The visitor centre at Montrose Basin has recently received a number of telephone calls about dead birds on the beaches at Montrose and St Cyrus. In the past week most of the dead birds have been puffins but there have also been large numbers of guillemots.
A close inspection of the tide line at almost any time during the winter will reveal a small number of dead seabirds, but when exceptionally large numbers of birds are washed ashore it is known as a 'wreck'. This current 'puffin wreck' is the most recent of several 'auk wrecks' this winter.
Auks, the most common of which are guillemots, razorbills and puffins are deep diving birds that pursue fish underwater. In water, they have similar behaviour to penguins, but unlike penguins they have retained the ability to fly. Their short wings, sleek bodies and legs positioned towards the rear of their bodies enable them to move through water extremely quickly, twisting and turning as they pursue their prey.
In Winter they normally spend all their time at sea, feeding and preparing to return to their nesting sites, many of which are on the east coast of Scotland. They are rarely seen close to the shore as they are pursuing shoals of small fish in the North Sea.
The "wrecks" usually occur during periods of sustained high winds when the birds appear to have great difficulty feeding. It is currently unclear why they find it so difficult but it is thought to be a combination of factors. The storms may force birds into areas where there is less food and the stormy conditions may make it difficult to catch the prey under water. In addition, the cold and wind batter the birds and presumably cause loss of body heat.
The result is underfed and exhausted birds, most of which die at sea from starvation although some weakened birds also fall prey to gulls. Large numbers of these birds are then washed ashore, especially when there is a prolonged period of east winds such as we have experienced in the past few weeks.
A sample of the dead birds will be tested to ensure that there are no factors in addition to exhaustion and malnutrition, but at this stage there does not appear to be anything more sinister. A small sample weighed on the beach indicated that they are about 30 per cent lighter than they should be at this time of year.
One of the local birders, Chris McGuigan, did a count in Montrose Bay last week and found 74 dead puffins, 36 dead guillemots and five razorbills. In addition there were a number of weakened but still live puffins and guillemots which had been driven ashore or into shallow water. Counts have been similar at beaches stretching from Aberdeenshire to North Yorkshire.
This has been a difficult year in the North Sea for many species. Large numbers of shags were found dead earlier in the winter. Indeed, my New Year started with a telephone call from a neighbour to report a dead shag in his garden, despite the fact that we live about a mile inland. The exhausted bird had presumably landed there in a confused state. There were no obvious injuries, but as with the auks, it was considerably underweight and obviously malnourished.
The events of this winter are not unique, but this is probably the worst "puffin wreck" for 60 years. The puffin is a species which has been declining in recent years and this latest episode is clearly of concern. A major survey is scheduled for the Isle of May this spring, so we will get an early indication of the effect on breeding numbers when that survey is complete. '
With the breeding season for all our birds fast approaching we are all hoping that the weather might improve.