Monitoring the effects of weather on puffin behaviour



By Emma Watson. This project is supervised by Bethan Wood.

The species Fratercula arctica (Atlantic puffin), a marine seabird, is a member of the auk family, Alcidae, (Harris 1984), whose habitat is almost exclusively offshore islands and rocky coasts (Nettleship et al., 2014). It is one such species that, following rapid population declines in its European range, was down listed by the IUCN from “Least Concern” to “Vulnerable” status in 2015 (IUCN, 2019). As a species with low fecundity (Furness and Camphuysen, 1997) that is tied to specific colony areas during its breeding season (Durant et al., 2004a), the puffin may be particularly vulnerable to environmental changes, such as extreme weather conditions resulting from climate change.

Seabirds such as the puffin are found at higher trophic levels and therefore will be indirectly affected by changes in their prey populations in response to fluctuating sea temperatures as a result of climate change. The puffin has previously experienced harmful impacts to their breeding success due to the collapse of their primary prey sources at lower trophic levels in the North Atlantic Ocean, including Clupea harengus L. (herring) and Mallotus villosus M. (capelin) (Barrett et al. 2012). This is because the puffin will choose to initiate breeding based on predictions of food availability as it arrives in the foraging area (Lack, 1968, cited in Durant et al. 2003). Failure to predict a sufficient availability of resources correctly could lead to a slowing of chick growth in the face of food shortages (Cook and Hamer, 1997). In periods of extreme shortages, the consequences could be even more severe, resulting in chick death and complete failure in a year’s reproduction (Durant et al., 2004b). This relationship has been demonstrated in a number of studies, primarily undertaken at the island of Røst in Norway; Barrett et al. (1987) recorded zero fledging among puffin colonies 1982-83; the mortality corresponded exactly in both years with a dramatic decline in the quality and quantity of food resources. Similarly, Anker-Nilssen and Aarvack (2002) found that fledging failed to occur in any chicks below a threshold value for mean sea temperature; the study acknowledged that the relationship could be explained by this indirect effect of food supply. Finally, Durant et al. (2003) were able to use sea temperatures and the corresponding availability of herring to accurately predict breeding success of the F. arctica colony being studied.

Changes in climate have the potential to create extreme weather conditions (Meehl et al., 2000) that can impact the cost of flight for the puffin and consequently the cost of foraging, as energy expenditure may be higher in difficult weather conditions (Durant et al., 2004a). For example, changing global climates are projected to result in increases in extreme oceanic wind speeds (Pryor and Balthemie, 2010; Young et al., 2011). Such increases in wind speed could impact the flight cost of the puffin, whose comparatively small wings result in a frantic flapping style flight typically ranging between 300-400 beats per minute (Harris, 1984); they therefore have one of the highest energetic costs of flight among seabirds (Vandenabeele et al., 2012, cited in Jessop et al., 2013). This could potentially put the puffin at a disadvantage when wind speeds are high, as there is evidence that other flapping species of marine bird have a higher energy expenditure when wind speeds are strong (Gabrielson et al,. 1987, cited in Durant et al. 2004a). Flight and foraging activity also becomes too costly for puffins in heavy rain, which reduces visibility (Blet-Charaudeau et al., 2010). If the upper limit of daily energy expenditure is reached, an individual may have to prioritise their own survival over increasing their foraging efforts (Drent and Daan, 1980, cited in Boyd et al. 2014) and consequently chick development could be impacted by a lack of food, as seabirds prioritise their own survival over that of their offspring if foraging conditions are poor (Stearn, 1992 cited in Boyd et al., 2014; Erikstad et al., 2009). Attendance patterns can be used to reflect foraging conditions (Slater, 1980, cited in Calvert and Robinson,


2002), as puffins may therefore spend less time foraging and more time at the colony if weather conditions are poor in order to preserve energy (Blet-Charaudeau et al., 2010). However, it has been suggested that cold temperatures, high wind speeds and rain may also reduce attendance at the colony (Harris, 1984; Nelson, 1987, cited in Calvert and Robinson, 2002); this also may impact population numbers, if breeding individuals spend less time at the colony.

As weather conditions and climate may affect breeding success through fluctuating food availability and foraging conditions, it is important to monitor puffin populations closely to detect and examine any changes in foraging behaviour, attendance, residency time, and prey data that may arise as a result of changing weather conditions in due to changing global climates . This could assist with the identification of necessary actions for conservation of the species. Iceland is said to host around 60 percent of puffin breeding colonies; however, as most colonies in the country are unmonitored, it is important to carry out monitoring and research on the small colony at Skálanes, which is a directly observable and relatively understudied colony, and comparison of results between years will allow for any changes in activity patterns or changes in population size to be identified.

This study is based on previous research by the University of Glasgow Iceland expedition 2018, by Sallie Turnbull. It will aim to continue her work on monitoring the activity patterns of the Skálanes sub-colony and investigate the impact of different weather conditions on these activities, with a particular focus on foraging behaviours. These foraging behaviours and attendance levels may potentially be impacted in the near future by more extreme weather conditions as a result of climate change, which in turn could impact the breeding success of this vulnerable species. This study will therefore investigate whether the activities of the sub colony at Skálanes are affected by weather conditions, in order to help predict the response of puffin behaviours to the potential effects of climate change, and help inform future conservation efforts.



  • Investigate the effect of weather conditions on puffin foraging rates
  • Investigate the effect of weather conditions on activity levels and attendance at the colony
  • Investigate the effect of weather conditions on the type and amount of prey puffins bring back to the colony
  • Conduct a population count, monitor any changes in population over the course of the study. Compare population data with data gathered by previous Exploration Society projects.



  • Puffin foraging (frequency and duration) declines with higher wind speeds, temperatures and precipitation, resulting in longer periods on land within the colony.
  • Increased wind speed and precipitation will decrease the amount prey brought back to the nest.
  • Undertake a count of nests at the colony to obtain a population estimate.
  • Observation sessions lasting 2 hours will be conducted three times a day; one in the morning, afternoon and evening. Exact times of observation sessions will be assigned randomly for each day.
  • Observations will take place from the observation deck at Skalanes, which is around 10-25m away from the nesting colony.
  • Record number of birds present at the site the beginning and end of every observation session, and then at 20-minute intervals throughout the session to estimate mean attendance
  • Estimate foraging rates by counting how many birds enter the colony over the course of the observation
  • Identify the type and amount of prey brought back to the colony using binoculars, a telescope and a long lens camera to document with photographs
  • Record weather data prior to observation session to be used in comparison to puffin behaviour. Weather data will be taken from the Dalatangi Weather Station, which is the closest building to Skálanes in any direction, 6.8km away.
  • The station is run by the Icelandic Met Office, and weather data is posted hourly on their website which is freely accessible at
  • The weather variables measured from the Dalatangi data will be wind speed, wind direction, temperature, precipitation, humidity and visibility.



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