Friday, 12 April 2013

Assessing the 2013 Atlantic Puffin wreck

Three weeks on from the first reports of a puffin ‘wreck’ in Eastern Scotland and NE England CEH’s seabird ecology team are beginning to assess the longer term impact on the overall population. With help from members of the public and organisations such as the RSPB, SNH and the Scottish Seabird Centre we’ve been able to put together a map of locations where dead birds have been reported. Other species have also been found dead on the beaches of the East Coast, including guillemots, razorbills, shags and kittiwakes.

Google Map showing locations of reported seabird 'wrecks'

View 2013 Puffin wreck in a larger map

There are now two key questions: why did it happen and what impact will it have on the populations?

Prof Mike Harris writes, “All the Puffins we have examined so far have been emaciated, had empty stomachs, atrophied breast muscles and lacking subcutaneous and mesenteric fat – in other words the proximate cause of death appears to be starvation. Deciding whether this was due to lack of food, an inability to feed efficiently or to some other factor(s) is much more tricky.”

Later this month (in the week starting 29th April) CEH scientists and volunteers will carry out an assessment of the puffin population on the Isle of May. We have been monitoring seabird populations on the Isle of May for more than 40 years, and carry out a full count every five years, so by July we hope to know the effects of the 2013 wreck at this colony. As more than half the corpses were of breeding age we expect adult survival to be lower than normal. However, whether this will result in a measurable decrease in numbers breeding is unclear.

Another serious wreck (in 1983) did not result in a demonstrable reduction in breeding numbers of puffins on the Isle of May. However in the 1980s the population was increasing rapidly. The last puffin count on the Isle of May (in 2008) showed that the population was no longer increasing, so it remains to be seen whether it is still sufficiently resilient to cope with the 2013 wreck or if breeding numbers will decline.

Prof Mike Harris and Prof Sarah Wanless of CEH have written a detailed article on the 2013 ‘wreck’ which will be published in the next issue of British Birds (1 May) and also on the British Birds website.

Additional information

Images of the puffin 'wreck' as well as images of puffins on the Isle of May can be found in our recently updated 2013 Puffin 'wreck' Flickr set.

CEH's Seabird Ecology research  

RSPB Scotland

Scottish Natural Heritage

Scottish Seabird Centre

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