Friday, 3 June 2011

Tossing puffins

To most visitors to the island the puffin is king.

Hanging around waiting for a puffin to hit the nets.

A close up of a puffin, this one has some dark feathers on its face which are left over from its winter plumage.

A puffin being ringed.

Searching for dropped fish

A photo session for a carefully held puffin.

A beak ful of small sandeels.

A huge sandeel, a big mouthful for a puffling.

Tossing the puffin.

The puffin is the main draw for most visitors that come to the Isle of May, only once has someone ask me where they could see shags on the island. People come from a long way away just to see the puffins, one lady earlier on in the season said she had come all the way from Canada to see them. But the visitors usually don't know that much about them and their lifestyles. This is partially because they spend a lot of their time ashore underground in burrows where they lay their 1 egg and incubate it which makes it hard to study them. But on the Isle of May the puffins have been studied for nearly 40 years. When the research started there were only about 1500 pairs on the island but this grew to 69000 in 2003 though an increase in adults not surviving the winter means that the population is down to about 45000 pairs now.
One of the ways of finding out more about the puffins is to catch them when they are bringing back fish to their young. This a a weekly occurrence on the island and is down on a fine evening and early the next morning. So after tea we set up mist nets along Holymans Road and then we sit down a wait. It is a nice social time for those of us involved though stories and chats are always interrupted by incoming puffins as sometimes immediately, sometimes after a wait a puffin hits the net and gets tangled and we spring into action. A quick sprint down to the net means that the bird can be extracted before it gets even more tangled but also we have to be quick off the mark to gather its valuable haul of fish before the gulls get in and pinch it.
It has to be said that a puffin in the hand is not the quaint, comical creature that many people think they are. Basically they are very sharp at both ends and grumpy in the middle. A puffin's bill is incredibly strong and it likes to use it. When you get them out of the net they usually manage to grab a sensitive bit of hand like the webbing between thumb and forefinger and then squeeze. Meanwhile at the other end they have incredibly sharp claws used for digging burrows which they scrabble around until hooked them deep into fingers. This make putting a ring on there leg a less than pleasurable experience and often quite bloody but a worthwhile scientific task. The ring with its individual number enables us to know a puffin if we recatch it or if it is found elsewhere. We also take measurements of the wing length and its weight and then the bird is released. There is a technique to releasing them, they need to be tossed into the air so that they can get lots of lift to accelerate but it pays to make sure that the claws have been disengaged from skin first before tossing. The fish that the bird was carrying is really valuable and so is collected and put in the freezer. It is from this that by measuring and weighing the fish we can find out how effective the puffin has been at fishing so what sort of food the chicks have been receiving. It also gives us information about the state of the fishery off the island. So the puffin may loose one load of fish out of hundreds that it might bring in during a season but the gain is further insight into how well these amazingly popular birds are doing.

No comments:

Post a comment