All-island survey of Handa’s guillemots and puffins

The Trust’s Handa Ranger Danni Thompson reveals the results of the first all-island survey of puffins and guillemots in six years. 

As winter draws to a close, thousands upon thousands of seabirds begin to make their way to the north of Scotland in time to breed.

One of their chosen spots is the towering 123 metre Torridonian sandstone cliffs of Handa Island, off the north west coast. Each year the cliffs of this small island come alive with the sounds and smells of kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills and puffins, among many others.

danni Thompson
Surveying the cliffs© Danni Thompson

Handa is owned by Scourie Estate and managed in partnership with the Scottish Wildlife Trust. The island is run by a small team of Rangers and dedicated volunteers for the six-month summer season and a major part of their job is to monitor the seabirds that populate the cliffs.

This year, the team tackled the mammoth task of counting all the puffins and guillemots breeding on the island. After waiting patiently for a calm evening in May, the team of two rangers and two assistant rangers set off around the perimeter of the island, slowly scanning every cliff, nook and crevice for resident puffins.

Burrowing for puffins

Danni Thompson
Puffin on Handa© Danni Thompson

The entire search took around four hours, ending up at the Great Stack in time for sunset. Puffins breed in burrows and spend considerable time feeding out at sea, so carrying out the survey in the evening gives the team a better chance of finding birds which have come in to rest for the night. The final count for 2016 was 333 birds.

The last all-island count was carried out in 2011 and found 320 birds. These figures are likely to be an underestimate due to the burrowing-habits of the puffins, but it’s encouraging to see that numbers appear to be stable.

Searching the loomeries for guillemots

Danni Thompson
A busy cliff full of guillemots© Danni Thompson

The biggest date in the team’s calendar this year was the all-island guillemot count, carried out in the first three weeks of June. The last count in 2011 counted over 56,000 birds, making this a job not to be taken lightly! The same team of four walked the perimeter again, this time starting at 8am, using telescopes and binoculars to count each individual bird on every ledge. Guillemots roost in huge colonies, called loomeries, and can fit as many as 20 incubating pairs into a square metre!

Two full days were spent staring at the cliffs from both land and sea, until every last bird, including this season’s first chick, were counted. The total for this year reached 54, 664 birds. Although lower than the last count, guillemot productivity has been at record highs over the past few years so it will be interesting to see if there is an increase in numbers during the next count in 2022 once these chicks reach maturity and return to the colony to breed.

What makes this survey important?

All figures from the counts are submitted to the JNCC, who are able to analyse and compare the data with that received from other colonies all over the UK. This allows them to build up a picture of population trends which can then be used to influence legislation and conservation actions. One of the biggest threats to our seabird colonies is climate change; warming oceans alter the distribution of fish stocks, particularly sand eels which are the primary food source for many of the birds on Handa.

If the food supply around the island isn’t sufficient to feed the huge numbers of birds then their nesting attempts will fail and over time the colony will decrease as adults look for food elsewhere and no young are fledged to return in later years. Now the all-island counts are out of the way, the team will continue to spend the summer monitoring sample plots and are eagerly awaiting the day when the cliffs are filled not only with the squawks of the adults but the chirps of the chicks!

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As winter draws to a close, thousands upon thousands of seabirds begin to make their way to the north of Scotland in time to breed. 

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