and possibly beyond, as counts of AOBs from two of the largest colonies (Farne Islands in Northumberland and Isle of May in North-east Fife) held even greater numbers in 2003 than they did when surveyed for Seabird 2000. However, a substantial decline at these two colonies was recorded between 2003 and 2008/09 (see relevant sections for more detail), with survey work in 2013 suggesting only limited recovery, if any. It is not known whether these decreases are representative of the UK as a whole. The return rate of adult puffins breeding on the Isle of May was very low in 2007 and 2008 (see under ‘Return rates and survival rates’), which explains, at least in part, the population decrease at this colony. The reasons for low return rates in these years are unknown.

 

Productivity

atlantic-puffin-uk-prod.jpg

Figure 1. Trend in UK productivity (no. of chicks fledged per pair) of Atlantic puffin 1986–2018. Based on SMP data; view the methods of analysis.

 

Productivity has fluctuated throughout the recording period (Figure 1) but appears to have been generally lower since the late 1990s, contributing to a declining trend overall. Productivity was at its lowest in 2007 due to food shortage and unprecedented rainfall flooding burrows; these two factors combined also negatively impacted on productivity in 1998 and 2004. In 2012, high rainfall lowered productivity on the Isle of May, but also flooded thousands of burrows on the Farne Islands such that a large proportion of puffins did not even attempt to breed (although those that did had high levels of success). Productivity in 2013 was on a par with 2012, despite a lack of storms and inclement weather during the breeding season, suggesting other factors lowered success e.g. feeding conditions. In 2014, productivity was at its highest for many years due to favourable environmental and feeding conditions throughout the breeding season. Productivity decreased from 2015 to 2017 but increased to just under 0.70 chicks fledged per pair in 2018.

 

Scotland

Population estimates and change 1969–2002 (census data)

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998–2002)

Population estimate (AOB*)

410,011

438,101

493,042

% change since previous census

n/a

+7

+13

*AOB = Apparently Occupied Burrows

 

Breeding abundance

atlantic-puffin-scotland-ab.jpg

Figure 2. Abundance of Atlantic puffin at three colonies in Scotland, 1986–2018.

 

The logistical difficulties in monitoring Atlantic puffin colonies means that few data are collected annually. National census data indicate that the number of Atlantic puffins in Scotland increased from Operation Seafarer in 1969-70 by 20% to Seabird 2000. Figure 2 shows changes at the largest colonies (which hold over 40% of the national population). The three colonies shown share mixed fortunes, from when they were first counted before 1990, to the most recent counts between 2015 and 2018. The Isle of May has been surveyed seven times during this period and Apparently Occupied Burrows (AOB) and increased from 18,628 in 1989 to a peak of 69,300 AOB in 2003. By 2009 numbers had decreased to 44,971 AOB and to 39,200 in 2017. The return rate of adult puffins breeding on the Isle of May was very low in 2007 and 2008 (see ‘Return rates and survival rates’ below), which may explain, at least in part, the population decrease at this colony. The reasons for low return rates in these years are unknown. Fair Isle (Shetland) on the other hand, held 20,244 AOB in 1986 and experienced a similar steep increase over 14 years with a count of 80,000 AOB during Seabird 2000. Numbers then decreased and have been below 20,000 AOB since 2007. In 2015, numbers had further decreased to 6,666 AOB, a decrease of 92% since Seabird 2000 and 67% since the Seabird Colony Register. Another large colony of Atlantic puffins is found on Sule Skerry (North-west of Orkney) but it has been surveyed less frequent. It has, however, shown a smaller range of increases and decreases between censuses compared to the other two colonies which are both located to the East of Scotland; in fact, the numbers in 2018 were very similar to what they were in 1986.

 

Productivity

atlantic-puffin-scotland-prod.jpg

Figure 3. Trend in productivity (no. of chicks fledged per pair) of Atlantic puffin in Scotland, 1986–2018. Based on SMP data; view the methods of analysis.

