Perched on rugged rocky outcrops, with the unforgiving North Sea crashing around them, the Farne Islands puffins look across the waves hoping to spot their next meal.
These peaceful birds may appear to have an idyllic island life but their beautiful surroundings mask a hidden enemy in the form of climate change.
Warmer seas have reduced numbers of sandeels, a main food source for puffins, while the increased incidence of flooding from heavy storms has seen more eggs and chicks destroyed.
In some areas of the Northumbrian Farne Islands, off the north-east of England, Atlantic puffin numbers have almost halved. Heritage conservation charity the National Trust, which owns the islands, has noted a 12 per cent decline overall since 2013.
Due to the severity of the situation, the National Trust has changed its five-yearly puffin census to an annual count over concerns about the reduction in their preferred food source, the sandeel.
“Sandeel populations in the North Sea are being affected by two things; overfishing and climate change – with rising sea temperatures,” said Tom Hendry, a ranger on the Farne Islands.
“These factors are driving the good-quality plankton which sandeels feed on further north, resulting in a poorer-quality of plankton in this area for sandeels to feed upon.
“The risk is that these pressures together with overfishing will eventually squeeze the Farnes population, with more and more birds having to travel further for rich feeding grounds. This means they’re more vulnerable to the increasing frequency of winter storms, while out at sea'” said Mr Hendry.
“It’s vital that these beautiful ‘clowns of the sea’ are monitored closely as it has been suggested that in 30 to 50 years’ time, there may be no more puffins on the Farnes.”
This year, a ban on visitors due to the pandemic has led to the birds having more areas to nest in and the rangers believe this may have resulted in an increase in numbers.
“Due to Covid we haven’t had visitors on the islands and it has meant the puffins have made nests in areas they would not usually have,” a National Trust official said.
“We are just about to start counting the puffin numbers for this year. Due to spring being later this year, we still have some nesting birds on the Islands. Usually they would have moved on by now.
“Our rangers will be on the islands over the coming weeks counting how many nests there have been this year. We are hoping the numbers will be higher than normal.”
However, the presence of visitors also helps the puffins by discouraging their predators, such as black-headed gulls.
The situation is not just localised to the Farne Islands, the Norwegian colony of the Rost archipelago was once home to over a million pairs of puffins but their numbers have declined by over 80 per cent over the past few decades.
Experts at the University of Oxford’s department of zoology have been studying the underlying causes and discovered that a lack of food near some major breeding grounds are causing puffin chicks to starve.
Using tracking devices, an international team has monitored four different puffin populations in Iceland, Norway and Wales.
They found that at the colonies with poor breeding success, the puffins needed to fly much further afield to find food, sometimes leading to 100km round trips.
It led to them bringing back less food to their chicks which caused them to starve in some cases.
Dr Erpur Hansen, an Icelandic collaborator on the study, said a lack of food is leading to the puffins travelling further.
“Atlantic puffins, like all birds in the auk family, have a very energetically costly flight, which makes them sensitive to changes in their feeding distance, but also makes them an excellent gauge of change in their food supply,” he said.
“Our study shows that high chick mortality by starvation is driven by puffins having to fly further to find food. This has been happening in both the very large puffin colonies in Norway and Iceland for the last decades.”
The research revealed that climate change is partly responsible due to changes in currents and sea temperatures affecting the abundance and availability of the fish that the puffins rely on to rear their young.
Dr Annette Fayet, a research fellow at the University of Oxford and lead author on the study, told The National that climate change is posing a major threat to puffins globally.
“Climate change is an important threat to puffins, because it affects sea temperature and currents, which can impact the fish that puffins rely on during the breeding season to survive and to rear their chick,” she said.
“This can lead to lack of available prey near their colony, forcing puffins to feed further and/or to switch to less nutritious prey. This, in turn, impacts how well chicks grow and survive, sometimes even causing mass chick starvation.
“Ultimately, if few chicks are produced for a prolonged period of time, there will be few young adults to replace the older individuals, and the population will decline. Such declines are now seen in many puffin colonies in the north-east Atlantic, such as in Norway and southern Iceland, for example.
“My research and that of many of my colleagues helps us to understand the causes and mechanisms driving these declines, as well as their magnitude. This helps us understand how these populations will fare in the future and inform conservation measures that can be put in place to try and safeguard the species and protect our oceans.”
Conservation charity the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has placed the puffin on its red list of UK birds of conservation concern.
“It is very vulnerable to adverse changes in the environment because its breeding population is concentrated on a small number of sites,” the RSPB said.
“There have also been large population declines over much of its European range.”
Ms Fayet and her team are now monitoring puffins on Skomer Island in Wales, where their smaller colony has been thriving, to detect any potential changes.
“The puffin population there is doing well because there is plenty of their favourite prey, sandeels, near the island during breeding, which means the chicks are well fed, grow well, and have a good chance of survival until adulthood,” she told The National.
“This is evidenced by the presence of many immatures, two to four-year-old adult birds, which haven’t started breeding yet on the colony during the summer and by the fact that the population is growing.”
But with puffin numbers elsewhere continuing to decline as climate change progresses, Ms Fayet has issued a stark warning that other seabird species may suffer the same fate.
“Our study highlights the huge impact that climate-driven changes in prey availability can have on seabird populations by forcing birds to feed much further away than they normally would, and preventing them from feeding their offspring sufficiently, which ultimately causes chick starvation,” she said.
“Many other seabird species in the region feed on similar prey, so the effects we detected in puffins are also likely to occur in other species.”
Her work is now being used to help in the conservation of puffins and other seabirds.