A rare leucistic puffin has been spotted by our rangers on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve off the coast of Sutherland.
In contrast to its more colourful cliff-side neighbours, this young puffin has only a few black feathers and its bill is largely orange. This lack of pigmentation is caused by a genetic condition called leucism.
The puffin was first seen on the island in mid-June by Seabird Fieldworker Dora Hamilton. Its relatively late arrival and behaviour suggests it is a young bird which is not ready to breed.
Handa Ranger Erika Faggiani said: “When you live and work on Handa you are surrounded by amazing wildlife all the time, but this leucistic puffin is one of the most unusual things I’ve seen in my three seasons on the island.
“This is a very rare sighting. There are only a small number of reports of leucism at seabird colonies around the UK, including one puffin which bred on Handa in 2018 and 2019 which had light brown feathers instead of black.
“The puffin has only been seen occasionally and it seems to be spending most time in areas where members of the public could not easily spot it, so anyone coming to Handa to see this puffin is likely to be disappointed. But visitors can still look forward to seeing and hearing crowds of seabirds, including puffins, guillemots and razorbills, on the reserve’s tall cliffs.”
Puffins spend most of the year at sea and come ashore in spring to breed, nesting in cliff-top burrows. On Handa the small breeding population of puffins is bolstered later in the summer by hundreds of non-breeding birds.
Despite the nickname ‘clowns of the sea’ puffins are agile birds which can fly up at up to 55 miles per hour, beating their wings 400 times a minute. They can also dive for up to one minute at a time, pushing through the water with their wings are they hunt for small fish.
Atlantic puffins are listed by the IUCN as vulnerable to extinction. They face a number of threats including a dramatic decline in sand eels, one of their most important sources of food. This has been caused by a combination of climate change and overfishing.
Handa Island is owned by Scourie Estate and is managed as a wildlife reserve in partnership with the Scottish Wildlife Trust. The island is internationally important for breeding seabirds including guillemots, razorbills and great skuas.
Handa is currently staffed by a team of two rangers and four long-term volunteers. The team live on the island while carrying out a programme of work including seabird monitoring and practical conservation.