February 14, 2014

Atlantic puffins must rank as one of the most easily recognised and popular British birds, with their comical, clown-like expression, distinctive plumage and colourful beak.  As one of the auk family, they typically feed by dipping their heads under the water to locate, and then surface-dive after, small fish. Their wings are as effective for propulsion through the water as they are through the air, although their rapid whirring flight does not appear sustainable over long distances.

Puffins are usually found in an open sea (pelagic) habitat, except when they come to suitable coasts or islands such as Alderney to breed, from early April to late July. They will then forage in shallow waters, up to 10km from the nest site. Puffins are especially associated with tidal fronts, like Alderney’s Swinge and Race, which attract many other seabirds. Their prey, often sand eels, feeds on the nutrients brought to the surface by the currents and upwellings.  Puffins also take other, schooling mid-water fish, such as sand eels, herring and capelin up to 15cm in length.  They prefer species with high calorific value like oily fish.

There seem to be marked differences in diet between colonies and between years. Recent declines in the Flamborough colony in Yorkshire were blamed on poor availability of sand eels in the southern North Sea.  Alderney’s puffins have suffered an even larger decline, possibly due to the movement of their favoured sand eels to cooler more northerly waters.  In 2012, only 165 pairs nested on Burhou, compared with tens of thousands only fifty years ago.

A study of the Flamborough colony found the greatest densities of puffins foraging 26-28 km away in the morning, while later on in the day most birds were between 6km and 8km from the coast, with some birds further out at 40km. Atlantic puffins catch most of their prey within 30m of the water surface, although they are capable of diving to 60m.

Puffins generally produce a single chick, or puffling, and these are reared in former rabbit burrows on favoured grassy areas of Burhou.  The pufflings emerge usually at night from the burrow and make their way in darkness down to the rocky shore.  This activity was captured for the first time in 2013 on Alderney Wildlife Trust’s Living Islands: LIVE webcam.