Monday 1 May 2023

Clickers at the ready...

So, how do we count the Atlantic puffin?

Puffins massing on land. Sparse vegetation is seen underneath them.
Puffins massing on the Isthmus © Skomer Warden
Unlike the majority of our seabirds, which are counted in May or June, our puffin count takes place sometime in late March or early April. Counts are carried out at this early point in the season as later on a large proportion of our puffins will be hidden away in burrows incubating eggs and later feeding chicks. Therefore impossible to count by eye!

Often coinciding with the weather improving, counts occur on evenings where the puffins begin to mass in large numbers off the island. Once a threshold is passed, it's decided that we will be counting. This year, those fateful evenings were the 27th March and 3rd April.

Map and clickers overlooking the coast.
The essentials for counting puffins. View from the top of High Cliff © Skomer VO
Skomer is split into seven sections and, from 5pm onwards, staff and volunteers work to count every bird on land, on sea, and swirling in the air. It’s quite a task, made all the more difficult by fragile burrowed ground and an ever approaching sunset. The kit list however is simple: binoculars, a map, two pencils, a handful of clickers, and a large number of layers.

Land counts are by far the simplest, with rocks, grassy banks and clefts in the cliffs being used as markers to indicate where you’ve counted to. Counts of rafts out at sea can be split using buoys or rocks if they are there, but this is rarely the case. Air counts are tricker still…

Puffins swirling in the sky. Coastline visible in the backdrop.
Puffins swirling in South Haven © Skomer Assistant Warden
There will inevitably be a degree of error in our counts – some birds will be counted more than once, others will be missed altogether. But the important thing is that the methodology remains the same year on year, meaning that our annual counts are comparable. This year a record breaking 42,513 birds were recorded on and around Skomer - our highest count since the early 1900s.

In 2023 our final numbers came in at 42,513 puffins on the 27th March, and 42,406 puffins (a mere 107 birds fewer) on the 3rd April.

Counts end with a large hot chocolate, some much needed snacks, and a general feeling of ‘blimey’ once the maths has all been done. Shortly followed by collapsing into bed, thumb inevitably still twitching...whoever suggested counting sheep had clearly never come across puffins!

Until next time. Wela i di wedyn!

Beth, Skomer VO.

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