In the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, the puffin colony is mysteriously decreasing. Between 2003 and 2008, the puffin population here declined from 56 to 36,000. They appear to be breeding successfully, and there is no sign of them being decimated by predators. But when they go off to their feeding’s grounds, only some of them return. What could be happening to them?
Perhaps climate change is causing the birds’ main food source, sand eels, to move north to cooler waters. Or perhaps pollution is affecting numbers, or competition from other species such as gulls. In an effort to find out, scientists from Newcastle University are tagging the puffins with small electronic GPS devices so as to understand where they feed in the winter, how they get there and how long they stay in different areas. The electronic tags are glued onto the birds’ feathers and the birds are simultaneously weighed and measured to make sure that the tags do not affect their feeding habits. The tags fall off naturally a day or two later and then the team can collect up the tags and collate the data. They will be looking for clues to the feeding grounds used by the puffins, and to the risks they face there. Says researcher Richard Bevan: “When the bird dives, it records the depths at which it is diving. It records that every second so as it is travelling down the water column it monitors how fast it is descending, what it is doing, when it gets to the bottom. It also marks how long it is diving for and the number of dives.” Once enough data has been collected, scientists hope they’ll understand what is happening to the mysterious disappearing puffins, and more importantly, how to stop them disappearing completely. For more info from Newcastle University see: