Puffins hit in seabird ‘wreck’

DID three months of fierce winter storms affect our wildlife? Millions of trees were felled and swathes of farmland inundated.

Puffins hit in seabird ‘wreck’

Badger sets were swamped and urban rats drowned in flash floods. Although birds, squirrels and pine martens saw their habitats altered, there is no real evidence they suffered.

‘It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good’; foxes, grey (hooded) crows and magpies scavenged in the mayhem. With the countryside transformed into a giant wetland, ducks and swans never had it so good. For them, it was ‘back to the good old days’ before humans tamed the rivers and drained the marshes.

The effects out at sea, it seems, were much more severe. Dead and dying seabirds washed up on the North Sea coast from Aberdeenshire to Northumberland. The Dorset Wildlife Trust reported 600 victims on the English south coast. These numbers, however, are tiny compared to those logged on the other side of the channel. The Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux reported that about 15,000 carcasses littered the west coast of France. According to Wildlife News Extra, the total found on the Atlantic seaboard from Spain to the north of Scotland ran to around 28,000. But this was just the tip of a iceberg; only a fraction of birds dying out at sea are washed ashore.

Guillemots and razorbills were the main victims off Ireland and Britain. Puffins suffered more in French and Spanish waters. This isn’t surprising; puffins, everyone’s favourite seabirds, venture further south in winter than the two other species. Some even reach the Canary Islands and the Azores. In late winter, they begin making their way back to the breeding colonies in Ireland and Britain, feeding opportunistically as they go. Many were in the Bay of Biscay when the gales struck. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, this winter’s puffin ‘wreck’ was the worst for almost 50 years.

Estimating the size of a seabird ‘wreck’ is difficult. Reports from members of the public tend to be ‘anecdotal’. People pay more attention to the coastline after spectacular storms and more dead birds than usual are found. So is there ‘hard’ evidence that recent mortality has been unusually high?

Seabirds are ringed, mostly as chicks, at their breeding colonies in Ireland and Britain. Each ring carries a serial number and a forwarding address. The reporting rate of puffin rings is tiny; these birds spend almost all of their lives at sea and their bodies seldom reach the shore when they die. Only ringed birds caught in fishermen’s nets, or forced onto land following oil spills, are likely to come to light. Of 290,000 puffins ringed in the British and Irish scheme, a mere 4,300 (1.5%) were ever reported and many of them were re-trapped in their breeding burrows year on year.

In a normal winter, the British Trust for Ornithology receives two or three puffin ring reports from France and Spain. This winter, there were 35 records and the number may rise further. The worst previous year for deaths was 1979 when 17 were reported. While it’s impossible to estimate the final death toll, it’s clear that a great many puffins have died.

Why should a few weeks of turbulent seas present such a threat? Puffins, guillemots and razorbills catch shoal fish, such as sprats and sandeels, by diving and swimming for them. To do so successfully, they must be able to see their prey. Storms aerate the water rendering it cloudy and full of bubbles. Birds swimming on the tossing foam-crested surface can’t spot shoals and, when they dive, they can’t locate the fish. It’s possible to ‘ride out’ a storm but, when gales persist for weeks on end, starvation sets in. Most of the carcasses examined so far were found to be emaciated. Pollutants can also be a factor. These accumulate over time in body fats and, if suddenly released when fats are mobilised in a crisis, they can overwhelm a bird’s system. The reserves which should save a victim’s life may, in fact, kill it.

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