Puffin – first and last

Fratercula arctica – PAL – Breeding summer visitor

YearFirst sightingLast sightingSkokholm
max count
Skomer
max count
Notes
see below
1981
19823710
198328 December3500
198422 March25 October3668c.7000+ pairs
1985(1)
1986
1987
1988
19892175c.5700 pairs
1990c.2000-2500 pairsc.5000-6000 pairs
19914432c.5000-6000 pairs
19922505c.5000-6000 pairs
19936 March
earliest recorded
5 December2,145 in April
6,209 in July
c.11,000 spring
c.18,000 in July
(2)
1994
199521 March19 August (Skomer)2,700 in spring10,473 in spring
199624 March27 September3,332 on 7 April
5,275 in July
9,141 in spring
11,869 in summer
(3)
199721 March24 September3,250 in spring9,049 in spring
19985 Jan (Strumble)17 Oct (Strumble)2,774 on 1 April9,235 in spring
199920 March30 Sept (Strumble)3,083 in spring9,213 in spring
20003,092 in spring10,614 in spring(4)
2001 15 March31 Oct (Strumble)7,854
20026 Feb (Strumble)7 Nov (Strumble)c.4,00010,338
200319 March9 Oct (Strumble)8,537 in May
21,292 in July
200413 March6 Oct (Strumble)10,688 on 14 May
200525 Oct (Strumble)10,717 on 6 May
200627 Dec (Wooltack)4,51010,876
200717 Sept (Strumble)4,900 AOS11,821 on 4 April
200819 March14 August (with fish)10,487
200912 July (Strumble)13,508 in spring
201012,577
201117 Dec (Strumble)
201211,479
20134,83419,280
201426 March17 August5,070 on 10 April18,237
20156,645 on 14 May21,349
20164 Feb (Ramsey)21 Oct (Pwll-deri)6,69222,539
201723 March14 Oct (Strumble)7,800 in May25,227
201813 March21 Sept (Strumble)8,762 30,895
20191 March5 Sept (Strumble)7,44724,108
202016 March5 September8,53434,796

(1) 291 found oiled during the Bridgeness incident

(2) Leucistic bird on Skokholm

(3) No puffins affected by Sea Empress oil spill, as this predated their arrival

(4) All white bird on Skomer

Records extracted from the Pembrokeshire bird reports

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Puffin – 2011 research

Fratercula arctica – PAL – Breeding summer visitor

A Dispersive Migration in the Atlantic Puffin and Its Implications for Migratory Navigation

Individual Atlantic puffins ‘scout out’ their own migration routes rather than relying on genetic ‘programming’ or learning routes from a parent, a new study suggests.

The evidence comes from research by a team from Oxford University and Microsoft Research Cambridge which used BAS geolocater tags to track the migration movements of 18 birds: with 8 of these birds being tracked for two consecutive years.

The study found that the birds followed a wide range of different migration routes (suggesting their movements were not genetically predetermined) but that they were not merely random as the same bird followed a similar route each year. Because young puffins leave colonies at night, alone, long before their parents, the idea that they might learn a route directly from others also seems extremely unlikely.

‘We think it’s likely that, before they start breeding, young puffins explore the resources the ocean has to offer and come up with their own individual, often radically different, migration routes,’ said Professor Tim Guilford of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, who co-led the study. ‘This tendency to explore may enable them to develop a route which exploits all the best food sources in a particular area wherever these might happen to be.’

The team believe this kind of ‘scouting’ for good migration routes could also be used by many other species of birds, especially seabirds — which can choose to stop and feed anywhere on the ocean during their migration.

The full article can be found here

Guilford T, Freeman R, Boyle D, Dean B, Kirk H, et al. (2011) A Dispersive Migration in the Atlantic Puffin and Its Implications for Migratory Navigation. PLoS ONE 6(7): e21336. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021336

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Puffin – 2003-07 breeding

Fratercula arctica – PAL – Breeding summer visitor

Comparison with 1984-88 atlas

1984-882003-07
Breeding confirmed74
Breeding probable2
Breeding possible1
No of tetrads occupied8 (of 478)6 (of 490)
Percentage of tetrads1.7%1.2%

Common offshore around western Pembrokeshire between late March and late July each year, but rarely seen outside this period, Puffins congregate in large rafts close inshore near their breeding colonies in the spring and early summer months and socialise around their breeding colonies each evening.

Puffins are mostly confined to offshore islands free of predators, particularly rats. They nest in burrows on steep slopes in sometimes very dense colonies.  The principal colonies are on Skomer Island, including Middleholm, and Skokholm with small populations on the Bishops near Ramsey, on St Margaret’s Island and at Stackpole Head where they nest in sheer cliff sites.