 

Productivity has fluctuated throughout the recording period but has generally been lower since the late 1990s, contributing to a declining trend. Productivity was at its lowest in 2007 due to food shortage and unprecedented rainfall flooding burrows; these two factors also impacted productivity in 1998 and 2004. In 2012, productivity on the Isle of May (0.57 chicks fledged per nest) was lower than unusual due to high rainfall throughout the breeding season flooding many burrows. In 2015, productivity on the Isle of May (0.75) was average. On Fair Isle in 2015, Atlantic puffin productivity was 0.76 chicks per fledged pair, 13% lower than in 2014, which was their most successful breeding season since 1987. In 2015, productivity on Dun (St Kilda) was 0.58. Since 2017, average puffin productivity in Scotland has experiencing a steep increase from 0.47 to 0.74 chicks fledged per pair. On the Isle of May in 2018, Atlantic puffins had a below average breeding season with 0.67 chicks fledging per pair, although the return rate for adults (95.2%) was the highest on record.

 

England

Population estimates and change 1969–2002 (census data)

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998–2002)

Population estimate (AOB*)

8,616

36,868

75,734

% change since previous census

n/a

+328

+105

*AOB = Apparently Occupied Burrows

 

Breeding abundance

atlantic-puffin-england-ab.jpg

Figure 4. Abundance of Atlantic puffin on Coquet and the Farne Islands, 1986–2018.

 

Atlantic puffin numbers at colonies in England have increased since Operation Seafarer when 8,616 AOB were counted. The Seabird Colony Register recorded four times that number and, by Seabird 2000, numbers had doubled again. The largest English colonies are both in the north-east on the islands of the Farne Islands and Coquet, which between them held over 95% of England's puffins during the last census. The number of Atlantic puffins nesting on Coquet decreased by 40% immediately after Seabird 2000, had recovered by 2008, but declined over the next five years with a survey in 2013 recording 12,344 AOB, 36% less than in 2008. However, when birds were counted in 2018, 32,309 AOB were recorded, a 73% increase since Seabird 2000. On the Farne Islands, a far larger colony than Coquet (thus monitored less frequently), a 24% decline was recorded between 2003 (55,674 AOB) and 2008 (36,835 AOB). A survey in 2013 recorded 39,962 AOB, suggesting only a limited recovery, if any, since 2008. In 2018, 43,956 AOB were recorded, a decrease of 21% since Seabird 2000.

 

Productivity

atlantic-puffin-england-prod.jpg

Figure 5. Trend in productivity (no. of chicks fledged per pair) of Atlantic puffin in England, 1986–2017. Based on SMP data; view the methods of analysis.

 

The productivity of Atlantic puffins at colonies in England (monitored at Coquet, Farne Islands and Lundy) has been variable over time with a decline in recent years. Most of the data have been collected at the Farne Islands where food shortage, and unprecedented rainfall flooding burrows, resulted in lowered productivity in 1998 and 2007. Productivity on the Farne Islands has been particularly high in recent years. For example, in 2012, productivity was estimated at 0.84 chicks fledged from 45 monitored nests partly due to good feeding conditions. However, this may have been an artificially high figure. Normally, over 100 nests are monitored, split roughly equally between Inner Farne and Brownsman, to estimate productivity but the colony on Brownsman suffered severe flooding in April and May of 2012 with an estimated 90% of 12,000 burrows flooded such that many puffins did not attempt to breed1. In 2015, productivity was only 0.46 chicks fledged per pair. Excluding 2012, productivity on the Farne Islands never fell below 0.90 chicks fledged per egg laid between 2009 and 2014. 2018, was a good breeding year for Atlantic puffins with low rainfall and calm conditions from mid-June to end of July resulting in high productivity (0.89) on the Farne Islands. Following the eradication of black rats Rattus rattus and brown rats Rattus norvegicus on Lundy, plots to study the productivity of Atlantic puffins there have been established; 0.75 and 0.55 chicks were fledged per occupied burrow in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

 

Wales

Population estimates and change 1969–2002 (census data)

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998–2002)

Population estimate (AOB*)

4,255

11,116

10,328

% change since previous census

n/a

+161

-7

*AOB = Apparently Occupied Burrows

 

Breeding abundance

atlantic-puffin-wales-ab.jpg

Figure 6. Maximum spring count of Atlantic puffin on Skomer based on counts of individuals attending the colony in spring, 1986–2018.

