Atlantic Puffin numbers on the Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR) off Scotland's east coast are at similar levels to 2009 despite this spring's severe weather.
The results of the latest puffin survey carried out by scientists from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology are released today. They indicate that a total of 46,000 burrows showed signs of use by puffins this spring, an almost identical total to the last count which was completed in 2009.
The Isle of May NNR is home to the largest colony of puffins in the North Sea and has been the main centre of the UK science community's research into puffins for nearly four decades.
The result is a surprise as, earlier this year, just as they were returning to the colonies in March, severe weather resulted in the deaths of thousands of seabirds along the coasts of eastern Scotland and north-east England. Examination of the bodies of some of the 3500 dead puffins and ringing recoveries suggested that many of the birds involved were breeding adults from local colonies.
Images of dead and dying puffins had resulted in great concern about the future of the major puffin breeding colonies in the region, especially since there was a 30% decline in the numbers of puffins on the Isle of May between 2003 and 2009.
The survey was led by Professor Mike Harris, Emeritus Research Fellow at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who has studied puffins for 41 years. Professor Harris said, "This March's wreck has clearly had a serious effect on the puffins on the Isle of May but, perhaps surprisingly, numbers are very similar to the last count which took place in 2009. Our general impression over the last few years was that the population was increasing slowly and this may explain why we have not seen a decline following the recent wreck."
The count also revealed that the March wreck seriously disrupted breeding on the Isle of May, with laying two to three weeks later than normal, and it is possible that some birds will not breed this year.
Distressing as this wreck was, we have seen much higher mortality of Isle of May puffins in four other winters in the last 40 winters. Only twice, in December 2006 and October 2007, were large numbers of dead puffins reported. It appears that Puffins normally die well away from land so that dead birds are unlikely to be found.
SNH's Reserve manager for the Isle of May, David Pickett said, "Despite the publicity of the wreck in March, the Isle of May NNR is still one of the best places to see puffins in the UK and together with the mass of other seabirds make it one of the best wildlife spectacles to be found in Scotland." David added, "This late breeding could even result in puffins remaining at the colonies until later in the summer than normal, giving people even more opportunity to enjoy watching them."
Professor Harris added, "The wreck has, however, seriously affected the timing of breeding with those birds that did survive breeding very late. It would not be surprising if they needed a few weeks to recover and get into breeding condition. We now wait to see how successful these birds are in raising chicks this summer."
This year's count was funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) with assistance from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.
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