Counting the Farne Island puffins

Puffins sitting on a rock on the Farne Islands

The puffin is one of the country's favourite birds, and the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland are home to one of the largest colonies in the UK.

Puffins have thrived on the Farnes for decades thanks to good sources of food, a lack of ground predators and the availability of suitable nesting areas. That’s not to mention the dedicated care of our ranger team, who set up home on the islands for ten months of the year to look after the puffins and other wildlife including grey seals, Arctic terns, eider ducks, guillemots and kittiwakes.

Puffins mate for life, separating to spend the winter out at sea before returning to the islands to pair up again in the spring. Between April and late July the puffins stay on the Farnes to breed and raise their young, and our rangers take this opportunity to count the puffin population levels.

Puffinwatch 2020

The first puffins to return to the Farnes were spotted on 20 March, but the islands are now at full capacity with rangers witnessing first-hand their courtship displays, burrow clearing and general preparations for the breeding season.

While it’s business as usual for the puffins, the current pandemic means that our rangers are facing extra challenges this year, such as not being able to have their full team on-site.

Ranger Harriet Reid says: ‘It’s unlikely that we’ll be unable to conduct our typical detailed puffin count this year due to having fewer of us on the islands, but we’ll be keeping records of any significant changes we notice within the colony. We’ll also be monitoring footage from remote cameras we’ve set up at key points across the islands.’

The islands are currently closed to the public due to Covid19, and the rangers believe that this could lead to changes in the puffins’ nesting habits this year.  ‘In the absence of visitors we may see them expanding their usual nesting grounds to new parts of the islands, such as the picnic spots on Inner Farne,’ said Harriet.

Why conduct an annual survey?

Historically, the Farnes rangers have undertaken a full puffin census every five years. However, since 2018 they have been monitoring the puffin population annually, as part of efforts to stop a downward trend in global puffin numbers.

Ranger Thomas Hendry says: 'Switching to the annual survey means we now get year-on-year data, which allows us to monitor the puffin population and breeding behaviour much more closely.

'We can also get a better picture of the decline in puffin populations by tracking numbers against likely causes of population change. These could include island-based factors such as seal distribution or predatory gull numbers, variation in the frequency of storms and summer rainfall as a result of climate change, or changes in population of the sand eels that puffins feed on.’

A puffin in flight on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Did you know...

• A baby puffin is called a puffling
• They grow to just under 30cm tall
• Puffins can see UV light, making their beaks glow
• These colourful beaks turn dark in winter
• They eat small squid, herring and sardines
• Puffins are nicknamed 'clowns of the sea'
• They can swim to a depth of 60 metres

How do you count puffins?

As puffins nest underground, the rangers have to check whether the numerous burrows across the islands are occupied or not. By looking out for signs of puffin footprints and fresh digging, our rangers count the feathered occupants living inside the nests.

Once the puffin numbers are recorded, the rangers can tell if there has been a growth or decline of the colony. This information is fed into national data that helps monitor trends and gives an indication of what can be done to help the puffin species survive.

Puffins at the Farne Islands, Northumbria

Puffin count results 2019

Puffin numbers appear to be stable despite extreme rainfall threatening numbers. There were fears that the population would be affected after devastating rainfall flooded numerous burrows on the islands last year. However, the survey, which involved checking a proportion of burrows, revealed only a marginal decrease in the population, with a total of 43,752 breeding pairs recorded in 2019, less than a 0.5 per cent decrease on the results from the 2018 survey.


Counting puffins

Meet Harriet, one of the Farne Island rangers, as she takes part in the vitally important puffin count.

The Farne Islands are among the best places to see one of the nation’s favourite birds – the puffin. Every five years, the island rangers undertake a full puffin census to count these comical seabirds. Once the numbers are in, rangers can see if the size of the colony has changed since the last survey and make important decisions to help protect the puffins.

" We already know that by visiting us, donating or being a member of the National Trust, people can help the puffins continue to live on the island."
- Gwen Potter, Countryside Manager