 

The number of Atlantic puffins in Wales increased by 161% between Operation Seafarer and the Seabird Colony Register, with little change thereafter up to Seabird 2000. Few Welsh colonies of any size are monitored on an annual basis. However, on Skomer (which held c. 70% of the national population during Seabird 2000), regular counts are undertaken of adults attending the colony in spring. For a variety of factors these counts can vary markedly between years compared with counts of apparently occupied burrows (AOB). In 2011, no counts of attending adults were completed due to a lack of obvious evening gatherings until much later in the spring; by then, breeding would have commenced resulting in low counts due to birds being out of view in their burrows. In 2012, 11,497 individuals were recorded in spring, slightly fewer than in 2009 and 2010. However, in 2015, over 21,000 individuals were counted attending the colony in early April. In 2018, 30,895 individuals were recorded on Skomer, the highest total since records began in 1988, and an increase of 22% on the previous year (25,277)2.

 

Productivity

There has been no statistically significant difference in the productivity of Atlantic puffins at colonies in Wales, where an average of 0.72 chicks were fledged per apparently occupied burrow between 1986 and 2018.

Productivity on Skomer in 2018 was 0.75 chicks fledged per burrow, 1% lower than in 2017.

 

Northern Ireland

Population estimates and change 1969–2002 (census data)

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998–2002)

Population estimate (AOB*)

1,436

2,678

1,610

% change since previous census

n/a

+86

-40

*AOB = Apparently Occupied Burrows

 

Breeding abundance

In Northern Ireland, the Atlantic puffin population during Seabird 2000 was estimated at 1,610 AOB. Numbers had increased by 86% between Operation Seafarer and the Seabird Colony Register had fallen by 40% by Seabird 2000. Few data are available from more recent years. The largest colony is on Rathlin Island, which holds approximately 98% of the national population. A large decline appears to have occurred here since Seabird 2000; 1,579 individuals were recorded in 1999, 731 in 2007, and 695 in 2011. The only data received in 2018 was from the small colony at The Gobbins where 55 individuals were recorded compared to 28 individuals during Seabird 2000. A conservation project on the Copeland Islands, using decoys and sound lures to attract birds, has resulted in a new puffin colony being established, with breeding confirmed in 20153. However, without a whole-colony count from Rathlin Island, it is not possible to draw any meaningful conclusions on the current status of the Atlantic puffin population in Northern Ireland.

 

Productivity

No systematic data on the productivity of Atlantic puffins in Northern Ireland have been submitted to the SMP.

 

Republic of Ireland

Population estimates and change 1969–2002 (census data)

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998–2002)

Population estimate (AOB*)

26,553

17,435

19,641

% change since previous census

n/a

-34

+13

*AOB = Apparently Occupied Burrows

 

Breeding abundance

The number of Atlantic puffins in the Republic of Ireland declined by 34% between Operation Seafarer and the Seabird Colony Register but then increased by 13% by the time of Seabird 2000. The status of the species in the country since then is largely unknown. On Great Skellig, a count of individuals in early July 2010 recorded 2,170 compared to 4,000 at the same time of year in 1999. Similarly, on Puffin Island, only 1,360 individuals were counted in late April 2011 compared to 5,125 in mid-May 2000. Counts in July may not be indicative of a decline as counts at this time of year can be even more variable than counts in spring due to a wide variety of factors, e.g. adult attendance at the colony and influxes of immature birds. However, the data from Puffin Island do suggest a decline may have occurred there. The recent Republic of Ireland seabird census (2015–2018) did not publish data on Atlantic puffin due to on-going survey work4.

 

Productivity

Data submitted to the SMP on the productivity of Atlantic puffins in the Republic of Ireland are sparse; thus, no meaningful average productivity value can be given.

 

All Ireland

Population estimates and change 1969–2002 (census data)

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998–2002)

Population estimate (AOB*)

27,989

20,113

21,251

% change since previous census

n/a

-28

+6

*AOB = Apparently Occupied Burrows

 

Breeding abundance

Overall, numbers of Atlantic puffins throughout Ireland fell by 28% between Operation Seafarer and the Seabird Colony Register with little further change recorded by Seabird 2000. Due to the logistical difficulty in monitoring this burrow-nesting species, few sizeable colonies have been monitored in either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, therefore no information exists as to population trend since Seabird 2000. The recent Republic of Ireland seabird census (2015–2018) did not publish data on Atlantic puffin due to on-going survey work4. Please refer to the entries for the two individual countries for details of the most recent counts in each.

