Guest blog by Sophie Elliott, Project Puffin UK Intern

Almost three years ago to the day I found myself sitting atop the frigid cliffs of Sumburgh Head in the Shetland Islands, trying to keep my binoculars steady as I attempted to count puffins sitting on the waves far below for the Seabirds Count fourth National Seabird Census.

Photo of the Seabirds Count Census being undertaken in the Shetland Islands in 2017

I was one of six lucky and talented individuals interning on the RSPB’s Project Puffin UK, which hoped to shed some more light on puffin behaviour and foraging so as to inform future efforts to conserve this enigmatic little bird.

But what was it about puffins – or more accurately, seabirds in general – that meant I was willing to risk mild frostbite in order to try and save them?

Getting Stuck on Seabirds

I first began working with birds as a zoo keeper at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, before taking a once-in-a-lifetime job as Seabird Translocation Project Officer in Mauritius with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

The aim of the Seabird Translocation Project was to reintroduce seabirds – red tailed and white tailed tropicbirds, wedge tailed shearwaters, sooty terns and common noddies – to the small island of Ile aux Aigrettes on the south east coat of Mauritius. Seabirds had lived and bred on the island historically, but being so close to the mainland had allowed for humans and invasive species to decimate much of the endemic wildlife.

To reintroduce seabirds, our team had to make our way to Round Island, located to the north of Mauritius, where we surveyed the population of ground nesting seabirds in order to select chicks that would be suitable for translocation. The main focus during my time in Mauritius was the tropicbirds, and during the two week stays on Round Island tropicbird chicks were weighed and measured multiple times, so that we could predict the growth rate and approximate age of the chicks. This was important, as we needed to translocate chicks that would be fledging in two to three weeks’ time, because this was thought to be the ideal timeframe for them to imprint and thus return to Ile aux Aigrettes to breed (known as philopatry), whilst also allowing us to return to Round Island every two weeks to repeat the process without having too many chicks being hand-reared on Ile aux Aigrettes at any one time.

Photo of the cliffs of Round Island where tropicbird chicks were surveyed

The Importance of Seabirds

With nearly 350 species worldwide, seabirds are an extremely varied group that have adapted to life within the marine environment. Because of this, they are useful indicators for the biological health of their environments, providing researchers and conservationists with important data. Seabirds also deliver a number of important ecosystem services on land – especially islands – by bringing important marine nutrients to their roosting and nesting areas, thus increasing soil fertility and invertebrate abundance and ultimately increasing habitat diversity.

Reinstating seabirds on Ile aux Aigrettes was part of the restoration project for the whole island, which also included invasive species control and eradication, reptile reintroductions, cultivating endemic plants and educational ecotourism; whereby visitors learned about the threats to islands and the work being done to protect them.

Getting Smitten

It was during the hand-rearing of over 180 chicks on Ile aux Aigrettes that I really found myself falling for seabirds. It took such a small amount of time for the chicks to become used to us being their care-givers, and they would start calling for food as soon as they saw us, following us around and biting our hands and ankles as they would their parents in the wild to demand food.

I was the only one in the team who learned to tell every single bird apart from the others, a difficult feat as most of the chicks looked fairly similar! However, it was their personalities that made them stand out from one another the most. My favourite red tailed tropicbird chick, nicknamed ‘Cuddles’, would waddle up as fast as he could to the chick being fed, but instead of attacking them like most of the other birds would, he would sit as close as possible so you couldn’t possibly forget that he was next in line. In contrast, my favourite white tailed tropicbird chick, nicknamed ‘Dilly’, was the smallest of his translocated group, but was the noisiest and most aggressive little bird, constantly leaving the safety of the white tailed area to pick fights with the red tails, which are significantly larger.

Photo of a red tailed tropicbird chick being fed on Ile aux Aigrettes

Being in such close proximity to seabirds for such a long time had a profound impact upon me and what I wanted to do in my life. Seabirds are such a threatened group globally that I realised I wanted to put my newfound affinity for them to good use, which brought me to the RSPB and my internship on Project Puffin UK.

While some of the work on the project was completed three years ago, Project Puffin UK is still currently conducting important research into puffin diets, using photographs taken by the public to understand what puffins have been eating all around the UK. This year, because of the new rules implemented by the government, Project Puffin has been asking the public to send in photos they have taken throughout the years of puffins with food in their bills, as long as they know when and where the photo was taken. This will allow us to track the changes in puffin diet over the years, and understand how significantly the birds have affected by climate change.

So, for the love of seabirds, dig deep into your photo archives and join us in working to save puffins!

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