Puffins are adorable – who wouldn’t want to study them? I can’t deny that their charisma had no sway on my decision to create a project based around them. The small colony of Atlantic puffins I am studying are also nesting just a short walk away from the house at Skálanes – so very convenient indeed!
These puffins (with the fancy latin name of Fratercula arctica) are one of 5 species of Auk and are unfortunately classified as vulnerable. Most of their lives are spent at sea but they will come to land in spring and summer to form breeding colonies. They will often select rocky cliffs and vegetation to build their nest burrows, which are lined with feathers or grass, in which they lay only a single egg.
Originally I was going to focus on their chick provisioning rates (when they bring food in their beaks to the nests and give it to their babies), but as soon as I carried out my first pilot study it was clear that the eggs had not hatched yet. Puffins usually lay their eggs in April/May time and they have an incubation period of 39-40 days. So in the meantime, I chose to look at how time of day and weather affects the puffins’ activity patterns, such as attendance (how many are present) and residency (how long they stay for). As there is constant sunlight here in Iceland, I set up a timetable with 2 hour slots which encompass all 24 hours in a day – so by the end of our 5 weeks of work I can have a very accurate representation the puffins’ activity at all hours.
Of course, this also means that I have to wake up at crazy times to go and stare at sometimes an empty puffin cliff for 2 hours– but hey that’s science! I do around 6 hours of work a day at randomised time slots, and it can be tough to find the motivation to climb the steep cliff that gives me a good vantage point into the nests, but it’s worth it when I get to see lots of puffins coming and going from their nests, and also for the amazing sunsets and sunrises!
At the start of July I finally got a glimpse of a puffin bringing fish to its nest and so the hatching period began officially and I could start to record their provisioning events alongside my other work. Atlantic puffins mainly eat small pelagic fish, such as sand eels and herring, and they have a specialised beak that can carry an average of 10 fish at one time. It’s quite the spectacle to see!
The RSPB have an interesting project called “Project Puffin” in which they call upon the public to try and capture puffins with a beak full of food and submit the images to their website. Their aim is to support efforts to complete a new national seabird census, and give insight into puffin diets around the UK and Ireland. I suppose similarly I am hoping to shed some light on the Icelandic side of the story.
So far, I’ve identified at least 10 nests on the cliff (you can see them in the picture below). These help me to identify arrivals and keep an eye on how productive each nest is with the number of provisioning events recorded.
All in all, my project is going quite well. I’ve discovered the puffins seem to have a preference for bad weather and very early mornings – but each to their own I suppose! They are certainly entertaining study subjects – hopping about on the cliff, interacting with one another and showing off their magnificent beaks. I’m grateful to have this wonderful opportunity and hope that my project is a success at the end of our expedition.
I have definitely developed a patience for watching these crazy puffins over the last few weeks!
Until next time,