Guest blog by Ali Barrat, Puffineer volunteer, Project Puffin UK
At the height of the breeding season, the towering chalk cliffs of the Yorkshire Coast are transformed into a seabird city with nearly half a million seabirds, of which, less than 1% are puffins! But despite this, the puffin is the main—or often sole—reason that over 100,000 visitors flock to the RSPB’s Bempton Cliffs reserve each year. As the gateway to the UK’s largest and most accessible mainland seabird colony, it’s even feasible to see puffins within 10 minutes of parking!
On arrival, many visitors immediately ask, “Where can I see puffins today?” They hurry (perhaps somewhat puffin-like!) to one of six purpose-built cliff top viewing platforms to find a volunteer, who—if they are lucky—has a spotting scope aimed right at the treasure they seek.
Young and old squeal in delight at their FIRST EVER puffin encounter; tears are not uncommon. One American visitor recited a puffin poem learned as a child, after finally meeting her first puffin over 50 years later! April to July is peak puffin peeping. Some visitors arrive sporting puffin-fabric clothing and many leave with puffin souvenirs. Countless return annually for a glimpse of this tiny icon.
Puffins really are tiny; one soggy puffin, rescued from a local beach by a kind stranger, fit in the palm of a hand. Anyone arriving expecting to find something penguin-sized may overlook this diminutive figure, often hiding in plain sight.
Their larger family members—guillemots and razorbills—are much easier to find as they are also far more numerous. But unlike their monotone cousins, the puffins’ unique orange legs, feet and bill are an excellent aide to spotting them amongst this cast of thousands.
Puffins at Bempton Cliffs do not make burrows like their island counterparts. Instead they take advantage of cliff crevices and small caves to serve as a natural burrow.
One puffin couple returns year after year to their cave-burrow conveniently within sight of the nearest and most accessible viewpoint, “Grandstand”. The pair can often be seen together outside the cave entrance in late March or early April before their egg is laid.
Once the chick has hatched, one puffin parent will continue to linger close by, always on the alert and ready to see off any nosy neighbours or unwelcome visitors!
As the young puffin, known as a puffling, nears fledging lucky visitors might even catch a glimpse as it peers out, trying a few wing stretches before leaving alone under cover of darkness to take its maiden voyage out into the North Sea.
The location of most all other puffin “caves” on the reserve is pretty much unknown—cliff height and lack of access make it virtually impossible to undertake any traditional kind of puffin count in the Yorkshire colony. For many decades, counts have focussed on the cliff-nesting seabirds: gannets, kittiwakes, fulmar, guillemots, razorbills and herring gulls. This, in itself is a gargantuan task, and a story for another day. In recent years, however, the reserve team has attempted to count puffins at sea at the start of each season.
It has been observed at other colonies that puffins returning from their winter feeding grounds would first gather offshore. A chance to get together with old friends and partners after a solitary eight months at sea; a puffin party if you will. There’s a short window of time to undertake a count, with puffins leaving and arriving until most are gathered for a day or two before recolonizing their burrows again.
This at-sea counting task is fraught with challenges. There are over 7 miles of cliff top to walk, with elevations ranging from 200 to nearly 400 feet. Discerning a puffin at this distance from other auks (guillemots and razorbills) requires skill, patience and diligence!
Not to mention that puffins move on the tide and waves, fly, dive etc. So how do you avoid under-counting, or double counting? Poor visibility, tide, strong winds and waves all increase the degree of difficulty. But this type of survey method is used to census other marine life such as sea otters and can be used as an indicator of population trends. Repeating surveys over a number of years can balance out factors that can influence the count—weather, viewing conditions, animal movements etc. and over time can be used to understand whether a population is increasing or decreasing.
Based on these recent counts, and historical observations, we believe that the Yorkshire Coast population is around 3,000-4,000 puffins, but it is too early to determine whether this is a growing or declining population. But what we do know is that Bempton Cliffs’ puffins likely benefit from being within good commuting range of puffin supermarkets stocking a variety of prey species, including sandeels and sprats. Project Puffin and RSPB’s work with partners across the UK shows that such puffin populations are generally faring better than those that are experiencing dwindling sandeel supplies and a lack of suitable alternative prey.
Our seas and oceans are rapidly changing: pollution, habitat destruction and disturbance, overfishing and the climate crisis threaten our marine life like never before. We can only hope that the puffins of the White Cliffs of Yorkshire can continue to thrive and find adequate food sources to support the next generation of Yorkshire puddings pufflings.
You can help! Send us your photos of puffins returning to these cliffs with food for their pufflings. They can be from any year, so check your archives! We will analyse the species type and size, to build a picture of changes over time.
RSPB Bempton Cliffs
Puffarazzi degree of difficulty 10 /10
Fun trying 10/10
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