Thanks to Dennis Riordan down in Connecticut for tipping me off to a story out of Scotland where hundreds of puffins have been washing up on the beaches. Professor Mike Harris, writing on the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology Science News blog reports that this puffin die-off will easily be the worst in 60 years. Tallies of the dead birds along the east coast of Scotland are running to the hundreds and could approach thousands before the counting is done.
The problem seems partly to be timing; the puffins are making their way back to the breeding colonies at this time of year, coming in closer to shore than they do during winter. This means that they are more likely to wash up on beaches when they die than during times of the year when they are far offshore. Razorbills have been found dead in large numbers on our own coasts and in Europe this year, but this is less unusual precisely because that species normally winters closer to shore. Only a handful of the sea-faring puffins are found dead in a typical year on each side of the Atlantic, but how much of the actual mortality that reflects if the birds usually sink far off at sea is unclear.
We are beginning post-mortem exams here in the states on almost 50 puffins collected from New England’s coastline, and our counterparts in Scotland are doing the same. So far, it looks like most of the dead in the UK are young birds that appear to have starved during this difficult winter. If that pattern holds, the breeding population may not be as severely impacted as it would be if most of the affected birds were breeding adults. We will see what age and sex patterns emerge from both sides of the Atlantic, and we will follow Professor Harris’ work with interest from here on out.