Puffins on Coquet Island

PUBLISHED: 11:35 13 March 2008 | UPDATED: 15:03 20 February 2013

Coquet Island

Coquet Island

Around Easter every year, when Coquet Island's manager Paul Morrison receives word from local fishermen of a dozen puffins offshore, he draws a deep breath. Because he knows that behind these 'scouts' are 21,988 more...

Around Easter every year, when Coquet Island's manager Paul Morrison receives word from local fishermen of a dozen puffins offshore, he draws a deep breath. Because he knows that behind these 'scouts' are 21,988 more birds. And that is just the start. After the puffins come 6,000 screeching black-headed gulls followed by thousands of common, Sandwich, Arctic and roseate terns. The birds will wheel in great clouds above the isle and clamber for their share of Coquet's five and a half hectares.
Puffins spend the winter at sea and come to land to breed. As they near Coquet, they tumble and flap furiously trying to lessen the blow of what is essentially a crash landing. Yet this ungainly bird is an agile hunter and appears to fly underwater, propelled by paddle-like wings.

Unlike puffins, terns - affectionately known as 'sea swallows' because of their long tails - jet in from West Africa. Quite why they fly thousands of miles to raise their chicks on a minute grassy mound one mile from Amble is still little understood.

Somehow, every pair manages to find a suitable spot on Coquet to set up home. Some birds, however, are more particular than others. Take the roseate terns. Eight years ago they were rather pleased when they arrived on Coquet to find that RSPB staff and volunteers had made each pair their very own summerhouse. Made out of driftwood and old footpath signs, they have become so attached to their sea-view pads, arranged along dry-stone wall terraces, that researchers have noticed some return to the same hut every year.
What is more, the birds appear to decorate their homes. 'They create beautiful nests out of shell fragments and shingle,' says Paul, who has been involved with the island for twenty years. 'One year, a bird chose daffodils, another used paint fragments found near the island's buildings. I've also seen a Gothic hut decked out with rabbit bones.'
Roseate terns are the rarest breeding seabird in the UK and 90 per cent of Britain's population raise chicks on Coquet. 'They are globally threatened so our activities on the island centre on them - they are our priority,' says Paul.
The nesting boxes help protect tern chicks from harsh weather and predators that may eat them given the chance. Since they were installed in 2000, the breeding population has tripled to almost 100 pairs. This means the RSPB has to continually make new terraces and boxes in order to accommodate the larger number of birds arriving each spring.

'The terraces look like the Great Wall of China. It won't be long before you can see them from space,' laughs Paul. So how does the Coquet team celebrate a new nesting pair? 'We open a bottle of rosé! Well, we used to, but the boxes have been so successful that we've had to cut down to a glass.'

It is not just the roseate terns that receive dedicated attention though: eider ducks, also in decline, are provided with compartments adjoining a protective wall. Others are encouraged to move in to the old pigsties. Though their nest is made from highly insulating down feathers, the extra protection provided by these cubby-holes ensures more chicks fledge.

The history of eider conservation on Coquet and the Farne Islands goes back many hundreds of years to when St Cuthbert kept watch over the birds in the 7th century.
Interestingly, the saint is depicted with an eider duck in a stained-glass window in Amble's St Cuthbert's Church. He is thought to be one of the earliest nature conservationists and the local name, Cuddy's Duck, is believed to originate from this connection. Today, the RSPB continues his crusade.

Providing nesting boxes and 24-hour care on Coquet has, no doubt, increased the survival rate of the seabird chicks - and prevented the odd egg-thief from adding to his illegal collection. But what is more difficult to influence is a constant food supply. In recent years, the availability of sandeels, the main diet of terns and puffins, has fluctuated quite dramatically and the RSPB, as well as conservationists on the Farne Islands, have reported thousands of starving chicks. In desperation, adult seabirds have tried to feed their chicks with pipe fish - a long leathery creature that is difficult to digest. They wind around the inside of the chick's throat, choking them.
Even puffins - which can dive deeper than seabirds such as terns and kittiwakes, for their preferred food of sandeels - have been struggling.

Experts believe over-fishing and rising sea temperatures are responsible for the decline in sandeels. Easter 2004 was a particularly anxious time for conservationists on Coquet as just 100 puffins landed in March instead of the usual twenty thousand plus.
The breeding population that year did eventually recover but the season was delayed and numbers were down by several thousand.
The last few years have, thankfully, been more stable but irregular breeding and failed nests could become more frequent.

'It is early days,' says Paul, 'but alarm bells are ringing. I'm very worried.'
Back on Coquet, Paul and his team are in the midst of the breeding season. Nest boxes are being monitored, chicks ringed and the odd fledgling rescued. Last year, the local prison called to report a disorientated puffin had landed in its courtyard. But, by September, this isle, with its charming 19th century lighthouse and monastic ruins, will be silent once more. As quickly as the birds arrived, they will depart en masse and just as spontaneously. With the seabirds on their way to warmer climes, you may think the RSPB team would sit back and enjoy a last well-earned bottle of rosé, but you'd be wrong. There are summerhouses to fix, vegetation to cut, tools to be mended and an extension to the Great Wall of Coquet to build.

Coquet Island is leased to the RSPB by the Duke of Northumberland. The RSPB works closely with Natural England, the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Trinity House, SITA Trust and the Natural History Society of Northumbria.

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