Guest blog by Susan Davies, CEO, Scottish Seabird Centre

Ask any of the visitors to the Scottish Seabird Centre in the spring and early summer, which species they are most looking forward to seeing, and by far the most popular response will be the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica). During the breeding season, visitors can see these characterful birds from the boat trips around the islands in the Firth of Forth, departing from either North Berwick in East Lothian or from Anstruther in Fife. Interactive live cameras in the Scottish Seabird Centre also give visitors an opportunity to view these colourful seabirds remotely, on the local islands of Craigleith, Fidra and the Isle of May.

Image © Susan Davies, Puffin on Isle of May

More than 90% of the global puffin population is found in Europe (4,770,000–5,780,000 pairs). Although a large population it has declined rapidly in recent years, leading it to be listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The population has been affected by changes in the availability of its preferred prey - sandeels - as a result of climate change. RSPB is running an initiative, Puffarazzi, to help find out more about how the food puffins carry in their bill is changing over time. To participate in this citizen science project you can submit photos of puffins carrying food, with the date, time and location of your photo to the campaign website, and tag them on social media using #Puffarazzi and #ProjectPuffinUK to help spread the word.

Puffin numbers in the Firth of Forth are regularly counted by the Forth Seabird Group. Led by knowledgeable, enthusiastic and committed volunteers, this Group is a great example of the power of citizen science. Counting puffins is particularly difficult due to their breeding habit of nesting in underground burrows. Certain areas will be carefully selected, before each burrow is examined and then those thought to be occupied will be counted. From these sample areas an estimate of numbers of occupied burrows can be made for the whole colony. In 2018 the Forth Seabird Group reported that puffin numbers on Craigleith (c2640) had declined by 36%, Lamb (c685) had increased by 10% and on Fidra (c1000) had decreased by 5%. 2018 was also the first full burrow count conducted on Inchkeith with an estimate of 1,600 birds. The count on the Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR) is commissioned every 5 years by Scottish Natural Heritage who own and manage this special place – their estimate is of around 40,000 puffins.

Only on land from late March until early August the time these seabirds spend on the islands is relatively brief. However, there are plenty of opportunities to take boat trips to see them on the cliffs, crevices and ledges of the islands, or to experience them up close from the footpaths around the Isle of May NNR. Here you are guaranteed to have an amazing wildlife experience close-up to the puffins as they whizz past on fishing trips or as they adopt their landing pose as they aim for their burrows on the island.

On some of the islands in the Firth of Forth the puffin burrows had become blocked by an invasive plant, tree mallow. In 2007, an initiative called SOS Puffin was formed, to tackle the problem. Led by John Hunt, a volunteer and former Trustee of the Scottish Seabird Centre, this initiative provides an opportunity for people, from all ages and diverse backgrounds, to participate directly in work parties to remove the tree mallow before it sets seed. Since the project was initiated, over 1200 volunteers in 300 work parties have landed on the islands. Excellent progress has been made and monitoring is showing that the natural vegetation is recovering, and the puffins are now able to nest without interference from tree mallow.

Image © John Hunt, SOS Puffin

There is also a camera in the Scottish Seabird Centre that allows you to see inside a puffin burrow on the Isle of May NNR. If lucky, a puffin will lay a single white egg in the camera burrow. This is then incubated by both parents and once hatched the chick will be fed on whole fish or small crustaceans. The chick grows rapidly and will be fully fledged at about 6 weeks. It is at this tender age that the puffling make its own way out to sea and is completely independent of its parents.

Just over 10 years ago we started to learn more about where the puffins from the island in the Firth of Forth dispersed to in winter. A team of scientists from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology fitted 50 geolocator tags (small location loggers that weigh 1.5g) to the legs of puffins on the Isle of May. Their studies revealed that more than 75% of the birds fitted with these tags headed for the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, rather than staying in the North Sea. At sea they float around, feeding on fish and plankton until returning to breed on the islands.

To find out more about where and when to see puffins in the Firth of Forth visit the Scottish Seabird Centre.