ISLE OF MAY: At the height of the breeding season, some 200,000 birds, from kittiwakes to guillemots, take refuge on the Isle of May, off the east coast of Scotland. Among them, puffins, whose decline worries conservationists.
“The population really exploded in the 80s and 90s and then suddenly there was a collapse,” David Steel, head of the nature reserve, told AFP. “We lost nearly 30% of all puffins in the mid-2000s and since then the population has been slowly increasing but nothing like it was before.”
Some 80 kilometers away, in the Farne Islands, northeast of England, the same story.
In these two places, global warming, high winds, rains, coastal erosion, pollution and overfishing of sand eels – the puffin’s favorite food – are blamed for the decline in the number of these black-feathered birds. and white and with a large variegated beak, also nicknamed “sea clowns”.
In 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classified puffins as a “vulnerable” species, due to significant declines in Europe.
Rising sea temperatures caused the sand eels to move north to cooler waters, forcing the birds to follow them. But more extreme weather conditions can be fatal to them.
Puffins, which measure just under 30 centimeters and weigh around 450 grams, include seagulls and seals among their predators.
Also present in Brittany, they only lay a single egg in April or May.
Due to their low reproductive rate, populations can take decades to recover from a sudden shock.
A full census of puffins is underway on the Farne Islands and the Isle of May. A limited count last year recorded 36,211 breeding pairs on four of the Farne Islands, up from 42,474 pairs in 2018.
Puffin numbers on the islands had peaked at 55,674 pairs in 2003 before plummeting sharply to 36,835 in 2008 due to extremely low sandeel numbers.
Zoologist Richard Bevan, from the University of Newcastle, hopes the resumption of the annual count will give a more accurate estimate.
Prior to 2018, teams of researchers would check every burrow on an island and make an estimate. The university then found a way to make subsamples to establish an accurate estimate of the population.
Measuring the number of puffins remains difficult, stresses Mr. Bevan, however.
It is sometimes easy to spot a bird, returning to the nest full of fish, but puffins can also stay in their burrows.
“Often the only way is to stick your arm down a burrow and check it out,” says the scientist.
That’s what coastguards are doing on one of the Farne Islands, gently extending their arms.
“A lot of times you get a little peck, which is a good sign because it means the burrow is busy,” says one of the guards, Rosie Parsons.
The 2022 census will give scientists an idea of how the puffin population is affected by factors such as climate change. “Looking at the data, it’s concerning that over the past four years we’ve seen a downward trend,” Bevan said.
“However, these are data for a short period and compared to the population of the early 1990s, they are still reasonable figures.”
Although there is no immediate danger of the puffins going extinct, the fact that their numbers are dwindling “causes concern”, he says. “If this continues, we need to be aware of the contributing factors and how to address them.”
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