On World Ocean Day, RSPB England's Pete Exley explores the amazing lives of some of our most loved seabirds, and explains why these creatures matter

Will the real puffin please step forward?

Say the word “puffin”, and most people will conjure up an image of a plump dumpy bird with a comical over-sized multi-coloured bill.  Puffins are perhaps one of our most familiar birds, to be found on tea towels, mugs, pottery, paintings and many other products sold to willing tourists across the land, a symbol of our love of the sea and coast.

Curiously our modern love affair with these delightful birds is a far cry from our previous connection.  For centuries, puffins and other seabirds like them were a valuable and vital commodity.  To communities living on the islands where their nesting colonies were to be found, they were food to survive the winter, and a currency to trade for other goods.  The very word puffin means “fat bird”, referring to the plump young of any seabird, but it has stuck with just one species.

To find the “real” puffin, you have to travel to remote islands.  One such I treasure visiting is Lundy, a steep sided lump of rock in the Bristol Channel.  Venture out at night in summer and you will be treated to one of nature’s most remarkable symphonies, a guttural churring, hiccuping and chirruping. 

These are Manx shearwaters, and their scientific name is Puffinus puffinus… fat bird, fat bird!  There are colourful puffins here too, after which the island is named (Lundy is the Norse name for the puffin).  But it is these nocturnal visitors for whom the island is really important.  “Manxies” are remarkable travellers, spending the winter off Argentina and Brazil, making their way back to the exact same nesting burrow each year, a migration of maybe 15,000 miles.

 Photo credit: Chris Gomersall

To really get to understand what it is to be a seabird, then you have to get out into their world.  I was lucky enough to do this when working for the Albatross Task Force on demersal trawlers out of Cape Town. Far beyond the sight of land, in seas where the swell is commonly 3-5 metres, we were surrounded by perhaps 10,000 birds of 10 or more species. The largest shy and black-browed albatrosses, perhaps a thousand in total, a cacophony of white-chinned petrels, and amongst them a myriad storm petrels like a mist of midges over the sea surface.

What struck me most was that, whilst I was stuck on 60-metres of steel and iron pushed forwarded by fossil-fuel drinking diesel engines, here these birds are truly in their element.  They use the oceans currents and winds to navigate and travel, finding special tubes on their noses enabling them to track down food from tens of miles away.  I would stand on deck watching in awe as 2-metre wingspan shy albatrosses drifted effortlessly above me, before shearing off to glide powerfully over the waves.

Amongst the dizzying mass of noisy birds were terns, graceful “sea swallows” hawking for bits of fish. Most were Arctic terns, another mis-named bird, for they spend one half of the year in the southern oceans  -  do these remarkable travellers experience more daylight in a year than any other animal on Earth?

Why seabirds matter

The fortunes of our seabirds are a barometer for how the natural world is faring. And things are not looking good  -  many are in steep decline.  Even the popular puffin is in trouble, its numbers plummeting across its range.  Humans have wrought devastation on seabirds for centuries, plundering their breeding colonies for eggs, meat, even their feathers and bones.  Today, the threats have widened. Whilst breeding colonies are now mainly protected from humans, on islands across the world predators that we have introduced are continuing the devastation.

Which is why Lundy and its sister south western archipelago the Isles of Scilly are beacons of hope.  Here, projects to remove invasive rats have brought about rapid and remarkable recoveries.  On Lundy, from no successful breeding of Manx shearwaters pre-removal, there are perhaps 6,000 pairs now.

You can do your bit to protect our precious seabirds.  Some of our most vulnerable are the terns.  Often preferring to nest on shingle beaches, it only takes one careless act, a dog off a lead for example, to disturb the birds and cause them to fail.  Having travelled half-way around the world to grace our coasts with their beautiful presence, please don’t be that one careless person? 

So please help us look after our remarkable, wonderful seabirds.  Support our work to save their breeding colonies across England, the wider UK and our overseas territories.  And if you are walking on a beach, keep yourself and your dog away from their nesting colonies. Thank you!

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