July target bird: Puffin

Puffins are best seen during the breeding season, when they gather in large colonies. Photo: Anthony Roberts.
Puffins are best seen during the breeding season, when they gather in large colonies. Photo: Anthony Roberts.

This is a great month to look at seabirds at their colonies and none are finer than the diminutive Puffin, with its clown-like appearance. A pelagic species, it spends the winter out at sea, where it is not visible to most birders.

Puffin breeds in the North Atlantic, including the Barents Sea, with the greatest numbers in Iceland, Norway, Britain and Ireland, North America and the Faroes. The world population is estimated at 6-7 million breeding pairs.

The last seabird census in Britain and Ireland (1998-2002) estimated that there were 600,000 breeding pairs; 493,000 of these were in Scotland, 75,000 in England, 10,000 in Wales and 21,000 in Ireland. However, there have been declines in some areas since the survey.

In Britain, Puffins arrive back at most colonies in late March and early April, and they start to leave again in August. Birds from north-eastern colonies spend most of the winter in the North Sea, but some do venture round the top of Scotland into the Atlantic, returning to the North Sea by January. Birds from other British populations can move even further, with some recorded as far south as the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands.

Young Puffins tend to range further than adults, with birds found in north-west Africa, Greenland and Newfoundland. Norwegian Puffins gather in the Barents Sea after breeding. Icelandic Puffins have been recovered as far apart as the Bay of Biscay and Newfoundland, and many spend the winter largely in the east Atlantic.

Puffin is now regarded as monotypic, although at one time three subspecies were recognised, and the visibly large-billed northernmost population (previously known as naumanni) may be genetically distinct. The colourful beak is only present in the breeding season, and the horny, coloured plates that cover it are shed in the late summer as the bird also undergoes a feather moult, eventually becoming flightless as its wing feathers are replaced.

Despite their ungainly appearance in the air, Puffins are strong fliers. Photo: Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com).

As a Puffin gets older the number of grooves on its beak increases. Birds take four years to achieve adulthood, at which time they have two grooves; they may attain a third groove, and very rarely even a fourth. Puffins have strong claws, which they use for digging, and the inner claw is long and curved, and is also used when fighting. Although strong fliers, their small wings make it difficult for them to fly slowly in calm conditions, when they often crash-land.

Puffins have long been eaten in many cultures, and they were caught in many parts of Britain. The dark meat was usually dried or pickled and could be eaten a year later. Birds were caught using nets, nooses and poles, and on St Kilda a record 620 birds were caught in a single day. Eggs were also eaten and feathers were used in mattresses.

A Puffin will usually carry between five and 10 fish in its beak, but will occasionally manage many more, with the record number in a single British Puffin’s beak being 61 sandeels and one rockling. Present threats to the species include predators, both avian and mammalian (especially rats), pollution at sea, particularly oil, and overfishing.

How to see
The best way to see Puffins is at their breeding colonies, as at other times they are out at sea and rarely within sight. Visit a mainland colony like Bempton Cliffs RSPB in East Yorkshire, or one of the island colonies like the Farnes, Northumberland, or the Pembrokeshire islands. Boat trips offshore provide an ideal way to watch Puffins at otherwise inaccessible colonies. Why not take advantage of a seabird cruise – see Events (page 12) for details.
Most of these sites are nature reserves and viewing is usually easy, although it may involve a boat journey in some cases.

Where to watch

England ­­
Northumberland: Farne Islands
(NU 230370)
East Yorkshire: Bempton Cliffs RSPB (TA 197738)
Cumbria: St Bees Head RSPB
(NX 959118)
Devon: Lundy (SS 136447)

• Shetland:
Hermaness (HP 597179), Fair Isle (HZ 221723) and Sumburgh Head RSPB (HU 407079)
Orkney: North Hill RSPB (HY 495538)
Highland: Dunnet Head RSPB
(ND 201766)
Aberdeenshire: Troup Head RSPB
(NJ 822665) and Fowlsheugh RSPB (NO 879808)
Ayrshire: Staffa (NM 326351) and Ailsa Craig RSPB (NX 020998)
Fife: Isle of May (NT 656992)
Anglesey: South Stack RSPB
(SH 211818)
Pembrokeshire: Skomer (SM 728093) and Skokholm (SM 736050)
Co Antrim: Rathlin Island RSPB
(NR 282092)
Co Donegal: Tory Island (B 853466)
Co Clare: Cliffs of Moher (R 038921)
Co Kerry: Great Skellig (V 247606)
Co Wexford: Great Saltee (X 945966)