Atlantic Puffin numbers on the Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR) off Scotland's east coast are at similar levels to 2009* despite this spring’s severe weather.Atlantic Puffin with tagged legs

The results of the latest puffin survey carried out by scientists from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology are released today. They indicate that a total of 46,000 burrows showed signs of use by puffins this spring, an almost identical total to the last count which was completed in 2009.

The Isle of May NNR is home to the largest colony of puffins in the North Sea and has been the main centre of the UK science community’s research into puffins for nearly four decades.

This year’s count was funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) with assistance from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. 

The result is a surprise as, earlier this year, just as they were returning to the colonies in March, severe weather resulted in the deaths of thousands of seabirds along the coasts of eastern Scotland and north-east England. Examination of the bodies of some of the 3500 dead puffins and ringing recoveries suggested that many of the birds involved were breeding adults from local colonies.

Images of dead and dying puffins had resulted in great concern about the future of the major puffin breeding colonies in the region, especially since there was a 30% decline in the numbers of puffins on the Isle of May between 2003 and 2009.

The survey was led by Professor Mike Harris, Emeritus Research Fellow at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who has studied puffins for 41 years. Professor Harris said, “This March’s wreck has clearly had a serious effect on the puffins on the Isle of May but, perhaps surprisingly, numbers are very similar to the last count which took place in 2009. Our general impression over the last few years was that the population was increasing slowly and this may explain why we have not seen a decline following the recent wreck.”Research collecting samples on the Isle of May

The count also revealed that the March wreck seriously disrupted breeding on the Isle of May, with laying two to three weeks later than normal, and it is possible that some birds will not breed this year.

Distressing as this wreck was, we have seen much higher mortality of Isle of May puffins in four other winters in the last 40 winters. Only twice, in December 2006 and October 2007, were large numbers of dead puffins reported. It appears that Puffins normally die well away from land so that dead birds are unlikely to be found.

SNH’s Reserve manager for the Isle of May, David Pickett said, “Despite the publicity of the wreck in March, the Isle of May NNR is still one of the best places to see puffins in the UK and together with the mass of other seabirds make it one of the best wildlife spectacles to be found in Scotland.” David added, “This late breeding could even result in puffins remaining at the colonies until later in the summer than normal, giving people even more opportunity to enjoy watching them.”

Professor Harris added, “The wreck has, however, seriously affected the timing of breeding with those birds that did survive breeding very late. It would not be surprising if they needed a few weeks to recover and get into breeding condition. We now wait to see how successful these birds are in raising chicks this summer.”

*The last puffin census on the Isle of May was carried out in 2008 and 2009

Additional information

CEH issued a press release for this story

Details of CEH's long-term monitoring at the Isle of May NNR

The puffins on the Isle of May have been intensively studied by scientists from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology since 1972. Each year breeding adults are marked with unique combinations of colour-rings that allow their survival to be followed over future years without the need to catch them again. To date, 80% of the adults alive at the end of the summer of 2012 have been recorded back at the colony. Since not all marked birds are seen every year, these figures reflect the minimum survival rate; the true figure will be higher. Assuming that the number of birds not seen is similar to normal the best estimate is that about 12% of the Isle of May population died during the 2012-13 winter. This is approximately 50% greater than the normal loss.

Puffin numbers are assessed by counting burrows at the colony. The count unit is the nesting burrow and counts are made by lines of people walking 3-5m apart across the island. This is done in late April after the birds have cleaned out their burrows after the winter absence and before the vegetation has started to grow. After counting, sample areas are subject to a detailed search to assess what proportions of burrows are occupied by puffins and to determine how many burrows had been overlooked. In 2013, additional checks were made to allow for pairs that were late in cleaning out their burrows.

Details of the count methodology and earlier results are published in the following Scientific Papers:

  • Harris, M.P., Wanless, S., Murray, S., Leitch, A. & Wilson, L.J. (2003) Counts of Atlantic Puffins Fratercula arctica in the Firth of Forth, south-east Scotland in 2003. Atlantic Seabirds 5(3): 101-111.
  • Harris, M.P., Newell, M., Leitch, A., Bruce, B. & Hunt, J. (2009) Dramatic decline in numbers of Atlantic Puffins in the Firth of Forth. Scottish Birds 29: 132-134

The Isle of May is one of more than 50 National Nature Reserves in Scotland. These are special places that look after some of the best of Scotland's nature on behalf of everyone who lives or visits Scotland, and they provide unique opportunities to visit, enjoy and learn more about Scotland's nature. Visit Scotland's National Nature Reserves for more information. 


Puffin news from CEH

Worsening North Sea conditions could be increasing Atlantic puffins mortality in winter - 08 January 2010

Blog - Assessing the 2013 Atlantic puffin 'wreck' - 12 April 2013

Puffins added to the list of dwindling North Sea birdlife (2008 Puffin census on the Isle of May) - 4 June 2008




You can follow the latest developments in CEH research via Twitter and our RSS news feed