Week ending June 23rd   Leave a comment

I have been watching the puffins passing by Crail today and it looks very much like business as usual compared to previous years. Whenever I have looked out to sea from Crail over the last few days with a telescope I can count tens of puffins passing every minute, from close in to several kilometres away. And when I look at the May Island I can see swarms of them flying to the east side of the island. As we move into July and they start feeding their chicks in earnest we might expect 100,000 puffins to be flying back and forth to the island every day and it certainly looks that way still. This is despite the terrible wreck we had at the end of March when perhaps tens of thousands of puffins died in the storms along the east coast. I feel reassured now that there seem to still be many more alive.

Long live the puffin - still 46,000 pairs on the May, hooray!

Long live the puffin – still 46,000 pairs on the May, hooray!

I was also reassured by an email from Professor Mike Harris who has spent every year on the Isle of May, for the last few decades, counting and monitoring the seabirds there, including, of course, the puffins. He sent out a bulletin to all the people who had counted and reported in dead puffins washed up on the beaches in March. He says “The good news is that the puffin is not extinct in this part of the world. Indeed, a count on the Isle of May came up with a population of about 46,000 burrows – identical to that in 2009.  There has been an unexpectedly high return rate of colour-ringed adults – 83% of those known to be alive in 2012 have already been seen. Actual survival of birds will of course be higher than this (possibly about 89% based on past experience) but probably slightly lower than normal (92-93%). We think that the population had increased somewhat between 2009 and 2012 and this has gain was wiped out by the wreck. Breeding is terribly late but it remains to be seen how successful, or not, this season will be.” So a disaster but the puffin remains in huge numbers.

We should still keep our fingers crossed for a good breeding year. Possibly there will be more sandeels to go round with the lower numbers so that the chicks get better fed and so survive better. These so called “density-dependent” effects make sense. A population can recover quickly if competition is reduced, then as numbers build up breeding success declines reducing the growth of the population. In this way populations reach eventual stability.

The goosanders are starting to come back for their summer moult along the rocky shore between Kingsbarns and Crail. There were about a dozen at the mouth of the burn at Cambo on Friday night, and also surprisingly a pair of red-breasted merganser still in breeding plumage. Once again the quandary of whether these are summering birds, or failed breeders or even incredibly late migrants remains. Normally we have goosanders along the shore from July to September and red-breasted mergansers from October to April. Female goosanders and red-breasted mergansers look very similar so it can be confusing but the temporal separation is a good guide. Then double check by looking for a distinct white collar neatly separated from the brown head to clinch the bird is a goosander (the brown blurs indistinctly into dirty cream in red-breasted merganser females).

Female goosander

Female goosander

I also walked past the sand martin colony on the beach just south of Cambo on Friday. There are probably three times the number of active nests compared to last year. Sand martins come and go so this may not mean much, but there may be 25 nests there this year. I have been seeing sand martins more between Crail and Boarhills over the last two weeks, often with them joining the house martins and swallows feeding around the cows.

Posted June 23, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

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