 

Productivity

Data submitted to the SMP on the productivity of Atlantic puffins from colonies throughout Ireland are sparse; thus, no meaningful average productivity value can be given.

 

Isle of Man

Population estimates and change 1969–2018 (census data)

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998–2002)

Isle of Man Census

(2017-18)

Population estimate (AOB*)

82

93

85

0

% change since previous census

n/a

+13

-9

-100

*AOB = Apparently Occupied Burrows

 

Breeding abundance

The Isle of Man has had a small but fairly stable population of Atlantic puffins since Operation Seafarer in 1969-70. Numbers have ranged from 82–93 AOB over the three censuses. In 2017/2018, an Isle of Man seabird census found no Atlantic puffin AOB, although there were puffins present in areas which were previously identified as breeding sites (Peel Hill, Spanish Head, Maughold Head)5.

 

Productivity

No systematic data on the productivity of Atlantic puffins on the Isle of Man have been submitted to the SMP.

 

Channel Islands

Population estimates and change 1969–2016 (census data)

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998–2002)

Channel Islands Census

(2016)

Population estimate (AOB*)

1,116

335

311

210

% change since previous census

n/a

-70

-7

-32

*AOB = Apparently Occupied Burrows

 

Breeding abundance

Atlantic puffins breeding on the Channel Islands have declined greatly since Operation Seafarer recorded over 1,100 AOB. Numbers during the Seabird Colony Register and Seabird 2000 were similar but were 70% less than recorded during Operation Seafarer. A recent seabird census of the Channel Islands counted 210 AOB, a 32% decrease since Seabird 20006.

 

Productivity

Data submitted to the SMP on the productivity of Atlantic puffins on the Channel Islands are sparse; thus, no meaningful average productivity value can be given.

 

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UK phenology, diet, survival rates

Phenology

No systematic data on phenology (timing of life-cycle events) have been collected as part of the SMP.

 

Diet

Our understanding of puffin diet comes from data collected at a few geographically dispersed key sites. As diet is likely to vary between sites, and given that few sites are monitored, caution should be used in drawing wider geographical conclusions from these data.

Sandeels Ammodytes spp., an energy-rich shoaling fish, comprise a large proportion of the diet of Atlantic puffins at the two sites where diet is studied. The proportion of sandeels fluctuates yearly; at Fair Isle (Shetland, Figure 7), it has declined over the monitoring period (especially the 'large' size class which has virtually disappeared from samples since 2002), although the proportion of small sandeels since 2015 has increased. The mean mass of food loads brought to puffin chicks on Fair Isle has declined since the mid-1990s (Figure 9) and, in 2014, was at its lowest level since monitoring began (1.3g). In 2015 and 2016, mean mass increased to 2.7g and 5.1g respectively but decreased again to 2.5g the year after. This may have contributed to low productivity during some years. Surprisingly, in 2018, the mean mass of fish loads brought to Atlantic puffin chicks was a staggering 11.5g – the highest value recorded in this study.

The size and energy content of sandeels caught by and available to Atlantic puffins on the Isle of May declined over the period 1973-20028, and in some years (such as 2004) the energy content of sandeels was found to be far lower than would be expected for their size and coincided with very poor productivity for Atlantic puffins and other sandeel-feeders10.

A decline in the percentage of sandeels (by weight) in the diet of young puffins between 1986 (85%) and 2018 (55%) is also evident from the data collected7 (Figure 8).

Between 2004 and 2008, snake pipefish Entelurus aequoreus appeared in the diets of many seabirds around the UK14, including Atlantic puffins during 2006–2007. The energy content of this bony fish, which before the early 2000s was scarce in UK waters, is very low15. Snake pipefish, therefore, did not provide an alternative energy source during a time when puffin's usual prey species (sandeels and sprats) were scare. Indeed, pipefish can choke chicks when fed to them in quantity. The reason for the appearance of snake pipefish was uncertain, although was not thought to be related to climate change. Since 2008, the snake pipefish has once again become scarce in UK waters.

atlantic-puffin-fish-loads.jpg

Figure 7. Composition of fish loads brought to puffin chicks on Fair Isle, 1986–2018.

