The Farnes Little friars
PUBLISHED: 08:44 08 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:06 20 February 2013
It's easy to see why puffins are sometimes known as 'clowns of the sea', but they are the star attraction for thousands of visitors to the Farne Islands WORDS AND PICTURES BYANN AND STEVE TOON
July on the Farne Islands is Tommy Noddy time. That's puffin time to those of you with only a passing knowledge of Geordie dialect. These dumpy little seabirds with their distinctive red, yellow and blue bills are present in their tens of thousands right now, clustering in sociable groups on grassy slopes and yellow lichen-encrusted rocks, flying in from fishing expeditions with beaks improbably full of sand eels, or taking off in a whirr of black and white wings and heading back out to sea in search of more food for their demanding chicks, hidden deep in burrows among the turf. It's a spectacle that draws thousands of visitors to the Farnes each summer, with boat landings on Staple Island and Inner Farne guaranteed to give superb close-up encounters with the puffins themselves and a host of supporting characters, including razorbills and guillemots crowded together on the narrowest of cliff ledges, arctic terns, viciously defending their eggs and chicks with aerial attacks on unwary tourists, and shags perched on scruffy nests right by the path. But it's the puffins that are the star attraction. Cross a parrot with a penguin and you'd get something close to a puffin. On dry land puffins put the auk into awkward, waddling about clumsily on oversized orange feet, and it's easy to see why they are sometimes known as 'clowns of the sea'.
Easy, too, to see where their scientific name, 'Fratercula arctica', comes from - it translates as 'little friar of the arctic', and the puffin's black and white plumage and upright stance certainly is distinctly reminiscent of a rotund monk. Yet for all their comical appearance, puffins are superbly adapted to their marine life. For most of the year they are birds of the open sea, living far from land, bobbing about on the waters of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans, often alone or in pairs. Diving for fish they use their wings like paddles to 'fly' down to depths as great as 15 metres (50 ft), no mean achievement for a bird that stands no more than 30cm (1 ft) tall. Those large, clumsy webbed feet are perfect here in the ocean, providing extra underwater propulsion. And that parrot-like bill becomes a formidable fishing tool, with razor-sharp edges and backward pointing spikes that enable it to carry numerous sand eels and small fish. Rather than open at an angle, the upper and lower parts of the puffin's bill can open in parallel to one another, like the jaws of a vice. It's a natty design feature that allows puffins to carry as many as 60 or more sand-eels at a time. Puffins come ashore to their breeding colonies in spring, choosing offshore islands such as the Farnes, or steep cliffs where they are less vulnerable to predators, although gulls and skuas remain a threat. They dig burrows more than one metre deep, ending in a nest chamber, using their beaks and clawed feet, or they may take over an abandoned rabbit hole. These burrows may be re-used year after year, for puffins generally mate for life and can live a long time - the oldest recorded on the Farnes was 31. The Farne Islands' puffin population has been booming in recent years, with the number of breeding pairs rising from 6,800 in 1969 to 55,675 in 2003. So it came as a shock when last year's count, the first for five years, revealed a dramatic fall in numbers, to 36,500 breeding pairs. The census was carried out by a team of National Trust wardens, led by head warden David Steel. It's a messy, sometimes painful job, which takes three months to complete. The counters have to push an arm down each burrow to feel if it is occupied, and are often rewarded with a hard bite for their efforts. Perhaps worse, they may discover the latrine chamber, full of fishy slime that puffins build in their burrows. Protective gloves are a no-no, as they would increase the chance of breaking delicate eggs or hurting the young birds. Results of the 2008 survey were doubly disappointing, because the Farnes appeared to have been bucking the trend. Major puffin colonies in the Northern Isles of Scotland have been in decline for a number of years, probably because of changes in the availability of sand eels, the puffin's preferred prey. Overfishing and rising sea temperatures caused by global warming have been blamed for the sand eels moving away to beyond the flight range of nesting birds. But up until now sand eel numbers were thought to be holding up well around the Farnes. Research on the Isle of May, another important breeding colony in the Firth of Forth, not far north of the Farnes, has shown the average size of sand eels caught by puffins has been dropping there, and puffins have increasingly been bringing back other prey, such as pipe fish, which have very little nutritional value.Whether this is a factor that's starting to affect the Farnes puffins isn't clear. But there's another possibility. Puffins returning to the Isle of May at the start of the breeding season have been found to be underweight, suggesting the problem may lie with what happens to them during the winter. On the Farnes, David Steel says good numbers of puffins are successfully fledged each year, but fewer appear to be returning to breed in following years. 'Presumably fewer birds are surviving over winter than are needed to maintain current volumes.' Surprisingly little is known about what happens to puffins in the winter. It could be that more intense storms, brought about by climate change, are making it harder for them to find food. Scientists studying the Isle of May puffins have started tracking their winter movements by fitting small geolocators to leg rings. These record the exact moment of dusk and dawn each day, so when they are recovered by catching the birds the following year it's possible to map latitude and longitude movements. The National Trust is now looking into carrying out similar tracking of Farne Island puffins. For the present at least, there are still plenty enough puffins on the Farnes to make this one of Britain's greatest wildlife spectacles.We'll be visiting the islands this month to carry out our own personal puffin recording project - with our cameras. Photographing these engaging, comical, and approachable characters has to be one of the most enjoyable forms of wildlife photography going, but only if you can stop laughing long enough in order to hold the camera steady!