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  • Writer's pictureElding's research team

Puffin research expedition

Summer time is a wonderful period to observe nature in its maximum splendour. At Elding, we are 'the whale watching pioneers' in Faxaflói, but that doesn't mean we are not taking a good look around to enjoy Icelandic landscape and its inhabitants. One of the species that captures our attention is the Atlantic Puffin. This iconic bird brings thousands of enthusiastic people from all over the world to Iceland in order to see their funny appearance and clumsy behaviour.

Luckily, we can see these little guys in their colonies in Kollafjörður, a stone's throw away from Reykjavík, between May-August. There are three islands which are the focus of our attention and each of them have different environmental characteristics and population densities. Akurey is the most populated with ~20,000 pairs, followed by Lundey ~9,000 pairs and Engey (which had zero puffins one decade ago) with 34 in the last census. These islands are nature reserves and important bird areas (IBAs), as they are protected in order to conserve an adequate habitat for breeding birds.

As a tour operator and an environmentally aware company, Elding has been conducting research programmes in collaboration with national and international institutions. Last week, some of Elding's employees volunteered to assist Dr. Erpur Snær Hansen (Director of South Iceland Nature Research Centre) while he conducted the so-called "puffin rally". Every year, the population status of puffins is monitored in 12 colonies around the country. Burrow density, occupancy, egg production and puffling survival rate are many of the variables considered while inspecting the ~700 marked burrows. This rally covers more than 3,000 km to unveil the secrets of puffins around the country. The first step of this amusing trip has been in Kollafjörður, where we operate.

Image 1.- Large colonies of Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) in Iceland. The islands of Vestmannaeyjar, S-Iceland as well as the islands of Bredafjördur, W-Iceland are depicted as single colonies. Source: Náttúrufraedistofnun Íslands.

The expedition

On Sunday, the 7th of June (fishermen's day), we sailed from Grandagarður at 8am thanks to the handy team provided by the Icelandic coast guard (Landhelgisgæsla Íslands). Our first destination was Akurey, where we set camera traps to monitor puffin activity and we checked 46 marked burrows. The methodology for the “puffin inspection” is quite interesting as it involves a plumbing camera, fancy googles and a lot of patience as you have to “sneak” into a puffin burrow more than 1 meter of cable. After that, we have checked that burrows were successfully occupied by more than 80%, in which busy couples were taking care of the egg. Afterwards, we headed towards Lundey, a tricky island to access as you have to climb up not only the rocks but also the visible kelp left behind by the falling tide. There, we marked 50 new burrows, checked burrow density and enjoy the beautiful wildlife: eider ducks and their little ducklings, kittiwakes, black guillemots, lesser black-backed gulls and many more! Thanks to this initiative, we can have more knowledge of the secret life of puffins.

Image 2.- Photographs taken during the assessment of puffin population at Akurey and Lundey, on 7th of June. Icelandic coast guard, researchers and Elding's staff participated in this project lead by Dr. Erpur Snær Hansen. Pictures taken by Ewa Malinowska and Rodrigo A. Martinez Catalan.

The team

-Dr. Erpur Sær Hansen, Director of South Iceland Nature Research Centre

-Hana Hongisto. MSc student for Ecology, University of Turku (Finland)

-Rodrigo A. Martinez Catalan, Senior Naturalist & Researcher at Elding.

-Ewa Malinowska, Senior Naturalist

-Alejandro García Ortega, Naturalist, Ticket office and future skipper at Elding & Whale Safari.

A brief note about the Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula Arctica)

Atlantic puffins can be found only in the North Atlantic. Around 40% of the global population of these birds come to Iceland to breed. Between May and August the abundance of this bird is around 3-4 million breeding pairs and few more millions of non-breeding juveniles. It makes puffin the most numerous bird species on Iceland. The largest Atlantic Puffin colony in the world is located in the south coast, in Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) with about 800,000 nesting pairs. Since 2002 there has been massive decline in the number of puffins around Iceland. From 7.7 million breeding birds, only 3.2 million remained in 2015. This is thought to be because of climate change, increased predation by other birds and lack of food. In 2015, Atlantic Puffins were classified as Vulnerable by IUCN red list of threatened species.

Puffins spend their lives at open seas until the middle of April when they return to land for breeding. They are monogamous birds and nest underground, digging a burrow into the soft soil on the islands or on the top of cliffs. These burrows can be about a meter deep and have two chambers: bedroom and bathroom. During the second half of May, the female lays 1 egg and both parents take turns to incubate it for about 35–45 days, to later take care of the chick. The puffling leaves the burrow (fledge) after 6 weeks and immediately starts its independent life. Young puffins lay their first egg at the age of 6 returning to the same colony where they hatched.

They mainly feed on small fish species: sand eels and capelins. For their prey, they can dive up to 60 meters, stay 90 seconds underwater, between 600 and 1,150 times a day, as it needs to catch about 450 fish every day to feed their puffling and to survive themselves. They have hooks on their bills, which allows them to hold food whilst catching more. Record to date is 83 small sand eels in one bill!

Length: 26-29 cm Wingspan: 47-65 cm Lifespan: 25 years (the oldest 42 years)

Image 3.- Photographies of Atlantic Puffins taken in Kollafjördur during puffin tours conducted by Elding. Photo credits to a) Sabrina Voswinkel, b) Mia Rasmussen, c) and d) Rodrigo A. Martinez Catalan.

Written by Naturalist & Research assistant Rodrigo A. Martinez Catalan


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