 

atlantic-puffin-sandeels.jpg

Figure 8. Percentage of sandeels (by weight) in the diet of young puffins on the Isle of May, 1987–2018.

 

atlantic-puffin-mean-mass-fish-loads.jpg

Figure 9. Mean mass (g) of fish loads brought to puffin chicks on Fair Isle, 1986–2018 (± Standard Error; 1 food sample = 1 ‘beak-full’).

 

Return rates and survival rates

Important notes on interpretation: Estimation of Atlantic puffin adult return rate and survival rate is currently only undertaken at two sites within the Seabird Monitoring Programme - the Isle of May and Skomer. Return rates are based on sightings of individually colour-ringed birds and are calculated as the proportion of marked birds present in year one that is seen in the following year. Because not every adult alive is seen each year, return rates for 2018 presented here for Isle of May need to be treated as minimum estimates of survival of birds seen in 2017. In contrast, survival estimates – as presented here for Skomer – do take into account birds that are not seen one year but which re-appear in following years.

 

atlantic-puffin-annual-return-rate.jpg

Figure 10. Annual return rate of Atlantic puffin breeding on the Isle of May, 1987–2018.

 

The return rates of Atlantic puffins breeding on the Isle of May (Figure 10) has shown no consistent trend, though declined slightly between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s. It did, however, fall to extremely low levels in 2006/07 (56.9%) and 2007/08 (59.4%). Since then it has risen to more typical levels, although decreased to 72.3% in 2015/16 which was well below the study’s average (1986–2014 average 82.9%, 95% CI = 79.5-86.3). In contrast, the return rate of Atlantic puffins in 2017/18 was 95.2%, the highest record since the study began in 19867.

 

atlantic-puffin-annual-survival-rate.jpg

Figure 11. Annual survival rate of Atlantic puffin breeding on Skomer, 1986–2018.

 

Atlantic puffins breeding on Skomer (Figure 11) show a noticeable downward trend in survival, but without the sharp declines in 2007 and 2008 that were seen on the Isle of May. Little is currently known of the causes of changes in these survival rates, although recent evidence suggests a shift in overwintering range of Isle of May breeders from the North Seas into the east Atlantic, possibly reflecting deteriorating conditions in the North Sea16.

In the winter of 2013/14, a succession of severe storms from late January to the beginning of March resulted in a large 'wreck' of seabirds along Atlantic coasts from England and Ireland to Spain. A minimum of 54,000 seabirds, mostly auks, were washed ashore dead or dying. Examination of many corpses revealed birds were emaciated with empty stomachs indicating starvation as the main cause of death although a small proportion showed signs of oil contamination17. About 55% of the casualties were Atlantic puffins, with recoveries of birds ringed for migration studies (over 180 were reported compared to two or three during an 'average' year) indicating many originated from UK and Irish breeding sites17. Examination of 350 dead puffins recovered from beaches in the UK also indicated 78% were adults and 5% birds in their first winter. Total mortality will be much higher as not all beaches were checked, birds were washed ashore over a number of weeks and many birds will be lost unrecorded at sea17.

The effect of this 'wreck' on breeding populations is now emerging. Only 59.6% of 2013’s breeding adults retuned to Skomer in 2014, the poorest on record and a drop of almost 25% on 2012-13 (84.2%). Long-term capture-recapture analyses show that the reliable estimate of average survival remains at 0.91, with signs of a recovery in survival rates after the steady decline from 1994 to 2008. The effects of the 2013-14 storms are revealed by 2015 resighting data (a total of 74.2% breeding adults), which allows the estimation of survival rates that was previously not possible with confidence. Puffin survival dropped from the study’s annual average of 91% (1973–2013) to 68% in 2013-14. In 2014-15 adult breeding survival returned to the high levels of recent years (2013-14 aside), indicating a good year for adult overwinter survival. The breeding adult survival rate in 2016-17 was 0.912. The long-term impacts of severe climatic events such as the 2013-14 seabird wreck remain poorly understood and more long-term seabird studies are needed.

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References

1 Steele, D. 2012. Farne Islands Breeding Birds Report 2012. Unpublished report, The National Trust, Northumberland.

2 Stubbings, E.M., Büche, B.I., Riordan, J.A., Baker, B. and Wood, M.J. 2018. Seabird monitoring on Skomer Island in 2018. Unpublished JNCC Report, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough.

