Allison Leonard tells us about one of the more fun bur slightly unusual aspects of her job as RSPB Forth Reserves Warden, counting puffin burrows on Fidra! 

Fidra is a small seabird island off the East Lothian coast, known for it's links to Robert Louis Stevenson as much as the fantastic seabird colonies found there, it is one of five reserves managed by the Forth Reserves Team.

So, it was a sunny Monday morning when Hannah and I found ourselves, along with volunteers from the RSPB and the Scottish Seabird Centre, whizzing along the Forth in the Seabird Centre’s RIB.  Our destination?  Fidra.  Our purpose?  To count the number of apparently occupied puffin burrows.

 On the face of it, a very simple task and not one that requires a team of experienced volunteers but in actual fact it’s a bit more complicated than just counting holes in the ground. 

Firstly, unlike on other islands in the Forth, the puffins don’t nest all over the island. They can only nest where the soil is deep enough to allow for their burrows (a puffin burrow needs to be completely dark so is a minimum of 1m long)

Secondly, not all burrows are created equal. Some bits of the island are better than others and within the good bits, some burrows are better than others and don’t get me started on the burrows that share an entrance!

Finally, not all burrows are occupied.  With puffin numbers in decline across the world and our population in the Forth still recovering from the tree mallow infestation, the islands in the Forth are not at capacity.



Text Box: Puffins by Chiara Ceci (rspb-images)



Also, did I mention that the burrows are usually on steep ground with the odd fulmar nesting in the area and ready to spit a noxious concoction of fishy oils at you or eider ducks just ready to blast off their nests if you get too close?  So, really it’s not at all straight forward at all. And you have to be careful where you step to avoid collapsing the burrows which can be very delicate.

Thankfully we have a group of volunteers who are not only willing but very able to carry out the counts.

So, if not all burrows are occupied, how can you get an accurate count? Well, we do actually count all of the burrows but then have to come up with the percentage of burrows which are occupied.  To do that, small test plots are set out across the island and within each test plot each burrow is examined very carefully for signs of occupation.  It might be that there are obvious footprints leading in and out of the burrow or it could be as subtle as the vegetation looks a little bruised and trampled.  Hopefully there are some signs that let you know if a puffin is at home but if all else fails you stick your hand in the burrow to see if anything bites!  Once you know how many burrows in the test plots are occupied you can use that to extrapolate across the whole island.  Simple really!

So after all that, how many puffins do we have on Fidra? This year’s count gave us 1000 apparently occupied burrows, only slightly down on the figure from two years ago which was 1050 occupied burrows, meaning that our population is pretty stable. 

This is great news for us and very satisfying news for all of our volunteers who put in so many hours during the winter months to help clear the invasive tree mallow, which grows so vigorously on the Forth Islands that if we didn’t do anything about it then all of the puffin burrows would be blocked and there would be no breeding puffins on Fidra and that is something none of us want to see.

Once we have done the burrow count, we pretty much leave the puffins alone to raise their chicks in peace.  However, you will be able to see the adults as they collect fish for themselves and for their chicks and the best way to do that is from the water and we have just the solution for that…..

On Thursday 31st May at 6pm or Saturday 16th June at 9am, you can join RSPB staff aboard the Maid of the Forth, sailing from Hawes Pier in South Queensferry (right beneath the iconic Forth Bridge!) for a chance to experience the magic of the seabird colonies of the Firth of the Forth and learn more about it's fascinating history.  It's a chance to see puffins, gannets, terns, guillemots, razorbills and other amazing marine wildlife and (hopefully) commentary from RSPB experts(!) will bring this beautiful marine environment to life (Prices are £16/adult, £15/concession (seniors, students and RSPB membeText Box: Fulmar by Allison Leonardrs), £7/child) or you can Hop aboard the ‘Seafari Explorer’ catamaran for a two hour trip around the fascinating Forth Islands.  Sailing from North Berwick harbour we will first head west towards Fidra, said to the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s treasure island and now an RSPB nature reserve before turning to head back towards Craigleith and on towards the Bass rock, the world’s largest colony of Northern gannets and ‘one of the wildlife wonders of the world’.  We will see gannets fishing, seals basking and puffins galore as we see, hear and smell the wildlife spectacle that helps make the Forth such a special place, it’s sure to be an entertaining and educational trip (Prices are £20/adult, £18/concession and members and £12/child. Spaces are limited to 50)

Text Box: Puffin by Andy Hay (rspb-images) Tickets for trips can be purchased via the Maid of the Forth website at or call 0131 331 5000.  You can also get more information on the RSPB website at