With their upright stance, smart black and white ‘tuxedo’ and brightly-coloured bills filled with fish, everybody loves puffins. But there are aspects of their lives that we are only just beginning to understand. Let’s learn more from Dr Euan Dunn, the RSPB’s Principal Policy Officer on marine issues and a puffin fan.
Puffin and its 'puffling' by Adrian Ewart
Breeding puffins touch the sense of theatre, comedy and community in us all, but this feeling of connectedness is confined to just four months - April to August - during which these seabirds are obliged to be landlubbers in order to raise young. The other two-thirds of the year they are in their true element, riding out the high seas, off-stage and off-camera.
When the adults abandon the colony, they undergo a remarkable makeover, shedding their bright bill-plates, along with the eye ornamentation responsible for that quizzical look. With other gaudy paraphernalia shrinking or fading, little wonder that in centuries past the wintering puffin was thought to be a separate species! Outside the breeding season, then, the adult looks a bit more like its monochrome offspring.
In the colony, you might be lucky enough to spot such a chick venturing to the burrow mouth to explore the world it will soon join. It finally quits the burrow at night, the better to avoid marauding gulls and skuas, and makes a beeline for the sea.
Puffling at sea by John Anderson
Unlike the guillemot and razorbill chick which is chaperoned to sea by a parent to learn the ropes, the puffin is utterly independent of its parents the moment it flees the burrow, programmed to fend for itself and perfect the art of diving to catch sandeels and other fish deep below the surface.
If this sounds heroic, its parents’ post-breeding exploits are no less impressive, with rapidly developing electronic tracking technology revealing migration on a breathtaking scale from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Tiny devices called geolocators attached to a leg ring show that some birds from an Irish colony even headed to Newfoundland to exploit a feeding hotspot.
Adult puffin wearing a ring with geolocator by Dave Boyle
We have never had much insight into whether pair-members stick together when they migrate, but a new geolocator study from Skomer Island shows that some pairs do have similar migration routes. Such pairs then bred earlier and more successfully when they returned to the island the following spring than ones that had gone their separate ways in winter.
So the puffin is more than just a pretty face, it’s also a sophisticated globe-trotting mariner.
You can buy Euan’s book, RSPB Spotlight: Puffins, from our shop at £9.99.
Guest blog by Jenny Shelton of the RSPB Investigations team
The RSPB's Mark Thomas talks about Sally and Roger's remarkable journey
The first of May marked the meeting of two lovebirds after a long winter apart. Sally and Roger, a pair of rare Montagu’s harriers, raised two chicks together in Norfolk in summer 2016 then went their separate ways. But they were destined to find each other again. While one spent the winter in Ghana, the other was in Senegal, and in March this year both began their long and arduous journey across mountains, desert and sea, to rekindle their summer romance.
Our leading man and lady are one of just five pairs of Montagu’s harriers breeding in the UK. These slim, elegant birds of prey return to the UK just to breed, often (somewhat miraculously) re-locating and re-using the same nest sites. Males are a chalky blue-grey with black wingtips and arresting yellow eyes, females are shades of brown and cream. They nest on the ground, hidden within crops. Any eggs they lay are so precious they may as well be golden, and at this time of year the RSPB and local farmers have their eyes to the skies to watch for the returning harriers, so that they can mark and monitor the nests, and identify any new ones.
Martin Hughes-Games releases Sally
The tags they wear also allow us to find out more about the birds’ migration location and the threats they face en route. Sally even made a star appearance on Winterwatch last year being tagged by Martin Hughes-Games.
It’s thanks to this specialist sat nav technology that we’ve been able to follow Roger and Sally’s epic journey from West Africa to the East of England. It reads like a road trip movie, with plenty of twists and turns, famous landmarks (the Sahara Desert! Casablanca! Ibiza!) and unexpected encounters along the way.
Two birds, 45 days, 1000 miles! (Photo credit Roger Wyatt)
It began on 17 March when Roger set off from Senegal. No-one fully knows how birds decide on the exact moment to start a 2,700-mile migration, but it’s triggered somewhat by the weather. A week later, 1000 miles away in Ghana, Sally – our plucky, dark-eyed heroine – also took to the wing. Cue opening credits.
Initially, Sally seemed to be following her heart: her transmitter showed her heading West, straight for Roger. Perhaps they’d travel back to Britain together? On 4 April, over the Western Sahara, they almost, tantalisingly met. But suddenly (thinking she wasn’t coming, perhaps?) Roger took off on his own, travelling up through Morocco without her.
Then Sally made an unexpected move: instead of following Roger she turned East and met up with a second tagged bird, an older female with light eyes called Beatriz who had been flying by a different route. The two girls met in Algeria and spent the Easter weekend there; meanwhile Roger had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and was flying up through Spain alone.
The females parted company to cross the Mediterranean. Adding some dramatic tension, Beatriz, now in Spain, made a b-line for Roger... did we have a love triangle on our hands? Male Montys are notoriously polyamorous and will pair with several females. Sally responded by taking 24 hours off in Ibiza (you couldn’t make it up!) before landing in Marseilles.
Beatriz and Roger flew up the West coast of France together, Sally progressing up through wine country, but then Beatriz left Roger behind and was the first of the three to cross the channel and make it home. She returned to her nest site in South West England, where her mate Mark was patiently waiting.
On the first day of May, at last, Sally joined Roger in Norfolk. I went there to look for them, bringing journalist Anna Hill from Farming Today, plus two Montagu’s specialists, the RSPB’s Mark Thomas and Bob Image. We drove to the secret site where they were last seen, and as we turned up a dirt track who should appear, soaring overhead, but Sally herself, riding the wind magnificently. We spilled out of the car and went to watch her. As we did, in a flash of silver, Roger came into view, banking and drifting above the hedgerows, cutting through the air like a blade.
It was incredible to see the two of them back together after so long apart. They were clearly communicating; often Sally would follow in pursuit of Roger as they renewed their bonds and scouted the area for a suitable place to nest. They’re fast, too, covering ground with just a few effortless beats of their long wings.
Then, as quickly as they appeared, they were gone. Hopefully they’ll raise chicks again this year – stay tuned.
You can find out more about our tagged Montagu’s, and get live updates, on Twitter: @UKmontagus