There's been a couple of false starts to our annual puffin count thanks to the effects of 'the Beast from the East'. However, this week we were out there with 'clickers' recording the puffin numbers. Here's what our site manager, Alison Barratt, had to say:
This year, we counted 4,279 puffins in our Yorkshire Coast colony. But was does that mean?
Most Atlantic puffins nest in burrows on isolated island and counting the population can be done through observing burrows or putting a hand in a hole to see if you get bitten!
On the Yorkshire Coast, puffins usually nest in natural cracks in the cliff face, and with the exception of this pair that can be seen from our Grandstand viewpoint, most of their nest sites are unknown and completely inaccessible.
So in order to get an estimate of how many puffins are using these cliffs, we have to count them before they start nesting each season. It has been observed that puffins returning to their breeding colony each season will first gather on the sea. These “rafts” of puffins will grow in size over the course of a few weeks as more puffins return from their winter feeding grounds. In these groups puffins will meet up again and mate with their partner, who they have not seen since last year. These puffin parties will then soon quickly disperse, as the pairs move back to their nest site and begin preparations for the inevitable arrival of offspring.
During this very narrow window of time is our best opportunity to count the puffins at sea. In 2016 and 2017 the puffin count took place around March 24th, but this year, though we were seeing a number of puffins on the sea around that time, we noticed that all seabird species were lower in number than usual for March and that the bad weather of late February and early March may have caused the delay.
Finally, on April 14th we started to see larger rafts of puffins, such as this group of 15 puffins from our Barlett Nab viewpoint, and we decided that finally this was the day and puffin count 2018 was go!
We divided the cliffs to be counted into sections from Flamborough Head to Speeton.
Volunteers with many hours of experience in bird counting or surveying then walked the cliffs using a spotting scope and tripod and carefully counted sections of the sea.
By the end of the day, we established we had counted 4,279 puffins at sea. Most of the puffins were seen closer to the centre of the colony – i.e. from the cliffs within our reserve boundary. However, this isn’t an indication of where their nests are, as we simply do not know!
We have counted puffins this way on this stretch of coast for 3 years now and so we are limited in the number of conclusions we can reach, but it does seem safe to say that that the Yorkshire Coast puffin population appears to be stable. This is really great news as in many other places, Atlantic puffins are in severe decline and are listed as vulnerable to extinction.
So, what are my chances of seeing these 4,000 puffins?
While 4,000 sounds like a lot of puffins, the cliffs that stretch in both directions from our reserve are home to over 300,000 adult seabirds in the breeding season, so puffins make just a fraction of the total population.
Added to which, puffins are one of the smallest seabirds and the cliffs are up to 400 feet high! As their nests are not on the ledges like their larger cousins (razorbills and guillemots) you are likely to see them as they come and go from the cliffs to feed, and they will perch on the cliff face to rest and observe life in the colony.
Simply put, we don’t know “where” the puffins will be on any given day, or at any time of day. But we do know that between April and July (or August if you join one of our puffin and gannet cruises) that you have a good chance of seeing them. Keep your eyes peeled for the flash of a colourful beak or unmistakable orange legs and feet. These really help them stand out from the crowd - and to another puffin, these bright colours show a healthy and fit individual who makes a good mate. To a visitor, it’s a great way to zoom in on a lifetime memory.
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