Tens of thousands of dead seabirds washed up in Bay of Biscay

Puffins are often badly affected by Atlantic storms, but the complete cause of the large number of recent deaths has yet to be fully assessed. Photo: Jörg Hempel (commons.wikimedia.org).
Puffins are often badly affected by Atlantic storms, but the complete cause of the large number of recent deaths has yet to be fully assessed. Photo: Jörg Hempel (commons.wikimedia.org).
A survey of stranded seabirds on the Atlantic coast of France has found more than 21,000 of their corpses washed up on shores between Brittany and Spain.

A co-ordinated count that took place last weekend (22-23 February) from Finistère to the Spanish border resulted in 21,341 dead birds begin retrieved, along with and another 2,784 brought to veterinary centres to aid recovery. Several thousand dead seabirds were already counted earlier in the month and fishermen and other boat users reported that there were "carpets of dead birds" still floating at sea.

The vast majority were Puffins (more than 12,229 individuals), with smaller numbers of Common Guillemots (5,443) and a lesser percentage of Razorbills (376) and Kittiwakes (no exact figure available yet). The numbers are expected to increase in the coming days and weeks as more birds are washed ashore.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) have already previously reported a record number of British-ringed Puffins being washed up dead on the coasts of France and Spain. Instead of the usua two or three birds reported in a normal winter, the BTO has had more than 35 reported in the last few weeks. The previous highest number of ringed birds found was back in 1979 when 17 dead Puffins were reported.

British Puffinswhich have undergone declines in recent years – spend winter in the Atlantic ocean, riding out the worst that the weather can throw at them  and make their way into the Bay of Biscay as the winter progresses. Birds recovered in the current 'wreck' have come from colonies in west Wales, northern Scotland, Orkney and Shetland.

Mark Grantham, Ringing Officer at the BTO, commented: “Up until the last couple of weeks it seemed that our Puffins might have survived the worst of the winter. However, from the reports of ringed birds that are being washed-up on the Biscay beaches it would seem that the recent storms were just too much for many of the birds. We must remember that if over 35 ringed birds have been found, many un-ringed birds must have been affected too.” This comment now seems to be becoming somewhat of an understatement as the French figures continue to emerge.

This was the third weekend of counts mobilised by the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO), the French equivalent of the RSPB or BTO and the country's BirdLife International partner. The organisation expected there to be a lot of seabird corpses found after prolonged storms in Biscay, but the numbers counted are a new record. The dead birds are washing up in a fairly even spread down the coast, with nearly 3,900 birds counted in Loire-Atlantique, 4,557 in Vendee, 6,174 in Charente-Maritime and 3,651 in the Aquitaine region. These provisional numbers are expected to rise more in the coming days.

The LPO has asked its members and volunteers to count seabirds on the coast again on the coming two weekends (1-2 and 8-9 March 2014), as they are fully expecting the strandings to continue and aim to rescue any birds still living, and take them to local wildlife and veterinary centres. If you happen to be in France, you can participate by exploring a stretch of coastline at low tide, listing any birds found and enter the data onto your computer, the organisation says.

It is not known yet if the numbers of dead auks and other seabirds lost will be noticeable as they begin to arrive at their breeding colonies, but it looks like Puffins at least may be a bit thin on the ground this spring after their winter mortality in Biscay.