Click on any of the main images for a closer view

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Puffin Island

Puffin Island is a BirdWatch Ireland reserve, just 250m off the Iveragh Peninsula and is about 1.5 km long and 0.7 km wide. The only inhabitants are the tens of thousands of seabirds which make their home on the steep slopes and cliffs.

Puffin Island, from the summit, looking SW toward the Skelligs. The slopes on this western side hold most of the 5,000–10,000 Atlantic Puffin burrows (All photos: M.O'Clery, June 2016. Click the images for a closer view).

The north end of Puffin Island has more gentle slopes, with hundreds of Manx Shearwater burrows occupying the areas with the white Sea Campion flowers.

Precise numbers of seabirds present here are not accurately known, but the best recent estimate is of 5,000–10,000 pairs of Atlantic Puffin nesting each year, although the island should perhaps be named as 'Manx Shearwater Island', with some 20,000 pairs now estimated for this nocturnal species. The shearwater colony was considered to be the second largest in Ireland after Inishtooskert, in the Blaskets group, after a major survey in 2001, but the current estimate shows the size of the colony had been hugely underestimated. There is an ongoing national seabird survey which might soon reveal more about the true numbers on each of these islands.

Interestingly, the two species - Puffin and Manx Shearwater - often directly compete for burrows, and though Puffins win out on some islands, each can usurp the other, depending on the location and geography of the island. Certainly, on Puffin Island, the steeper, rockier slopes were the main areas for Puffin, while less vegetated, gentler slopes and summits were occupied by the Manx. There could be an interesting study to be done on the clashes and fluctuating fortunes of the two species along the borders between the colonies.

Atlantic Puffin, Puffin Island, June 2016.

The Puffins on Puffin Island are noticeably warier than those on the nearby Skelligs, almost certainly because they are so accustomed to human visitors there.

Atlantic Puffin, Puffin Island, June 2016.

Puffins can be aged by the number of grooves on the bill, particularly the upper mandible. By their third year, they have one and sometimes a poorly defined second, and after their fourth year, when fully adult, they have two or three grooves. Also, the red of the bill in mid-summer is bright crimson on adults, more subdued red on younger birds. The bird below is an adult at least 4 years of age. They can live to be 20 years old, though the oldest yet recorded was 36 years of age in 2007 (see here).

Three grooves on the red of the upper mandible make this a fully adult Atlantic Puffin, at least in its fourth summer, Puffin Island, June 2016.

Most of the eastern and northern slopes of the island are dominated by Manx Shearwater burrows and walking can be tricky in places, with the ground honeycombed by their burrows.

The entire eastern side of the island is honeycombed with thousands of Manx Shearwater burrows.

The 40,000 or so individual Manx Shearwaters which nest on the island are either feeding far out to sea or incubating eggs deep in their burrows during the day.

Other species which nest here are a few hundred pairs each of Kittiwake, Razorbill and Guillemot, several pairs of Chough, and up to 5,000 pairs of Storm Petrel. Source BWI

Rock Pipit and Wheatear are the two common passerines on the island.

There has been a Mink on the island in recent years, photographed by a visiting Dutch photographer in summer 2010, though an effort to keep the island predator-free has been made by BirdWatch Ireland, with some success. A single male Mink was trapped in 2011 and though none have been recorded since, there is a need for constant vigilance as this voracious predator would play havoc with burrow-nesting birds. Mink have been reported recently on at least two of the larger Blasket islands, Great Blasket and Insishnabro, and the ramifications of this are serious, as it involves multiple sightings of several individuals. Mink are good swimmers, so it would seem nearby Inishvickillane could also at risk. Attention urgently needs to be paid to eradicating it from the island group.

There are occasional trips around Puffin Island which can be arranged from Glen Pier, near Finian's Bay, or from Portmagee.