3 Wolsey, S. and Smyth, W. 2017. Establishing a Puffin Colony on the Copeland Islands. Northern Ireland Seabird Report 2016.

4 Cummins, S., Lauder, C., Lauder, A. and Tierney, T. D. 2019. The Status of Ireland’s Breeding Seabirds: Birds Directive Article 12 Reporting 2013 – 2018. Irish Wildlife Manuals, No. 114. National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Ireland.

5 Hill, R.W., Morris, N. G., Bowman, and K. A., Wright, D. 2019. The Isle of Man Seabird Census: Report on the census of breeding seabirds in the Isle of Man 2017-18. Manx BirdLife. Laxey, Isle of Man.

6 Veron, M. and Veron, C. 2016. Seabird Count 2015; monitoring the status of Guernsey’s Seabirds. La Société Transactions, Channel Islands.

7 Newell, M, Harris, M.P., Burthe, S., Bennett, S., Gunn, C.M., Wanless S. and Daunt, F. 2019. Isle of May seabird studies in 2018. Unpublished JNCC Report, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough.

8 Wanless, S., Wright, P.J., Harris, M.P. and Elston, D.A. 2004. Evidence for decrease in size of lesser sandeels Ammodytes marinus in a North Sea aggregation over a 30-yr period. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 279, 237–246.

9 Wanless, S., Harris, M.P., Newell, M.A., Speakman, J.R. and Daunt F. 2018. Community-wide decline in the occurrence of lesser sandeels Ammodytes marinus in seabird chick diets at a North Sea colony. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 600, 193–206.

10 Wanless, S., Harris, M.P., Redman, P. and Speakman, J.R. 2005. Low energy values of fish as a probable cause of a major seabird breeding failure in the North Sea. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 294, 1–8.

11 Beaugrand, G., Edwards, M., Brander, K., Luczak, C. and Ibanez, F. 2008. Causes and projections of abrupt climate-driven ecosystem shifts in the North Atlantic. Ecology Letters, 11, 1157–1168.

12 Kirby, R.R. and Beaugrand, G. 2009. Trophic amplification of climate warming. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 276, 4095–4103.

13 Luczak, C., Beaugrand, G., Lindley, J.A., Dewarumez, J.M., Dubois, P.J. and Kirby, R.R. 2012. North Sea ecosystem change from swimming crabs to seabirds. Biological Letters, 8, 821–824.

14 Harris, M. P., Beare, D., Toresen, R., Nøttestad, L., Kloppmann, M., Dörner, H., Peach, K., Rushton, D. R. A., Foster-Smith, J. and Wanless, S. 2007. A major increase in snake pipefish (Entelurus aequoreus) in northern European seas since 2003: potential implications for seabird breeding success. Marine Biology, 151, 973–983.

15 Harris, M.P., Newell, M., Daunt, F., Speakman, J. and Wanless, S. 2007. Snake pipefish Entelurus aequoreus are poor food for seabirds. Ibis, 150, 413–415.

16 Harris, M.P., Daunt, F., Newell, M., Phillips, R.A. and Wanless, S. 2009. Wintering areas of adult Atlantic puffins Fratercula arctica from a North Sea colony as revealed by geolocation technology. Marine Biology. DOI 10.1007/s00227-009-1365-0.

17 Jessop, H. Seabird tragedy in the north-east Atlantic winter 2013/14. Unpublished RSPB Report, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Sandy.

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Partners

Data have been provided to the SMP by the generous contributions of its partners, other organisations and volunteers throughout Britain and Ireland. Partners to the SMP are: BirdWatch Ireland; The British Trust for Ornithology; UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology; Natural Resources Wales; Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture (Isle of Man); Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Republic of Ireland); States of Guernsey Government; JNCC; Manx Birdlife; Manx National Heritage; The National Trust; National Trust for Scotland; Natural England; Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs; The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; Scottish Natural Heritage; Seabird Group; Shetland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group; Scottish Wildlife Trust. More about the SMP partners >>

 

Image of Puffin appears courtesy of Ian Rendall ©, is subject to international copyright law and may not be reproduced in any form whatsoever.

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SMP Report 1986–2018

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