Puffin chicks get health check-ups on the Farnes

BCE10 Puffin chick removed temporarily from burrow for ringing
Puffin chicks don’t have the characteristic bright beak of their parents

We’ve just been over to the Farne Islands – one of Britain’s best spots to get great photographs of breeding seabirds – for a final visit of the summer. This time it was to take a peak ‘behind-the-scenes’ on Inner Farne, before the day visitors arrive. We spent the morning, puffins zooming by our heads continuously, with National Trust ranger Laura Shearer. She was  busy ringing, weighing and measuring these characterful, bright-billed birds and their downy, penguin-lookalike, chicks before they leave the Farnes and head off back to sea.

Seabird conservationists say they’ve had a bumper breeding season on Britain’s north-east coast this summer. When we visited to photograph, the Farnes team was expecting to announce ‘a cracking breeding season’ across all the species nesting on the islands. ‘It appears a similar story is emerging at other east coast colonies too, which is tremendous news for our embattled seabirds,’ said head ranger David Steel. ‘It’s been a tough few years (especially in the northern isles) and so it’ll be good to report some positive news when the final population counts are made’.

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Laura surprises two parent puffins at home in their burrow

In order to ring a puffin chick or adult bird Laura must first locate them in their underground nesting burrows. This is no easy feat. ‘There are thousands of burrows. Not all of them will be occupied, so you have put your hand right down and have a feel around to see if they are occupied or not,’ she says.

‘It’s not an easy job. When you stick your hand down the burrow you risk putting it straight into the sharp beak of a puffin or into the second chamber which is their toilet!’

Laura’s been doing the job for three seasons now. At the start of each she gets a new hat which will be completely iced in guano by the time the birds leave at the end of the summer.

BCE15 Weighing puffin chick
It’s not easy spending months away from family and friends but Laura loves the island life

‘There’s eight of us that live here throughout the breeding season, plus our head ranger,’ she tells us as she pops a fluffy puffin chick on the weighing scales. ‘These people become your whole life and your support group, because you spend all day, everyday, with them.

BCE13 Weighing puffin chick
This puffin chicks gets a check over and is weighed and ringed

There are times when it is tough out here. You can get isolated, you’ve literally abandoned all your friends and family, so it’s really good to have the support from the rest of the team to help you pick up the pieces and keep going.’

BCE24 Puffin pair removed from burrow for ringing
Laura has her hands full with two adult birds. Soon they’ll leave the island until next spring

Some 80,000 puffins come to the Farnes to breed each year. They are just one of a number of breeding seabird species Laura and her colleagues monitor closely over the summer.

According to the National Trust this year’s breeding season has been helped along by the good weather and the availability of lots of sand-eels (the main diet of puffins). Seabirds have been having a difficult time in recent seasons particularly in Scotland. The sand-eel population crashed in recent years leaving many birds too weak to breed. Conservationists say rising sea temperatures and trawling on a large scale are largely to blame for the problem and have been calling for the setting up of marine protected areas…

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