Georgia Longmoor, Project Puffin intern at RSPB Centre for Conservation Science explains why we are carrying out a census to understand changes in puffin numbers at key colonies in Shetland, as part of our new project to tackle declines in their populations.

Project Puffin could be the key to saving one of the most iconic birds in Britain from extinction. This summer, a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund Scotland will help us find out how puffin numbers are changing and what steps could be taken to improve the situation.

Our first step is to visit key puffin breeding colonies all around the Shetland Islands and count how many birds are breeding there. This is called a puffin census. We chose Shetland as it is one of the key puffin areas in the UK and there had been some evidence suggesting Shetland’s puffins may be declining at particularly alarming rates in some areas.

Counting puffins is an important part of Project Puffin because it will help us to understand how numbers of puffins are changing throughout the years.  In this blog, I’ll explain how we carry out a census and update you on the Project Puffin team’s progress so far.

Photo: Georgia counting puffins near Fitful Head, Shetland. Photos by Oliver Prince


What is a puffin census?

A puffin census involves counting individual puffins at their breeding colonies.  We count puffins as they come in to land by their burrows, when they are out at sea in puffin ‘rafts’ which are big flocks of puffins socialising just off the land, and as they are flying by or wheeling around us.

Photo: A puffin taking off at Sumburgh Head. Photo by Oliver Prince

We’re travelling all around the Shetland Islands to visit puffin colonies and carry out our census this May. We chose large colonies that were not likely to be counted by other organisations so that we could priorities our time to make sure we counted the most important gaps in our knowledge of how Shetland’s puffins are changing.

We started out census training near some of the biggest puffin colonies in the South of Shetland including the Sumburgh Head RSPB reserve, where we successfully completed our first puffin census!

How will our census help puffin conservation?

There are strong indications that puffin numbers are declining rapidly across Europe, But many colonies in the UK have not been counted in over 15 years, a time when puffins in other parts of their range have been struggling to breed successfully.

Our puffin census will tell us how many puffins are living on the Shetland Islands this year. We can compare our findings to counts of puffins carried out in the same areas in previous censuses which took place in the 1969-70, 1985-1988 and 1998-2002 to show what’s happening in these breeding colonies over time.
Project Puffin is taking a multi-element approach to puffin conservation. Our census will be combined with information about where these puffins travel from their colonies to find fish, and what fish they are feeding their young chicks.

Photo: Some of the census team spotting puffins in land, air and sea at Fitful Head. From the left: Chris, Sophie and Georgia. Photo by Oliver Prince

We suspect number of puffins to be delclining in Shetland and the census will tell us how sever the declines are and whether there are any colonies faring better or worse than others. Differences between colonies are likely to be due to an inability to find the right food for growing chicks and sometimes local predators such as rats, cats and even Great Skuas. Collecting data on how puffin numbers are changing in several colonies is an important first step in our project: once we know where the problems with puffin numbers are, we can start to find out what barriers these puffins are facing, and make steps to help them. We will report on what we found and how current number of puffins compare to previous censuses on this blog in mid July.

Next steps: finishing the census, GPS tagging and science communication
All of the interns on the project puffin team have different focuses: I’m concentrating on communicating our research, Fritha and Sophie on the puffin tracking, Oli and Sian on the citizen science, and Chris on satellite tag technology. Once we completed our census in the south of Shetland, it was time for some of us to start preparing for the next part of the project!

While Rob, Oli, Fritha and Sophie continued to the north of Shetland to census our next areas of interest: Unst, Yell and Hermaness, Chris and I travelled to the RSPB UK headquarters at the Lodge in Sandy, Bedfordshire. Chris will be learning about the technology behind GPS tracking puffins, and I’m starting to find out more about how to communicate our conservation research using blogs, social media and the Project Puffin website.

Get involved

We’re going to be carrying out several different kinds of research alongside our census during Project Puffin this summer, and there are a lot of chances for you to get involved!
To find out more and follow the progress of the project, go to our website where you’ll find links to other blog posts and videos. If you’re on twitter, follow our hashtag #ProjectPuffinUK.

Video: Counting puffins on Shetland