Puffins are one of the most iconic and captivating seabird species along the Atlantic Ocean. Their colourful beaks, friendliness and fearless behaviour towards humans have granted them a special place in our hearts. This tiny species can boost people’s minds (who doesn’t have a puffin t-shirt, a pin, a magnet or a mug for dipping your cookies?) and promote activities to engage local communities to the betterment of the environment.
However, the Atlantic puffin population is declining despite efforts made to reverse the situation. Climate change, habitat loss and depletion of fish stocks are examples from a long list of threats that make it hard for this beloved bird to stand a chance in a dynamic and changing environment. But there is no room for pessimism or giving up hope. Many conservationists, scientists and people with humongous motivations are joining forces to make our planet and the life of puffins slightly better.
In the middle of the North Atlantic a group of indomitable Vikings are studying the dynamics of puffins around Iceland. Led by Erpur S. Hansen, Director of Náttúrustofa Suðurlands (South Iceland Nature Research Centre, in case you don’t speak the language of Thor), puffins are thoroughly scrutinised in 12 colonies (fig. 1) around the country. This is the great adventure of the “puffin rally”.
Figure 1.- Colonies in which puffins are being studied, divided by environmental gradients. (1) Ingólfshöfði, (2) Dyrhólaey, (3) Vestmannaeyjar, (4) Akurey, (5) Elliðaey, (6) Vigur, (7) Grímsey á Steingrímsfirði, (8) Drangey, (9) Grímsey, (10) Lundey á Skjálfanda, (11) Hafnarhólmi á Borgarfirði Eystra and(12) Papey.
During the breeding season, puffins arrive at their colonies where they meet their life partners after a long winter wandering in the ocean’s hotspots. Their mission is simple: produce offspring for the planet. Puffins heavily invest in their parental duties as they only lay one egg per season (~May), which is under custody and supervision until the little pufflings become independent (by mid-August) and they are able to roam free over the oceans by themselves.
Thanks to their philopatric behaviour (they return to breed in their birth places), the same individuals can be studied over and over during long periods of time - they can live up to 40 years! Here is where the “puffin rally” takes action. A group of enthusiasts join forces in an epic road-trip around the country, in which video/photographers, ornithologists, former hunters or locals monitor the colonies. Marked burrows are inspected by early June and late July to check out burrow occupancy, nest success and productivity, along with biometric samples.
But how is the research done? Thanks to technology, the methodology has allowed non-invasive techniques to figure out the secret life of puffins. A plumber’s camera modified with infrared vision, connected to VR-goggles is used to enter into the burrows, which can be up to 2.5 m. long, and check if the puffins are taking care of the egg or if the puffling is in good shape. This is the hard part of the job, as you have to lay down by the entrance of the burrow, with the lovely guano smell and the unwelcomed presence of ticks in the grass. The main casualties during this trip are going to be your fingers and manicure (fig. 2), as the burrows are a bit muddy and when puffins are collected to take biometric samples, they usually put up a fight with their sharp beaks and claws.
Figure 2.- My lovely face, covered with suncream (believe or not, you can get sunburn in Iceland during the summer!) whilst holding a puffin. Biometric samples were taken and gps-loggers were deployed in certain individuals to investigate their migratory routes.
Photo credit: Ewa Malinowska.
Nonetheless, the interesting aspect of the puffin rally is not only the possibility of access to unique and remote places, but the people living there. These include Einar Rúnar Sigurðsson from Öræfaferðir (https://www.fromcoasttomountains.com/) and his excellent knowledge of puffins and photography, Belén García Ovide from Ocean Missions (https://oceanmissions.org/)and her commitment with ocean conservation, and Gisli & family (fig. 3) from Vigur Island (https://www.vigurisland.com/). The reconversion they have given to a small island in the remote area of Westfjords are just a few examples of many working towards a sustainable approach to nature.
Thanks to these connections and interests, a wider community grows with the aim of restoring and preserving our coastal areas. Education and participation in conservation projects is key to protect not only puffins, but other species and habitats we rely and depend on.
Figure 3.- The visit to Vigur island was accompanied by Gisli´s family, and their kids were very curious about puffin behaviour. In this photo, my newest assistant was inspecting one of the burrows where a puffling had recently hatched. Photo credit: Ewa Malinowska.
Rodrigo A. Martinez Catalan