We worry about our puffins. We worry a lot and not without good cause. Our puffins have probably been in trouble since humans and their hangers on, the rats, dogs, cats and ferrets that follow them, first turned up in Jersey. Or walked along the peninsula presumably. And it’s not like the puffins could have been totally casual in their choices of nest sites before arrival of humans – wolves, foxes, stoats and weasels didn’t need us to show them where the seabirds were. Picking places to breed where wolves can’t get to is probably a lot easier than choosing rat-free ones. It’s a surprise that the burrow-nesting puffin even made it this far – nowhere else will they nest where rats are even vaguely close by.
Unfortunately our actual records of puffins in Jersey are pretty poor. Everyone “knows” there were once lots although no one ever actually counted them. Or looked in their nest burrows. Or even it seems, really, confirmed that they actually bred here at all – puffin chicks are reared underground and, abandoned by their parents, leave the burrow alone and at night. They fly straight out to sea and away, never really ever seeing their parents as it was dark in the nest where they grew up. It’s perhaps no surprise then that we never see the little ones, the pufflings, either.
That Jersey’s puffins, like those in France have gone down numbers further in recent years is quite clear and, in 2015, Kaja Heising even wondered if the puffin’s time in Jersey was finally up. That the bird of many a local t-shirt, souvenir and local television show would be lost for ever. I further suggested that in Jersey we risked emulating Mauritius’s relationship with the dodo – an island using an extinct bird as an icon.
Jersey’s puffins are pretty well the most southerly of their kind in the world. The one colony below us, Rouzic in Brittany, has itself suffered. Not least in their case as gannets have moved into their neighbourhood and taken over. Interestingly it’s possible that puffins don’t really get kicked out by gannets but that all that burrowing will eventually remove the topsoil they need, making it useless for puffins but lovely for gannets (like they did on the Welsh island of Grassholm). The puffin may be rare amongst nature in that it, like us, can completely destroy the home it needs most.
The southern-most puffins are also finding the seas around them getting warmer as the climate changes. British waters, already grossly overfished, are now seeing new fish species that were once rare this far north (witness the change of moulting sites of the Balearic shearwater), fish not all to the liking of puffins, particularly not for the pufflings.
So, what of our puffins? Have they finally gone from Jersey? Well, that’s the thing, they’re still here. Not many but where there’s hope etc. This year there are eight pairs it seems, and everything suggests that they are at least trying to nest and breed successfully. Of course, our puffins can’t burrow into the soil as they’d like to as the rats would get them, so they pick inaccessible cracks in the rock that they can fly into. Local ecologist Piers Sangan and top birder, Mick Dryden, are watching the puffins like no one has done before in Jersey, mapping them and trying to understand their behaviour while in our waters. Piers reports both members of one pair flying into one rock crevice carrying fish – to feed an unseen baby? That sounds like a probable breeding to me – our first record at last?
And what of the threats, do we know more about these? We know that our birds are unlikely to access somewhere to burrow thanks to the attentions of unwanted mammals. But how bad is this and how many of the pesky mammals are there on the cliff tops? Invasive mammals expert Kirsty Swinnerton is planning to find out and think up ways perhaps of getting rid of them. Or at least keeping them safely away from the birds. Local expert, and chough monitor, Keith Pyman has also wondered whether our fulmars, which colonised Jersey in the 1970s, might not be blame-free too. At least in not helping the precarious position of our puffins.
Fulmars are never normally any threat to nesting puffins but these petrels, who can spit some pretty foul stomach contents at anyone annoying them, probably don’t normally get that close to burrowing puffins. However, here in Jersey, fulmars nest on the ledges and mouths of cracks and crevices – do they block the puffins’ nests? Puffins find it hard enough to approach their Jersey homes anyway (puffins in big grassy colonies simply throw themselves into the ground and run to the burrow) those using small rock crevices find the precision approach difficult without the threat of the spitting fulmar. Keith has noted fulmars in the places where in years past he saw puffins disappearing underground.
Our puffins are still hanging on and you can see the sightings on the Jersey Birds website along with updates on our small number of razorbills, some over-summering guillemots and, somewhat weirdly, the fine black guillemot enjoying our summer with its (reluctant?) razorbill friends. As noted above, where there’s hope there’s a way, so let’s give our puffins some support. With a better understanding of the numbers and locations of all our birds and the true level of threats that they face we may be able to devise some strategies to stop the puffin’s disappearance, ways that might need everyone to remember just how much they love puffins.