Protecting puffins

Barb
Barb Sweet
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Conservationists in Scotland, Maine concerned for seabird

A puffin flies in Witless Bay. — Photo courtesy of Bill Montevecchi/Memorial University

In Scotland and Maine, conservationists are worried about the future of their puffin colonies.

And while puffins in this province are doing well, the concerns about climate change on seabirds is not to be dismissed, said Bill Montevecchi, a biology, ocean sciences and psychology research professor at Memorial University.

“I wouldn’t want to trivialize climate change,” he said.

Montevecchi said he just came back from Gull Island in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve and the puffins are doing well.

“It looks OK for seabirds. But again, we’re always watching,” Montevecchi said.

There was concern last summer for gannets, because of the effects of warm waters. Because of it, fish went deeper or to more northerly climates, meaning the gannets had to go further for food.

Since the cod moratorium in 1992, puffins in Newfoundland have actually fared better because they are not at risk of dying from getting caught up in nets.

But the story on puffins is different in Scotland and Maine.

Tom Brock, CEO of the Scottish Seabird Centre, said puffins there are now just in the breeding season.

“Certainly, our puffins here have had a tough time recently,” he told The Telegram in a phone interview.

There was a large wreck just before the breeding season began, where puffins perished in a late storm offshore and hundreds of them washed onto the beaches of northeast Scotland.

It’s believed the numbers that washed onshore are a signal thousands may have actually perished.

 There are also food supply issues in the North Sea.

“The sea is warming up slightly, resulting in prey movements so what they normally eat — sand eels — they are having problems getting their normal food,” he said, adding there’s suspicion climate change is the cause.

There’s also an invasive plant known as tree mallow that’s blocking entrance to puffin burrows, and volunteers have been working to cut down the plant. The hunch is the plant — which can reach heights of six feet — is thriving because of climate change. Puffins are loyal to their mates and their burrows and can live 20 to 30 years, Brock noted.

“We are quite concerned about the puffin population as well as some other species, for example kittiwakes,” he said.

The seabird centre has been tracking kittiwakes by satellite and has traced them to their winter grounds off the coast of Newfoundland, Brock said.

Cameras have been also  positioned on the Scottish puffin burrows during the breeding seasons.

“The good news is a lot of puffins have returned for breeding, which is great,” he said.

Brock noted scientists are researching the seabird populations and the possible effect from climate change.

As in Newfoundland, the puffins have become a major attraction — the seabird centre draws a quarter million visitors a year.

“Everybody loves puffins. We hope this is not a long-term problem and that the populations recover,” he said.

Steve Kress, vice-president of bird conservation for the New York-based National Audubon Society, first travelled to Witless Bay in the 1970s in an effort to restore puffins in Maine.

Kress launched the seabird restoration project on Maine’s Eastern Egg Rock and Seal Islands in 1973.

Puffin chicks were transplanted to the islands from Newfoundland until the early 1980s, when it seemed the Maine colonies had become self-sufficient.

Kress told The Telegram the society has never seen the number of winter deaths of puffins as occurred this year.

One dead puffin washing up can mean 10 or even 100 more died, Kress said.

Another problem is that nesting success last summer was at a record low, half of what it normally is, he said.

Like Brock, he expressed concern about the warming of oceans.

The hopeful view is what has happened is an anomaly, he said.

But food supply is a concern because the chicks usually feed on little herring or hake, which are the right size and shape for them and easily swallowed.

But because of the change in ocean conditions, the puffin parents are going  for butterfish, which are nutritious, but not the right shape for the chicks.

Last year, the Gulf of Maine had the warmest waters in the past 150 years, the cycle of productivity started two months earlier and the butterfish were bigger than normal, which meant the chicks could not swallow them, Kress said.

Researchers found dead chicks surrounded by big butterfish, and the situation is being watched carefully this year.

Kress warned it could be the canary in the coal mine example of trouble in the ocean.

“Who would think the shape of the fish would be a problem?” he said.

He said the message of climate change should be taken to heart and individuals and governments commit to reversing  the trend.

“Hopefully, the puffin can make this story about climate change real,” Kress said.

This year, six dead puffins washed ashore in Bermuda, but such events are not unusual.

There was actually a stir in Bermuda when a live puffin was sighted this spring.

Andrew Dobson, president of the Bermuda Audubon Society, said in an email that a local man was the envy of the local birding community when he photographed a live Atlantic puffin in April while out fishing with his brother off southwest Bermuda. The bird dove twice in front of the brothers.

The nearest puffin breeding grounds to Bermuda are Maine and  Nova Scotia. While the birds can winter well north of Bermuda, prolonged bad weather can prevent them from feeding and they starve, Dobson wrote. Weakened birds drown.

In March and April, at least six dead birds were found. It’s not unusual for puffins to turn up dead there, often one or more a year. In 2005, at least nine dead puffins were found at various Bermuda locations, according to a log on the society’s website. It was considered a record.

“Therefore it was a real thrill to know that a live puffin has at last been seen in Bermuda waters,” Dobson wrote.

 

bsweet@thetelegram.com

 

on the web: http://projectpuffin.audubon.org/

www.seabird.org

Organizations: Barb SweetThe TelegramIn Scotland and Maine, The Telegram, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve Scotland and Maine.Tom Brock National Audubon Society Bermuda Audubon Society

Geographic location: Maine, Newfoundland, Scotland Gull Island Bermuda North Sea Witless Bay Seal Islands Nova Scotia

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Recent comments

  • John
    June 20, 2013 - 20:11

    I certainly agree with Darren. Gull Island and Green Island off Witless Bay attract numerous tourists because of the puffins. Also, Ragged Beach is part of the East Coast Trail, and the tranquility and beauty should not be overtaken by residential construction. It's right at the ocean's edge.

  • darren
    June 20, 2013 - 14:15

    and a much more local issue, the proposed residential development at Ragged Beach in Witless Bay that will definitely affect the local populations of birds, just disgusting.