Numbers in the past were clearly very much higher than they are now and for example it was estimated that 500,000 to 700,000 pairs nested on Grassholm in the  1890’s,  a figure disputed by modern analysis which suggested that around 200,000 pairs would be more realistic.  Whatever the actual figure, the density was clearly much higher than in today’s colonies and on Grassholm there are still remnants of the collapsed burrows testifying to this. This colony was more or less deserted during the 1920’s and it has been suggested that the birds relocated to Skomer and Skokholm, although it is not clear how that assumption was made. There were also apparently big colonies on Caldey and Ramsey in historic times, before rats devastated them.

Mathew (1894) made the observation that they were undoubtedly the most common bird in Pembrokeshire with huge colonies on Skomer stating “there is scarcely a yard of ground free of them” and Lockley et al (1949) thought that around 50,000 pairs were breeding on Skomer and 20,000 on Skokholm. There were clearly many more birds present than there are today. 

The population estimates which have been made since the 1950’s on both Skomer and Skokholm have been consistent in suggesting that around 9,000 to 10,500 pairs may breed there.  Estimates are however subject to substantial inaccuracies because it is not possible to count burrows, as both rabbits and shearwaters breed on both islands in abundance, and estimates have tended to be done by extrapolation of detailed studies in one small part of the islands.

Consequently, in an attempt to provide greater consistency in counting and to provide comparative long term data of population trends, all counts of birds since the 1980’s have concentrated on the maximum attendance by adult birds in the spring. The spring counts in 2003-2007 of around 10,800 individual birds on Skomer and 4,800 on Skokholm  suggests a rather similar breeding population to the 1985-87 Seabird Colony Survey estimate of a total breeding population of  about 10,600 pairs  on the two islands.

Stephen Sutcliffe

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Puffin – 1994

Fratercula arctica – PAL – Breeding summer visitor

1984-88
Breeding confirmed7
Breeding probable
Breeding possible1
No of tetrads occupied8 (of 478)
Percentage of tetrads1.7%

The Puffin was formerly much more numerous than it is today. There was an extremely large colony of Puffins on Grassholm in the 1890s, estimates of its size varying from 500,000 to 700,000 pairs. However, when reviewing these estimates Williams (1978) used a density of two pairs per square yard to calculate that the population was probably about 200,000 pairs. This huge number nested in burrows in the ‘haystack’ of red fescue which covered most of the island to a depth of two feet. Eventually this became so honeycombed with burrows that it collapsed and Puffins largely forsook Grassholm, probably by 1920, when local opinion was that many had moved to breed on Skokholm.

They bred all over the island of Skomer according to Mathew (1894) who stated “that there is scarcely a yard of ground free of them”, and around the turn of the century were also breeding on Caldey, St Margaret’s and the Bishops. Lloyd found a small colony of about 20 pairs breeding on Ramsey in 1927, where they bred commonly before the island was invaded by brown rats (Howells 1968). He also noted small numbers in the cliffs between Linney Head and St Govan’s Head during the 1920s and 1930s.

Lockley et al. (1949) estimated that about 100,000 pairs were breeding on Skokholm and Skomer combined, but by the time of Operation Seafarer (1969) the total Pembrokeshire population was down to about 9,000 pairs and the Seabird Register survey of 1985-1987 found about 10,600 pairs (see map), so there appears to have been a recent period of stability.

Puffins arrive at the breeding area in about the middle of March, and depart the land by about the third week in August, though some are seen in inshore waters well into October. They spend the winter out to sea. Ringing recoveries indicate that the winter range extends from Greenland to Gran Canaria and across the Atlantic as far as Newfoundland.  they are rarely seen in Pembrokeshire in the winter; those birds that do occur in winter are usually sick or exhausted.

Donovan J.W. & Rees G.H, 1994, Birds of Pembrokeshire

LLOYD, B. 1925—1939. Diaries. National Library of Wales.

WILLIAMS, G. 1978. Notes on the birds of Grassholm. Nature in Wales 16: 2-15.

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Puffin – 1949

Fratercula arctica grabae

Mathew considered it “by far the most numerous” bird on the Pembrokeshire list, describing the colony at Grassholm as contain “countless numbers” which “on rising and flying overhead, for the moment completely shaded the sun”.  In 1890 J.J.Neale estimated over half a million puffins at Grassholm.  In 1946 there were scarcely 50 pairs.  The decline in numbers at Grassholm seems to be related to the great increase at Skokholm in the same period. 

In the reign of Queen Elizabeth vast numbers bred on Ramsey, which has since been abandoned.  The same may be said of Caldey.  It breeds sparingly on a few isolated stacks and cliffs along the mainland coast, but its main stations are Skomer and Skokholm, where they are so numerous that is is difficult to form an estimate of the total force.  It is probably not less than one hundred thousand pairs.

R.M.Lockley, G.C.S.Ingram, H.M.Salmon, 1949, The Birds of Pembrokeshire, The West Wales Field Society 

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Puffin – 1894

Fratercula arctica – Resident.

