The Puffins of Burhou
The Puffins of Burhou, Channel Islands
Words // CLAIRE THORPE // SPONSORED BY SURE
I arrived in Alderney in 2016, to fill one of the Alderney Wildlife Trust’s voluntary placements, the People and Wildlife Officer, for one year, having recently completed my MSc in Conservation and was looking for a job that gave me the chance to really make a difference to wildlife.
Like most people in the UK I’d never heard of Alderney before and knew very little about the Channel Islands (potatoes, cows and low taxes pretty much covered it). But the varied aspects of the job drew me in and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Arriving in January, within about a month the gannets had arrived and then, along with many spring migrant birds passing over and invertebrate beginning to appear after winter, we had the puffins to look forward to.
Since those early days I have been lucky enough to receive a bursary from a local charitable trust, which has enabled me to stay on in Alderney, as I now approach the end of my 4th year here.
In that time we’ve had lots of new projects start up and changes have been made to many others, including the monitoring of the Burhou puffins. We spend very little time on the islet now, as working with the cameras (set up before the birds arrive back in spring) avoids trips which may cause disturbance to the birds. We can monitor the puffins feeding their chicks and breeding success from the camera as well as count the numbers rafting on the water. They also still play a big part in our work engaging children in the Channel Islands and UK with this charismatic little seabirds through the live video the cameras produce.
Alderney has also introduced a ‘Puffin Friendly Zone’, asking boats to stay outside of the bay where the puffins sit, again reducing disturbance to the birds.
We think numbers are starting to stabilise and perhaps even grow as the small colony on Burhou recovers from the devastating storms of 2013/14 and the AWT will continue to improve on our monitoring and research techniques to ensure we are conserving the birds and their habitats as best we can.
‘They’re so small!’ is probably one of the most common things to hear on the Alderney Wildlife Trust boat trips between April and August, as we stop to watch puffins by Burhou. Standing at about 18cm tall puffins are small birds, especially when you remember that they spend over half their life on the open ocean, far from the relative calm of land. Worldwide there are four different species of puffin, but ours is the only one found in the Atlantic – the Atlantic Puffin.
These lovable birds are instantly recognisable with their disproportionately large bright beak and distinctive black and white markings. The Atlantic Puffin is even thought to take its Latin name, Fratercula Arctica, from this striking appearance. It translates to ‘little brother of the north’ as, when they got this name in the 1800s, people thought their black and white feathers resembled the robes of a monk.
Here in Alderney the puffins tend to arrive back in the last week of March or early April, with dates varying each year depending on conditions out at sea. It’s always a nail-biting wait for them to arrive if they have a late year! They will be seen in the bay just off Burhou ‘rafting’ or sitting on the water, we try and count their numbers at this point and compare it to counts throughout the breeding season to get a good idea of the number of adults raising a chick on the islet.
Like many seabirds, puffins mate for life and will stay very loyal to their partner, with a ‘divorce’ rate of only 7-13% (from studies in Canada) and zero adultery in the colonies studied. The pair reunites back at their breeding grounds after the winter apart and then proceeds to do some spring cleaning. Puffins nest in burrows and on Burhou they have an easy time of it, as rabbits have done a lot of the hard work excavating their own tunnels. The birds might need to dig out any collapsed chambers, using their strong beak like a shovel and kicking any loose soil away with their feet.
The AWT usually has the webcams on Burhou running by then and viewers can look out for sprays of soil being removed and the odd stand-off with rabbits over a particularly nice burrow. Usually these are peacefully resolved with a bit of posturing on both sides before one admits defeat and looks elsewhere. The Puffin Cams have been running since 2012 and allow an unrivalled view of life in a puffin colony. They weren’t easy to set up. Sure have helped immensely, and have donated and upgraded telephone lines (for transmitting the signal), significantly lowering the running costs for the AWT and allowing the cameras to stream live 24 hours a day, (the newest camera has great night recording and bats, rabbits and night-flying petrels have all been seen). Once the puffin has cleared any remaining soil they line the burrow with feathers and grass, ready to lay their egg.
Puffins will usually lay their egg in May, just one per pair so each year they are risking all or nothing on this one chance at raising the next generation. After 40 days of incubation, which the parents take in turns, their chick hatches. Their fluffy fat chicks are known as ‘pufflings’ and at the point of hatching they are completely helpless. For those that watch the cameras on Burhou, after a quiet period you’ll now notice a sudden upsurge in activity as the adult puffins start to ferry fish back and forth to their waiting chick.
To watch a puffin on land you’d think they were quite clumsy with their ungainly waddling and crash landings into their breeding patch. Even in the air they don’t quite look at home, wings flapping so fast they turn into a blur (sometimes up to 400 beats per minute) and plopping down into the water as soon as they can. Few would disagree that their collective noun ‘a circus’ suits them very well in these environments. Once they get into water though you get a real glimpse of the specialist adaptations for life at sea.
Underwater their big webbed feet help propel and steer them through the water at speed, chasing down their fishy prey. This is where they are really at home, with dives lasting around 30 seconds, becoming fearsome predators. Their favourite food is sand eel, but the fish they eat depends where the colony is and which fish are available. The AWT ecologists often see sand eel in the beaks of the Burhou puffins – which is a good sign for the health of our marine environment. They will also eat other smaller fish such as herring. The RSPB runs #puffarazzi every year, asking people to send in any photos of puffins with fish in their beaks, even old photos, to get an idea of which colonies are doing well and others, feeding on less nutritious fish (such as bony pipefish), are having limited breeding success.
Parent puffins feed their puffling for six exhausting weeks, with each chick requiring 8-10 feeds or roughly 450 sand eels every single day to feed itself and the chick. Around the end of July the young puffin will get its first glimpse of the world as it leaves the burrow and then it’s on its own! Out in the ocean, it must reach five years of age before breeding maturity.
Juveniles and adults look almost unrecognisable outside of the breeding season however; as they lose the bright bill markings and their feathers take on a sooty appearance. Before they had been well studied many people were fooled into thinking this was a separate species.
Burhou is only a small colony, the second most southerly in their entire range. About 100 pairs survive of the thousands that once bred there, and the story is the same in many colonies. Climate change, over fishing, pollution and disturbance (humans and species such as rats) have all landed the Atlantic Puffin on the red list for engendered species. Small actions can help, which is why the AWT introduced the voluntary no-go zone for boats in the main bay of Burhou, to reduce disturbance and allowing them to save energy.
Further projects are planned to remove invasive species in breeding areas and protect the marine environment (and therefore the food sources and ecosystem the puffins rely on) hoping to turning things around in some locations.
So next Spring make sure you visit your nearest puffin colony and maybe you’ll see this little ‘clowns of the sea’ in a different light.
“The AWT does some vital work in monitoring the population of Atlantic Puffins who visit our islands each year and we’re pleased to be able to support them. The Puffin Cam is a great initiative and a good example of technology being used to support, protect and preserve our natural world. We’re always looking for the latest innovations to support our island communities and Puffin Cam uses Sure’s expertise to enable a local charity; we’re happy to help and are looking forward to the puffins’ return.”
Francesca Vadher // Sure’s Head of Marketing.