Five facts you should know about puffins
'Clown of the sea' and 'sea parrot' are just two of the nicknames that have been given to Scotland's most recognisable seabird. Puffins are small, rounded birds that belong to the Auk family and weigh about the same as a can of Irn Bru.
The species we have here in Scotland is known as the Atlantic puffin, though there are others found elsewhere, including the horned puffin and the tufted puffin. Atlantic puffins spend the winter out on the open ocean so are best spotted between April and August when they gather on land in breeding colonies. Here are five facts we thought you'd enjoy about them.
Puffins shed their bills
The most recognisable feature of a puffin is probably the colourful bill, with its bright splashes of orange and yellow. However they're not like this the whole year round. In winter, puffins actually shed their outer bills, leaving smaller, duller ones behind. Their bright orange feet fade noticeably at this time too. The brighter red and grey horny plates of the bill are grown in again ahead of the breeding season.
They're pretty nippy
Despite their rather dumpy appearance, puffins are pretty speedy when they take to the air. They can travel at a top speed of 55 mph by flapping their wings up to 400 times a minute!
Puffins nest underground
At around two to three feet long a puffin burrow is about the same length as the arm of an adult human. Puffins dig out these burrows using their feet and bills, turfing the excess soil behind their little forms as they go. Once complete, they construct a soft nest of feathers and grass at the back, where they can safely incubate an egg and raise a chick.
They're pros when it comes to fishing
Puffins are one of only a few birds that are capable of holding several fish in their bills at one time. They can gather, on average, around ten sand eels on a single foraging trip, meaning they can bring more food back to their chicks; they don't have to regurgitate the meal for the young either. There are two adaptations which give puffins this special skill; their coarse tongues and a series of spines on their upper palates. When a puffin picks up a fish it pushes it against the spines with its tongue, allowing it to gather more without losing the ones it's already collected.
Young puffins are adventurers are heart
When young puffins are ready to fledge, they take to the ocean without their parents. And it's atop the waves where they remain until they are two or three years old. The puffins then usually return to nest in the colony where they hatched.
If you want to get out and see puffins in the wild, you could try: Dunnet Head, Troup Head, Fowlsheugh, some of RSPB Scotland’s sites on Orkney or Shetland, or in the Firth of Forth – particularly on the Isle of May.
Kirsty Nutt explains why now is a perfect time to get out and enjoy Scotland’s seabird cities.
It’s a time of change on Scotland’s cliffs
The clocks have sprung forward; the evenings are getting lighter and the days warmer. Spring is definitely on its way. And with the shift of seasons, changes in the natural world are all around.
Trees are coming in to bud, birdsong is filling the morning air and birds that we only see during the spring and summer are arriving. I spotted my first swallow last week, but the change I most look forward to is in full swing around Scotland’s coast – the return of seabirds to breed.
Cliffs that were empty up until a few weeks ago are rapidly being occupied by thousands of noisy neighbours all jostling for space on the packed ledges.
The sight of thousands of birds packed so tightly on almost vertical cliffs is awe-inspiring. How they cling on, let alone protect eggs and chicks and raise young in these precariously positioned nests is phenomenal.
Guillemots at Fowlsheugh
It’s only enhanced by the raucous, community atmosphere.
As you wander along the cliffs, you are surrounded by the familiar uplifting surround-sound of kittiwakes calling their own names, interspersed with the less frequent growls and grunts of razorbills and guillemots. Add to this the oily pungency that on calm days you can almost smell all the way in the bottom of your lungs and you’ve had the triple whammy of this must-experience wildlife spectacle.
Scotland is a fabulous place for seabirds and wherever you go there are places to visit to enjoy one of nature’s most remarkable experiences. Many of them are RSPB Scotland nature reserves, from my local favourites Fowlsheugh (20 miles south of Aberdeen) where more than 100,000 seabirds return to breed each year and Troup Head where the towering cliffs are home to Scotland’s only mainland gannet colony along with razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars, to ones further away.
