Large numbers of dead Puffins have recently been washed up on beaches between Aberdeen and Northumberland. during the last weeks of March 2013. Its hard to say whether breeding numbers in Shetland will be affected in years to come. Historically all seabirds have been having a bad time for more than 20 years and this wreck will have a further effect on numbers breeding throughout the North East.
Very strong , prolonged easterly gales have made it hard for birds to find food and as a result many have starved. Puffins tend to winter far out to sea, unlike Guillemots and Razorbills which tend to be further towards the coast in winter. Therefore normally any dead Puffins would not be found as they are carried away by the sea, but the strong easterly winds will have blown dead birds onto the beaches and during the first week alone over 400 dead Puffins were found, along with a number of dead Guillemots and Razorbills.
Around half the dead Puffins were adults , mainly 1-3 years old. Although this will not affect breeding numbers this year it will have a long term affect on a species that is already in decline. Puffins normally mature around 4-5 years old and start to breed when they are 6-7 years old. The other 50% were immature birds and with many young birds leaving the nest under weight due to the lack of food they would find it more of a struggle to survive even a normal winter.
This is the largest wreck since 1947 and it has happened at an unusual time of year with many birds already back at the base of the cliffs, ready to return to the nest sites. Even in the US unprecedented numbers of Puffin deaths have been reported, with a small number of Razorbills.
Scotland holds around 45% of the European population of seabirds, but with the lack of sand eels in recent years, predation from Skuas and other large Gulls and with other birds drowning in fishing nets, seabirds are finding it difficult to raise any young.
For over 33 consecutive years the Shetland bird club has run the Beached Bird Survey in which they count dead birds along beaches. In 2011 just under 1000 dead seabirds were found, 23 of these oiled birds another problem seabirds encounter.
Shetland has a dedicated band of survey workers and it will be interesting whether they record a high number of Puffin deaths this year. The excellent Shetland bird report also indicates that colour ringed Puffins sighted year to year show adult Puffin survival rates were relatively high between 1987- 1999 but from 2000 onward have tended to be lower, which coincides with the lack of food