Sunday, 5 July 2009

Spread the Puffin love

The last week has been great for Puffin watching and the visitors have been treated to great views of these enigmatic birds, whilst the resident staff, volunteers and researchers have been able to take a bit of time out to enjoy Puffin watching before the birds leave the island and return to sea. By the end of July there will be few Puffins left.
At the moment the breeding population of approximately 13500 birds is swelled by many thousand more non-breeding birds. Puffins do not breed until they are 5 or 6 years old but they return to the colonies in late June and July when they are about 3 or 4 years old and start looking for a burrow and a mate. At the moment there are lots of these 'teenage' birds hanging around in the evenings. They are busy poking their heads down burrows, socialising with other youngsters, pulling up bits of vegetation to line imaginary nest chambers, carrying around stones and digging at little depressions in the ground to try to form burrows.
Puffins display a whole range of behaviours that are easy to observe, but harder to interpret. People often regard them as cute and amusing characters but the reality is that that their short time spent on land is fraught with danger and filled with social interactions that must be exhausting. As with all the seabirds they are not 'at home' on land and only when they return to sea are they truly in their element. For the Puffins on Skomer it is now just a week or so before they return out to sea, not to make landfall again until next March.

The following video clip shows some of the behaviours that Puffins display.......... (you might want to turn the sound down as it was a bit windy but my compact camera makes it sound like a hurricane!)

Wing flap'n' shake - As well as getting their feathers all neat and in order this is used as a 'displacement' behaviour and can be likened to finger-drumming/thumb twiddling/fidgeting in humans. If repeated frequently it shows a level of anxiety or nervousness - maybe they are uncomfortable on land and are signalling that they are ready to fly off but want other birds to join in...........

Gape - This is a threat display (a bit like sticking your tongue out at someone, but more serious!). This display has different levels of intensity, a bill held slightly open shows a low level of irritation, a wide gape (as in the video) shows the bird is seriously annoyed and if the other bird doesn't back down it can lead to a fight. Used by birds protecting their burrows and burrow entrances (ie their territory) but in the video these are probably 'teenagers' learning the ropes.

Upwards head nod - This is often accompanied by a clipped 'Uh' call. This is a widespread behaviour, especially in the evenings and is harder to interpret than other behaviours. It can precede gaping, billing, fighting or nothing! It is seen in some form before copulation when it is performed by the male, however when on land both males and females perform it. Maybe it is used to show that the bird is excited and alert to the other birds around it...?......

Billing - This is a courtship behaviour and can be likened to kissing, aaaah! Usually between a pair and used to increase their bond, although in the video it is probably some young non-breeding birds. The action and sound of clashing bills often attracts other Puffins that scurry over to watch and may try to join in. Billing is often contagious and other pairs nearby will start, spreading the Puffin love!!

Jo Milborrow

Skomer Warden

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