Gannets at Troup Head
The Mull of Galloway sits at Scotland’s most southerly point, and is Dumfries and Galloway’s largest seabird colony. Cameras on the cliffs help visitors to spot nesting kittiwakes, fulmars, shags and razorbills, while gannets nest just offshore on an island called Big Scar Rock and can be seen fishing nearby. It’s a great place to spot cetaceans like dolphins, but also unusual butterflies like the wall and grayling, and beautiful spring and summer flowers. Very lucky visitors might even spy one of the few puffins that nest nearby.
Then at the most northerly tip of the British mainland, Dunnet Head awaits discovery. With its stunning sea cliffs and coastal grassland and weekly Wednesday walks to spot puffins and other birds nesting in the seabird cities, it’s well worth a visit.
Further north still, are four Orkney reserves each offering visitors something different. Hoy’s famous for its sea stack but it’s the reserve’s mix of moorland and sea cliffs and of white-tailed eagles, great skuas and puffins that make it a dream wildlife-watching destination. Marwick Head, on Orkney Mainland, just four miles from Skara Brae, is home to the Kitchener Memorial and thousands of seabirds. While dramatic Noup Cliffs on Westray houses Orkney's largest seabird colony including gannets and Arctic terns. Once seen, it's never forgotten! Last, but not least North Hill on the tiny island of Papa Westray, is home to Scottish primroses – tiny flowers that are found nowhere but Orkney and north Scotland. But there’s stiff competition to be the star of the show with seabirds such as tysties (black guillemots), puffins, Arctic terns and Arctic skuas. A statue on one of the trails commemorates the last breeding great auk in Britain that was shot here in 1813. A stark reminder to value our seabirds to make sure we don’t lose any others forever.
And then there is Sumburgh Head at the southern tip of mainland Shetland. A must-visit destination for puffin-lovers of all ages, the reserve also has a reputation as a good spot for seeing minke whales and orcas. While slightly further north the uninhabited island of Mousa is home to other seabirds with their own unique stories to tell – thousands of storm petrels nest hidden from view below and between the stones of the boulder beaches, dry-stone dykes and fallen walls. These tiny, seabirds are nocturnal, but day trips to see the island’s Arctic terns, tysties (black guillemots), seals and skuas are a delight.
For the even more adventurous Ailsa Craig lies nine miles offshore of South Ayrshire and rises to 1,109 feet. The dramatic seacliffs are home to the third largest gannet colony in Scotland – around 33,000 pairs – with a supporting cast of guillemots, razorbills, black guillemots and an increasing numbers of puffins. The reserve is best seen from the sea through an organised boat trip, which also helps to avoid disturbance. Companies run trips from Girvan or Campbeltown on calm days throughout the summer.
It’s not just RSPB Scotland nature reserves that provide important homes for seabirds though or opportunities to see them. Last year, we ran events in St Andrews, to help people enjoy the antics of the fulmars that nest on the cliffs on the coastal path near the cathedral. We hope to repeat them this year. And there are plenty of other places in Scotland you can visit to experience the springtime spectacle of a seabird city.
Sadly, recent decades have seen numbers of many of these seabirds plummet, particularly in the Northern Isles where there are approximately 90% fewer kittiwakes on the cliffs now compared to the 1980s. There have been similarly shocking declines in the numbers of Arctic terns and Arctic skuas, around half of the guillemots have disappeared and puffins have failed to breed too.
Help may be at hand. In 2014, the areas of sea around our coasts that are most important for seabirds were rooted out and chalked up for protection. Although it’s now two years later, we are working to have these places designated as Special Protection Areas, protected by one of two European Laws which protect the most vulnerable wildlife and wild place in Europe. (You can find out more about our campaign to save the Nature Directives here).
Many of the draft Special Protection Areas are big areas of sea, a long way from anywhere we can visit – it’s hard enough getting to Foula, let alone to the seas offshore from it! However, others are far better known to us. The Firth of Forth, The Solway Firth and Scapa Flow have all been shown to be of international importance. These areas are seabird hotspots throughout the year – in the summer puffins, gannets, razorbills and breeding eiders bring them alive, then through the winter they fill up with divers, grebes and seaducks.
