All photos by Bethan Hall-Jones
Skálanes Nature and Heritage Centre is home to a small sub-colony of puffins who regularly nest on the cliffs next to the Centre’s observation deck. Puffins are perhaps one of the most well known species of bird due to their tiny size, brightly coloured beaks and legs and their wee clown-like faces, earning them the nickname “Clowns of the Sea”!
They are monogamous seabirds who usually return to the same colony every year with the same partner, and lay just one egg in a tiny burrow. Both male and female puffins incubate and care for their young, and they have a wide and varied diet due to their generalist foraging strategy. Iceland is the breeding home for around 60% of the world’s puffins, whose striking appearance, quirky behaviours, and clumsy movements on land make them a beloved favourite with tourists and bird-watchers alike.
Sadly, the puffin is now classed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is widely considered as the global authority on biodiversity and species conservation. This is because puffins have suffered rapid population declines in recent years. This is partly due to the species being tied to one specific colony area during breeding seasons, along with low numbers of offspring, making them particularly vulnerable to environmental changes.
High wind speeds and precipitation levels can make it harder for puffins to fly, reducing how much they are able to forage for themselves and their offspring. This means that the increasing frequency of extreme weather conditions predicted as a result of climate change can affect the breeding success of puffins, leading to even further declines in their population numbers.
Therefore, I am investigating whether or not the foraging activities of the sub-colony at Skálanes are affected by weather conditions. To answer this question, I have been carrying out observation sessions in rain, hail and shine…and snow….and near gale force winds!! During these sessions I am studying the activity patterns of the colony, and will later compare these patterns with weather data from each session. This will allow me to identify whether certain weather conditions can have a direct impact on the activity of the puffins.
I hope that the results I find can help predict how puffins will respond to more extreme weather conditions that are likely to arise as a result of climate change, and therefore help inform future conservation strategies to protect this wonderful little species.
No one on the team has been immune to assisting in my observations, no matter the weather! Lotta and Bethan have also been taking some brilliant shots of the puffins in action, so keep an eye on our blog and social media pages for some great pictures of these colourful wee clowns!
IUCN (2019). Fratercula Arctica (Atlantic Puffin). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. [online] Available at: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22694927/132581443 [Accessed 17 Nov 2019].
Harris, M. (1984). The Puffin. 1st ed. Staffordshire: T & A D Poyser Ltd, pp. 19, and 76-77.
Durant, J., Stenseth, N., Anker-Nilssen, T., Harris, M., Thompson, P. and Wanless, S., 2004a. Marine birds and climate fluctuations in the North Atlantic. In: N. Stenseth, G. Ottersen, J. Hurrell and A. Belgrano, ed., Marine Ecosystems and Climate Variation. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.95-104.
Boyd, C., Punt, A.E., Weimerskirch, H. and Bertrand, S., 2014. Movement models provide insights into variation in the foraging effort of central place foragers. Ecological modelling, 286, pp.13-25.
Erikstad, K.E., Sandvik, H., Fauchald, P. and Tveraa, T., 2009. Short‐and long‐term consequences of reproductive decisions: an experimental study in the puffin. Ecology, 90(11), pp.3197-3208.
Barrett, R.T., Nilsen, E.B. and Anker-Nilssen, T., 2012. Long-term decline in egg size of Atlantic puffins Fratercula arctica is related to changes in forage fish stocks and climate conditions. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 457, pp.1-10.