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50 percent more baby puffins

04.09.2019 - 15:52
Mynd með færslu
 Mynd: Eggert Þór Jónsson - RÚV
[UPDATED] The puffling season is at its height on the Vestmannaeyjar and locals and visitors, young and old, are busy helping the lost baby puffins out to sea. The head of the South Iceland natural history institute says there seem to be about 50 percent more pufflings this year than last.

When the end of August approaches, pufflings start leaving their nest holes en-masse and head out to sea; though many stop first in town on Heimaey, as streetlights on the island disorientate them. It is believed they think they are stars reflected in the sea. 

There is a longstanding tradition on Vestmannaeyjar of saving the pufflings by going out at night and collecting the lost pufflings in cardboard boxes before releasing them to the sea. This well-publicised local tradition has attracted visitors and media attention for years, but it has been the pufflings who are missing in recent years. This time, though, there seem to be plenty of young birds to assist. 

The natural history institute’s Erpur Snær Hansen says there are about 10,000 pufflings on the island this year, which is half more than last year, and a similar number to an average summer before 2000. 

This year’s pufflings are light and thin—Erpur says because they have grown up on a diet with less fat than they used to get from sand eels. The crash in the sand eel population has been blamed for the crash in the puffin population since the millennium, and the eels have yet to stage a comeback. The puffins now mostly feed their chicks on fish smolts early in the season, moving on to a mix of northern krill and silver rockling after late July. 

“It is quite nutritious, but there is little fat in it which means the pufflings grow slower and that is what has delayed them. They are some two weeks behind their usual growing time. You could say they’ve been put on a diet,” Erpur says. 

Not all the lost pufflings can be saved, however. Erpur says the number of birds succumbing to leaked oil in the town harbour has increased. “It is a bit persistent and the harbour is long and narrow, so if something goes in there it stays for a long time. The situation is not good enough and something needs to be done, I think,” Erpur adds.

This article has been updated with information on the pufflings' diet.

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