Tuesday, 21 May 2013

A puffin counters view of the island

Amanda Kuepfer spent a week on the island mainly taking part in the puffin burrow count. This is her story of the week.

My Isle of May week 27 April - 4 May 2013.
Having recently moved to NE Scotland for a (mainly office-based) job as Seabird Ecologist with JNCC, I was determined to spend my spare time in the field, by the sea, amongst the birds. After a few enquiring emails to various individuals and organisations, I received an offer by Mark Newell from CEH to volunteer for this year’s puffin count on the Isle of May. Perfect!
The timing of the puffin count week couldn’t have been better. After a 5 day brain-frying statistics course in land-locked Birmingham I boarded the May Princess at Anstruther Harbour with my oversized rucksack, bins around my neck and a layer of sun cream on my nose – always a satisfying combination of stuff, I find!
The crossing was wonderful - calm, sunny, with gannets gliding beside the boat; razorbills, common and black guillemots rafting on the water, and WOOHOO, the puffins are back too! With the exception of one lone puffin at the Fowlsheugh reserve two weeks prior, I had so far only seen numerous dead ones washed up on the coast of NE Scotland – the remnants of the puffin wreck caused by the prolonged cold weather and strong winds. So it felt good to see dozens of them bobbing up and down on the water as we approached the island.
Upon landing, I was received by a bunch of friendly faces - the more permanent island crew I would be working and staying with. They introduced me to our base and the most important house rules, including ‘No Showers’ and ‘Never apologise for your cooking’. Suits me fine.
The puffin count wasn’t going to start until the day after so I used the time to explore the island. In the company of PhD student Klara and photographer Celine, I followed the path around to the edge of the cliffs where the winds blew harsh and cool. Dramatic and breathtaking, the cliffs dropped down several hundred feet where the waves crashed angrily against them. Kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, shags and fulmars brought the static cliffs alive, squealing and flapping, squabbling and snuggling – a truly heart-warming sight. Down below, grey seals lazily stretched out on a rock in the afternoon sun. Up above, herring, lesser and greater black-backed gulls circled the skies, screeching their little hearts out. Oystercatchers flapped past us with their wonderful piping calls, eider ducks waddled about, and little passerines including wheatears, pied wagtails and linnets crossed our path as we continued to follow it around the island. And then there were the bunnies. Hundreds of them! They are the ever so important gardeners of the May without which the island’s vegetation would be considerably different and unsuitable for puffins to dig their nesting burrows. But where ARE all the puffins? Oh they have returned. But this early in the late season, they prefer spending most of their time on the water, and only return to their nesting sites every couple of days.                     
After a delicious dinner, Mark showed me around the various hides along the southwestern cliffs, one more ingeniously built than the next, allowing for fantastic views of the nesting sites. This is where much of the hard work happens, with the continuous monitoring of the different species and individuals from their return to the colony to their departure at the end of the season.
The puffin count started bright and early the next day, following a briefing by Mike Harris. Actually, it wasn’t so much a puffin count as a puffin burrow count, counting the holes in the ground which showed some sign of activity – puffin guano, clear openings, etc. This may sound deceptively straight forward. But the ground off the main paths is completely undermined by a network of burrows and required hopping between solid rock and thick tufts to avoid stepping through the burrows. With winds blowing so strong I wondered if I could free-fall into them, balancing on isolated solid patches turned out surprisingly challenging! Luckily the winds calmed down over the following days, and with continued sunshine and an army of several people, the burrow count advanced well and we developed the fashionable island tan that starts at the chin and ends at the eyebrows below the brim of the woolly hats.
It did feel slightly bizarre counting thousands of burrows without a single puffin in sight. But that changed on Tuesday, when, like the previous mornings, I got up just before 7 to scan the island for puffins. I was just putting on my shoes, still half asleep, when Klara rushed through the door with the good news: The puffins are back! And so they were. As I swiftly walked to the hide, I passed hundreds of them perched on rocks, working at their burrows, preening, and greeting their mates through a vigorous and adorable display called billing where they knock their beaks together. Once in the hide, I noticed hundreds more arriving, frantically flapping their way across the water onto dry land. I’d never seen this many puffins!
The patch visible from the hide was covered in burrows, each of which had a small numbered pole next to it. Many of the puffins inhabiting them wore unique colour ring combinations which were fitted in previous seasons. This was going to be the first of several mornings when I would be looking to find which specific individuals had safely returned to breed, which burrow they were nesting in, and which mate they were breeding with. Combination red-orange on left leg, green-BTO on right leg - back in number 35. Puffins are amazingly loyal to their burrows. They are also very loyal to their mates, although so-called divorces do occur, when either of the mate dies, or for other reasons. It felt a real privilege to be able to observe this iconic bird from so close, watching them crawl in and out of their burrows, many emerging absolutely covered in soil and with clumps of mud in their beaks, obviously doing their annual spring clean.
But it’s not all rosy in the Puffin neighbourhood. A few mornings later, when I was crouched in the hide again, and having just taken pleasure in seeing the pair at number 5 performing one of their very many billing sessions, a greater black-backed gull took a fancy to them. Whilst one escaped into the burrow, the other put up an increasingly feeble fight against the vicious pecking of its enemy, until, eventually, it was dragged into the air by its beak and disappeared from my view. … Such is the harsh reality of nature.
But besides the wonders of the birds and the incredibly atmospheric scenery of the island, another very memorable aspect of my week on the May were the people I worked with. In the evenings, after 10pm when the working day drew to an end, there was always a relaxed and content atmosphere in the living room, drinking fine whisky, reading about the outside world, playing cards and enjoying the heat of Jeremy’s blazing master fires in the stove. However, you always had to be aware of your phrases as not to end up in the legendary quote book. True to British culture, the innuendo was rife.
The last evening was one of those perfectly clear nights that made the night-time island just as stunning as the day. With a cool breeze on my face, binoculars to my eyes and the ‘Owwwwoooooo’ of the eider ducks in my ears, I looked up at an incredibly starry sky and wished that I could stay.
But my last day came and, boarding the Princess once again, I received a lovely farewell from everyone. When Jeremy and Cash detached the bridge from the boat, I couldn’t stop the tears welling up as I realised that a very special week had come to an end.
Thanks to everyone, until next time when I return to the beautiful Isle of May .