Northumberland puffin colony bouncing back after mystery crash in numbers

Every five years National Trust rangers on the Farne Islands conduct a census of breeding puffins and the news is good as puffin colony numbers are on the up

Puffin colony in Northumberland
Puffin colony in Northumberland

A MAJOR puffin colony in Northumberland is bouncing back from a mystery crash in numbers that shocked naturalists.

Every five years National Trust rangers on the Farne Islands conduct a census of breeding puffins.

2003 was the peak year for puffins on the Farnes with 55,674 nesting pairs recorded, in line with a growing population trend that had been steadily increasing since the 1960s.

However the three-month 2008 survey across eight islands revealed a dramatic drop in numbers by nearly one-third to just 36,835 pairs.

But now results from this year’s survey show an 8% increase to 39,962 pairs of nesting puffins.

There had been particular concerns before the survey after the discovery of many dead puffins on the North East coast earlier this year as the birds, who were returning to breed, were caught by freezing temperatures and gale force winds that prevented them from feeding.

David Steel, head ranger on the National Trust Farne islands, said: "The results of the puffin census come as a real relief following some difficult years for them, with the flooding of burrows last year and a very challenging winter.

“We had feared that the numbers of puffins would be down again as has happened on other colonies, including those on the Shetland Islands.

“The bad weather during recent seasons has had some impact on numbers, but with a good nesting habitat secured by us and a plentiful supply of food in the area, numbers have been recovering strongly, which is great news for the puffins and other sea birds.”

Extreme weather has had a major impact on puffins in the North Sea in the last couple of years. The 2012 breeding season was hit hard with the second wettest summer on record flooding many burrows.

As puffins were returning to the colonies in March this year, storms resulted in the deaths of thousands of seabirds in what naturalists refer to as a “wreck”.

Over 3,500 bodies were collected and ringing recoveries suggested that many of the birds involved were breeding adults from local colonies.

Prof Mike Harris from the national Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said: "The wreck was unusual in that it occurred when puffins were returning to their colonies and were close to land.”

During the survey, which began in May, the rangers put their arms into the burrows to find out if the nests were occupied.

David Steel said: “The poor spring weather affected the timing of the breeding season, with the birds that did survive breeding late.

“However this late start may result in puffins remaining at the colonies until later in the summer than normal, giving people even more opportunity to enjoy watching them.”

For the first time, nest cameras have been inserted into burrows to record the birds’ behaviour.

The footage, along with details on how the rangers are progressing with the 2013 puffin census, can be seen at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/puffins or follow progress on Twitter at #puffincensus.

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