Today’s blog is by puffineer, Katie Horton, on her changed plans to work on Puffarazzi and the learning curve involved.

My first experience working with the RSPB began last year as a Volunteer Reserves Intern at Loch of Strahbeg where I lived and worked for a year. I was due to start work at Geltsdale on the Curlew Trial Management Project this summer, however like many other people, my plans changed.

I had always liked seabirds, but my time spent surveying kittiwakes at Fowlsheugh with the Strathbeg team last summer definitely solidified this. I was lucky enough to see puffins here regularly as well as getting a trip to see more at Sumburgh Head in Shetland. So, it wasn’t hard to persuade me to join the Puffarazzi Project, as who could say no to looking at pictures of puffins all day?

Puffin at Sumburgh Head, Shetland (c) Katie Horton

My work started with data mining, looking for sources of photos that could be useful to the project, especially in years that we have less submissions for. It would be really great to have a strong data set spanning as many years as possible. So, if you think you have something, don’t hesitate to send it in!

Once everyone got settled into working from home, we arranged a training day so that I would be able to start helping to identify the fish. It was a shame not being able to meet other puffineers in person, but a video call was the next best thing. It was incredibly fun and interesting day learning the process involved in the fish identification and finding out how much information you can glean from a photo.

Before getting into the detail about the fish we had an introduction to the life of puffins with some fun facts. I was shocked to find out that puffins can carry more than 50 fish in their bill at one time. They have a number of features that help with this, including a manoeuvrable jaw that allows them to apply equal pressure across the bill, holding fish in tightly. They also have backwards facing denticules, little spines across the bill that secure fish in place as they catch another one.

The bright orange feet of and distinctive beak make these puffins from Fowlsheugh instantly recognisable (c) Amber Stringer

Which fish?

The first part of the training was to learn how to identify the species or family group. Sandeels are the main fish brought in by puffins throughout most of the UK. True to the name they are identified from their eel-like long body and protruding lower jaw. It is incredibly hard to narrow it down to the species level from a photo, but we can separate larval sandeels that are clear rather than silvery.

Fish from the clupidae family (eg. sprat, herring, sardine) are also silver fish but are identified by their thicker body and forked tail. Gadoids (eg. haddock, whiting, cod) are normally a duller light brown or gold colour, and so can be picked out amongst other fish.

Rocklings, although in the gadoid family, appear silvery at the juvenile stage and have a distinct steely blue line along their back, so these can also be separated into another group. The more photos I look at the better I’m getting at honing into the small give away traits that indicate the different types of fish.

The next step is the count how many of each group there is. This is easier said than done when there are fish overlapping each other and unsurprisingly not every puffin poses perfectly for a photo. This can also make measuring the fish tricky at times. This is done by measuring the length of the whole fish and then comparing this to the top bill depth, as this is a fairly standard measurement across all puffins.

Here is a link to a video created by a fellow puffineer that explains the process brilliantly, showing the identification, counting and measuring.

Enjoying the process

One thing that I enjoy about the photo ID is that every photograph can have a story and like most people, I haven’t been able to see any puffins in person this summer. So, getting the chance to see an insight into their life with their lovable quirks shining through photos is great. I have seen some great action shots of puffins diving out of the way of black-headed gulls, in what I can only describe as an adrenaline-inducing plight to get the fish back to the chicks.

Black headed gulls mobbing a puffin to get its food © Ali Barrett

Being on the Puffarazzi project has made me fall even more in love with the charismatic birds that everyone looks out for on the cliffs. To make this project successful we are asking members of the public to dust off any old photos of puffins with fish that they may have and send them in to Project Puffin. Even if you don’t have any photos you can help spread the word to someone that does. It would be fantastic to see a big surge in photo submissions as we come to the end of this stage. 

To read more about our project and how to get involved, visit our webpage.

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