First of all: Happy Christmas!!! I hope you are having a great day wherever you may be, and are not beset by the same gale-force winds and lashing rain that has been presiding over the island throughout the day!
So, for my final post in the photographic advent calendar series, I have decided to focus on Britain’s best-loved seabird: the Atlantic Puffin (Fratecula arctica). This comical ‘clown of the sea’ spends most of its life out at sea, and only descends upon our coastal islands for a few months in the spring each year. There are three species of Puffin worldwide, including the Horned and Tufted Puffins. The UK population of ‘our’ species, the Atlantic Puffin, stands at a little under 600, 000 pairs. Unfortunately, like so many other species of seabirds in the UK, the Puffin is experiencing population declines in the northern limits of its range, earning it a RED conservation status.
For a long time, it was a bit of a mystery where these smart little Alcids disappeared to during the winter months, but we now know that most populations disperse to feeding areas in the eastern North Atlantic, as far south as the Canary and Azores archipelagos. Some birds from the country’s northern populations spend most of their time in the North Sea, but adverse weather conditions can make survival hard, forcing them to migrate to the Atlantic. Stormy weather conditions during winter months can have significant impacts on the survival of these birds; a particularly large mortality event recently occurred over the winter 2013/2014 when thousands of birds washed up along British and French coastlines.
The large, bright, comical bill of the Puffin is one of the main sources of people’s love for this endearing species. This clown-like feature is really only for show, though: adult birds develop the colourful beak during the breeding season for courtship, which is then moulted and assumes a relatively small size and dark colour for the rest of the year. It takes a good five years for their beaks to develop to the mature size and structure of an adult’s, growing deeper each year and acquiring several vertical grooves. This can be a useful way of ageing this species, as shown in this article.
Puffins possess an amazing ability to cram small fish into their bills for feeding their fluffy young. Indeed, they have been recorded with an immense 83 sand eels in one beak! They have several adaptation to enable them to perform this trick: the inner edge of the bill is serrated, like that of a merganser, allowing slippery fish to be gripped firmly. Secondly, an extra bone in the Puffin’s jaw prevents fish from falling out from the tip. And thirdly, their jaws have a flexible hinge at the base which further facilitates this impressive ability.
So there we are, I hope you enjoyed the series!