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5 Jun 2019

First puffin count for Staffa

A group of puffins sit on a grassy cliff. Behind them, rocks stretch out into the sea.
We are carrying out the first ever bird count on Staffa to monitor the health of the important seabird colony.

This spring, we’ve completed our first-ever bird count on the Inner Hebridean island of Staffa.

Staffa is world-famous for the olivine basalts of Fingal’s Cave that inspired 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn. It is owned and protected by the Trust and is home to a significant colony of puffins.

Many of the 120,000 visitors who make the often-choppy sea voyage to Staffa each year are able to enjoy up-close and personal views of the highly colourful seabirds. In recent years, around the waters of the British Isles, there have been concerns about the stability of puffin populations, and whether or not rising sea temperatures and weather extremes linked to climate change are having an effect.

“Puffins make their home on Staffa during their short breeding season.”
Dr Richard Luxmoore, Senior Nature Conservation Adviser

Richard continues: ‘Before now, we’ve never known how many actually nest on the island because they dig their burrows on slopes that are too steep to access safely. We’ve therefore had to make do with estimating the population and we’d thought it was somewhere between 150–450 pairs.’

Cue an intrepid team supervised by Staffa’s newly-appointed ranger, Peter Upton. Surveyors trained in rope techniques were set to work in filling in the missing piece of the jigsaw by undertaking a proper count of the colony for the first time.

Over the course of 20–21 May they lowered and swung themselves over the steep, rocky slopes to search for the birds’ burrows.

A group of puffins sit on a grassy cliff on Staffa, looking out to sea.
Staffa’s puffins

Richard adds: ‘They succeeded in confirming that there are 637 apparently occupied puffin burrows – much higher than we’d suspected – and now we have the highest and most accurate estimate we’ve ever had of an otherwise well-known colony.

‘With this success, we now plan to use the same techniques in a much larger survey of puffin burrows later this summer on St Kilda. We will be able to obtain an accurate estimate of numbers in some of the more remote islands of the archipelago.

‘Getting an accurate count like this is vital if we are to gain a true picture of how one of our favourite seabird species is coping with climate change and other factors resulting from human activity.’

Fingal's Cave on Staffa, seen from the sea. White breakers crash against the rock beside the cave entrance. The basalt columns can also be seen either side of the entrance.
Fingal’s Cave, Staffa

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