Today’s blog is by Puffineer volunteer, Ali Barrett

Before the lockdown in mid-March, I took a boat trip out to the Farne Islands in the hope of saying "hello" and then "goodbye" to the puffins! Sadly, their four-month visit seems likely to conclude before we are "released".

They've been gone since the end of July last year, out alone in the North Sea and Atlantic for eight months, searching for sufficient fish to ensure they’re fit for the next breeding season. As the hours of daylight lengthen, their bodies respond and start to transform, putting on the smart, dapper outfit for which they’re so well-known.

It requires a lot of energy to dress to impress, but it shows their partner when they finally meet again that they’re still up to the job! This seasonal garb is discarded at the end of summer—there's just no need to make the effort in the puffin version of self-isolating.

Puffin bringing food back to the burrow (c) Ali Barrett

Timing for my trip couldn’t have been better; on previous days the skipper had seen a handful of puffins, but today thousands of puffins were flying above Inner Farne island. When they first arrive back at the colony, they avoid land, instead spending time in social groups on the sea, but also on the wing.

They were exhibiting a behaviour known as a “puffin wheel”, in fact there were several wheels of hundreds of puffins circling above the island. These amazing little seabirds, with wings better designed for flying through water rather than air, manage to avoid collisions without the assistance of Air Traffic Control!

The Farne Islands are home to around 44,000 pairs of breeding puffins (c) Ali Barrett

It was a bittersweet moment, as I’d been looking forward to following their entire season as a first-time volunteer ranger: watching the rituals of meeting up again with loved ones, spring cleaning the burrow, neighbourhood disputes, shopping trips for the puffling, doing battle with the pirates, and finally the end of season with the pufflings’ fledged— time to just hang with the other villagers and the visiting puffin teenagers checking out the facilities.

Of course, all of this continues without us, and they will not miss us as we miss them. But as we go through our own crisis, this much-beloved icon is in the midst of a disaster of its own. Millions of Atlantic puffins have disappeared from our planet over the last 40 years. Mostly outside the UK, but even on our own shores we’ve been seeing trouble brewing.

In 2017, the RSPB launched Project Puffin, to better understand what's going on. Puffarazzi photographs submitted by the public confirmed what we feared—puffins nesting in some Scottish island colonies are struggling to find sufficient food to raise healthy pufflings, bringing back smaller or less nutritious fish.

A puffling and an adult (c) Ali Barrett

This year, we can maybe only fill our puffin cravings by looking at old video and photographs, but with this unexpected extra time on our hands, we can also contribute to puffin science. The RSPB is looking for historic photographs to compare the fish species carried in their beaks to the present day, as well as measuring their size. Are the fishes the puffins bringing back to their chicks smaller today than in previous years?

We've already received photographs taken in the 1980s, which is really incredible. Perhaps you know someone that might have images from the 80s, 90s or early noughties? Now’s the time to encourage everyone we know to look through old shoeboxes, hard drives and photo albums.

While we may feel helpless about so many things right now, these puffin photos could really make a difference. Please upload to the website, and help us help puffins today!

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