Western Palearctic's first Horned Puffin identified in Norway


The Western Palearctic's first Horned Puffin has been identified from photographs taken in Arctic Norway more than a decade ago.

The bird was photographed at sea off the island of Hornøya on 12 August 2009. Hornøya, famed for its breeding seabirds, is situated offshore from the popular birding destination of Vardø on the Varanger Peninsula in Finnmark – at the northern tip of the country.

A breeding-plumaged adult, the Horned Puffin was observed by Belgian birder Erwin Van de Put and others, who were on a birding trip to Varanger. The bird was recognised as appearing different but wrongly assumed to be an aberrant or juvenile [Atlantic] Puffin at the time.

It is only now, more than 12 years on from the sighting, that the bird's true identity has been realised, after Mr Van de Put reorganised his photo collection from the trip and noticed the unusual alcid, which he was able to identify as a Horned Puffin. He then reported the sighting via email to BirdLife Norway, which broke the news on 18 January 2022.

The Horned Puffin at Hornøya on 12 August 2009 (Erwin Van de Put / BirdLife Norway).

Horned Puffin is native to subarctic waters in the North Pacific, where its large nesting colonies are isolated and difficult to access. Unlike Puffin, which breeds in burrows in soil, Horned Puffin nests in rock crevices and on cliffs. Its world population is estimated at more than 1 million individuals.

The increased decline in sea ice during the summer in the Arctic Ocean, particularly the North-West Passage, which links the Arctic and Pacific Oceans along the Canadian Arctic coast, has long been predicted to increase the occurrence of Pacific species in the North Atlantic. Indeed, species such as Pacific Diver have rapidly become more regular in Europe, while there has been an upturn in records of Pacific gull species, such as Glaucous-winged and Slaty-backed Gulls.

In recent years, there have been numerous records of two Pacific puffin species in north-west Greenland: a Horned Puffin was observed annually between summers 2002 and 2006, with a second from 2013-2019. A Tufted Puffin was also seen in the area in 2019.

Significantly, there have also been four Western Palearctic records of Tufted Puffin. The first occurred in Sweden in June 1994; famously, the second involved a bird seen in Kent, England, in on 16 September 2009, with the third photographed on Svalbard in summer 2019 and returning there in late May 2020. A fourth, an immature, was shot by a Faroese hunter in January 2020. There is also an unsubmitted record of a bird photographed off Cornwall, England, in May 2016.

Written by: Josh Jones

Josh Jones manages BirdGuides.com and is Editor of Birdwatch magazine. He is an avid birder and keen all-round naturalist. Follow him on Twitter: @jrmjones

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