This is the last of the Pembrokeshire birds that is left to us to describe, and, in the summer time, is by far the most numerous on the whole list; we do not believe that we should exaggerate were we to say that the Puffins, in number, are then equal to all the other birds in the county added together!

They occur on almost every station that is visited by the other cliff birds, wherever there are facilities for making their burrows, but like some other species, have their favourite quarters, being found on Ramsey only on the north end of the island, while the Razorbills and Guillemots chiefly occupy its western and south-western cliffs, and the large rocks standing out in the water to the south. On Skomer, where their numbers are marvellous, the Puffins are distributed all over the island, and there is scarcely a yard of ground free from them, so that we were both surprised and amused by coming on them at the least expected places. In walking over the island every now and again, our feet would slip through into a Puffin’s burrow, and sometimes, we fear, we sadly discomposed the bird sitting within upon her egg.

The Rev. C. M. Phelps has remarked that the eggs of the Skomer Puffins are very fine, and, in some cases, unusually richly marked. The same characteristic would seem to apply to the Puffins eggs from any part of the Welsh coast, as some we obtained from the neighbourhood of Barmouth, in North Wales, are very handsome, being of a pure white, and sparsely dotted over with grey patches. The average Puffin egg is a dirty white egg, far from ornamental in one’s cabinet.

We had frequently been informed by friends of the vast numbers of Puffins that inhabited Skomer, but from their descriptions we were but little prepared for what we actually saw. As our boat approached the island we first came upon an immense mass of birds upon the water, that proved to be acre upon acre of Puffins ; flocks were continually arriving, and others leaving the main body, and all over the surface of the sea there were smaller flocks. As we drew near to the shore we found the cliffs in front of us so thickly covered by Puffins as to look as if they were sprinkled with snow, and the air was thick with single Puffins flying off the water with ribbands of fish hanging from their mandibles, on their way to feed the young in their burrows.

The birds were ridiculously tame, and when we landed, and were close to them, took but slight heed of us, only fixing their little round eyes upon us, and seeming to sit a little more upright upon the rocks. But there was a continual movement amongst them of those arriving and departing, and sitting down among the fern we for some time watched the wonderful scene, and as we remained quiet some of the birds were emboldened to alight almost within arm’s reach, and presently we saw a pure white Puffin, white all over, save for the wings that were black, fly within a few feet of us. In Mr. Vaughan Davies’ house there is preserved a beautiful specimen of a perfect albino Puffin that had been obtained on the island, and we were informed that varieties are rare, and that this was the only albino that had ever occurred.

Mr. Dix relates that on Caldy Island, where Puffins are also numerous, there was in his time a very cruel custom that we heartily trust has been put a stop to by the Sea Birds’ Preservation Act, viz., the men and boys of Tenby used to slaughter the Puffins wholesale on Whit Monday, and adds: “It is as much an institution with them as May Day with the sweeps.” We are told that on Grasholm the Puffins are a week or ten days later in nesting than they are on Skomer and Ramsey.

In the winter the Puffins disappear from all the islands, and are distributed over the seas. They do not appear to go far up the Bristol Channel, as the Guillemots and Razorbills do, as we have never met with any, and there are but few instances of stragglers having been noticed on the Somerset coasts. The singular fact is reported from one of the Light Houses at the entrance to Milford Haven that Puffins strike against the light annually at the beginning of September, and do not do so at any other season of the year. At Caldy they visit the Light House in the spring; twenty occurred there at 6 a.m on March 4, 1886.

Mathew M.A. 1894, Birds of Pembrokeshire and its Islands

More about the Puffin in Pembrokeshire

Puffin

Fratercula arctica – PAL – Breeding summer visitor

Puffin – first and last

Table of first and last dates, and highest counts on the Islands. Data from the Pembrokeshire Bird Reports

Puffin – 2011 research

Fratercula arctica – PAL – Breeding summer visitor A Dispersive Migration in the Atlantic Puffin and Its Implications for Migratory Navigation Individual Atlantic puffins ‘scout out’ their own migration routes rather than relying on genetic ‘programming’ or learning routes from a parent, a new study suggests. The evidence comes from research by a team from Oxford […]

Puffin – 1994

Fratercula arctica – PAL – Breeding summer visitor 1984-88 Breeding confirmed 7 Breeding probable Breeding possible 1 No of tetrads occupied 8 (of 478) Percentage of tetrads 1.7% The Puffin was formerly much more numerous than it is today. There was an extremely large colony of Puffins on Grassholm in the 1890s, estimates of its size […]

Puffin – 1949

Species account from the Birds of Pembrokeshire, 1949, by Lockley, Ingram and Salmon.

Puffin – 1894

Fratercula arctica – Resident. This is the last of the Pembrokeshire birds that is left to us to describe, and, in the summer time, is by far the most numerous on the whole list; we do not believe that we should exaggerate were we to say that the Puffins, in number, are then equal to all the other birds […]