These aren’t necessarily no-go areas or reserves set aside only for the seabirds. But they are areas where seabirds will be protected. Networks already exist throughout most of Europe and their designation may bring us to a point where we can recover numbers of prey such as sandeels and restore our vibrant seabird populations. We want to help bring back the huge colonies of Marwick Head for example, which are now preserved only in sepia.
Marwick Head in the 1970s and in 2013
Although we’re not quite there yet, and this year our seabirds won’t be fishing in protected areas, we hope that progress will soon be made and that the generations of young puffins, gannets and eiders which leave our shores at the end of this summer, will return to Scotland and its protected seas. For more information and updates visit rspb.org.uk/choosesealife.
Jenny Tweedie from RSPB Scotland gives us an update on the new visitor hub launching at RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond this spring.
RSPB Scotland opens new visitor hub at Loch Lomond
RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond launched its new visitor hub this spring, almost four years after the land was purchased. The reserve has always been open to the public, but until now, visitors have had to walk in from the nearby village of Gartocharn. Now, a new access road from the A811 and a 15-space car park mean that the site is much easier to get to, and visitors will be able to use these new facilities every weekend (10am - 3pm) until October.
As paths and signs are still being developed, the team of staff and volunteers will also be leading regular guided walks and events to help people discover the site and its amazing wildlife. But what’s been going on at RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond in the last four years? Here are just some of the highlights...
First a quick re-cap
In 2012, Wards Estate was bought by RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, and Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park Authority, with additional funding from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. It was the first time that a non-government wildlife charity, a national park and a statutory conservation body had joined forces in this way to acquire and look after a key site for biodiversity and people in Scotland.
The site is one of the most highly designated areas in Scotland. It’s a long list, but it’s a SSSI, an SPA, a National Scenic Area, and a Ramsar site, just to get you started, as well as being part of the National Park. Its rich variety of wildlife, inhabiting woodlands, mires, fens, grasslands and the floodplain also make it one of the most important wildlife sites in the UK.
As with almost every new reserve, there were very few facilities when we arrived and lots of projects we wanted to get our teeth into. Initially, the team worked out of a farmhouse on site, and we had no road, no office, nothing for visitors and lots of habitat work needing our attention. Since 2012, we have installed temporary offices for staff and volunteers, put in our access track and car park and created and opened a visitor hub with support from the National Lottery through Awards for All Scotland.
We’ve also made massive inroads into improving the reserve’s grassland for a variety of species including lapwings and geese. Some exciting path work will soon be starting, funded by the ScottishPower Foundation, and the installation of an architecture project will begin in May 2016. It’s all go!
We’ve carried out loads of surveys since 2012 and have uncovered some incredible beasties! Just last year, a great otter spider was found in one of the pools, a species that hadn’t been recorded in Scotland for more than 20 years.
The record came after the discovery of an equally rare beetle on the reserve in 2014, (the wonderfully named horsetail sloth weevil) and other records including spotted crake, a migratory bird with a British population thought to be fewer than 200!
Volunteers are incredibly important to the work of the RSPB, and they’ve certainly been invaluable at Loch Lomond. When you visit the reserve, keep a look out for the new hedgerow that’s been planted, as 15 volunteers helped to put this in. Other work they’ve been getting stuck into includes the removal of invasive, non-native species such as skunk cabbage and Himalayan balsam, maintaining paths, and survey work. Thank you to everyone who’s been helping out!
Meet the team
RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond is managed by Paula Baker, who took up the post in 2013, after seven years as assistant site manager at RSPB Scotland's Lochwinnoch reserve, near Paisley. Her team includes Becky Austin and Emma Wilcock.
So that’s just some of what’s been happening at Loch Lomond. To find out what else has been going on, you’ll really have to come and see it for yourself. Keep up to date with all the latest on the website or follow RSPB Glasgow on Twitter or Facebook.
A few up-coming events
April 30 - Family Nature Day
May 7 or 8 (depending on the weather!) - Dawn Chorus Walk
26 June - Wild Food Foraging