Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Puffin 'wreck' in Scotland

Update #3 1145 28 March 2013

Mark Newell who manages our long term seabird monitoring site (in operation since 1973) on the Isle of May NNR has sent a picture of two puffins washed up on the island. The Isle of May team has found dead adult and immature puffins over the last 24 hours. The SNH Reserve Managers for the Isle of May NNR regularly blog about events on the island. Read their latest words here.

More sad images of the puffin 'wreck' as well as images of puffins on the Isle of May can be found in our recently updated 2013 Puffin 'wreck' flickr set.

Mark Newell /Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Update #2 1500, 27 March 2013

This morning (Wednesday 27 March) Prof Mike Harris visited St Cyrus NNR on the East coast of Scotland. The visit, and initial investigations of a number of dead puffins collected over the last two days, has confirmed that the most  likely reason for the ‘wreck’ is the long period of very strong easterly winds making it very hard for the birds to find food. With onshore winds birds that die end up on beaches thus making the numbers involved very obvious.

Prof Harris writes:

“Our first priority has been to age the birds that have died. So far about half the birds examined have been adults and some definitely look as though they would have bred this year if they hadn't died. It is therefore likely that breeding populations are going to be affected in the Spring and Summer. Immature make up the other half of the sample so whilst their deaths will not have an immediate impact on breeding, the wreck is also affecting birds that would have recruited and bred in subsequent years."

He concludes "It is too early to know how many birds are going to be involved but it does look as though there will be both immediate and longer term effects at puffin colonies.”

Puffins on the Isle of May (photo: Akinori Takahashi)

Later this year CEH scientists will be carrying out the latest five year census of puffins on the Isle of May (one of Scotland's most important puffin colonies and the largest in the North Sea). Numbers declined at the last count in 2008.

CEH are working with RSPB Scotland to monitor the situation and learn as much as possible about the cause of the wrecks. Recovery of the birds along our beaches for post-mortem examination is ongoing. You can help by reporting any sightings to us or the RSPB.

According to the RSPB website wrecks have been reported at the following locations:
  • Panbride, Angus
  • Carnoustie, Angus
  • Warkworth, Northumberland
  • Balmedie, Aberdeenshire
  • Cambois, Northumberland
  • Beadnell Beach, Northumberland

Original posting - 26 March 2013

In the last few hours the CEH Press Office have been receiving reports of a puffin wreck (multiple unusual deaths) on the East Coast of Scotland and the North East England.

Puffins by the Main Light, Isle of May (photo E.Owen)

Professor Mike Harris, a research fellow at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and probably the world's leading expert on Atlantic puffins - he  co-authored, together with Professor Sarah Wanless, the leading publication on the bird ‘The Puffin’ (published in 2011) - says:

“Reports emerged just a few days ago of dead puffins washed up on the beaches of East Scotland and North East England. This is likely to be the biggest 'wreck' since 1947. It comes at an unusual time of year, when the puffins are heading back to land to breed, The  likely cause is the bad weather (particularly the recent run of strong Easterly winds). The birds appear to have died of starvation.”
Later this year CEH scientists will be carrying out the latest five year census of puffins on the Isle of May (one of Scotland's most important puffin colonies and the largest in the North Sea). Numbers declined at the last count in 2008, so this 'wreck' is almost certainly not good news for the long term health of Scotland's puffins.

Contact the CEH Press Office for more information and for interviews with Prof Harris.

Update #1 1555 26 March 2013 - Professor Harris has added some further comments:

"Wrecks of seabirds, when bird die, apparently of starvation after periods of very rough weather, are not that uncommon. However, in the North Sea the species involved are often species such as guillemots and razorbills that winter fairly close to land. Wrecks of puffins are extremely rare, probably because they winter well away from land so that when they die their bodies rarely get washed ashore.
There is currently a major wreck underway which is the largest in the North Sea for at least 60 years.
This was first noticed at the end of last week by people who regularly check the beaches of northeast England for dead birds. Then over the weekend reports started to come in of dead and dying puffins in beaches all the way north to Aberdeenshire.  Most birds were emaciated and had obviously died of starvation. The last week has seen the longest spell of strong to gale easterly winds for many a year and these had undoubtedly caused the birds severe problems and washed ashore allo birds dying offshore.
To date, I have heard of maybe 400 dead puffins and there will undoubtedly be many more, perhaps thousands, and this compares with just a handful over a whole typical winter. This will certainly be the largest wreck of puffins in the North Sea for over 60 years.
Puffins were first recorded back at colonies in early March so many puffins will now be fairly close to the main breeding colonies of the Isle of May, other colonies in the Firth of Forth and the Farne Islands and so at risk of strong onshore winds. We are just starting to do biopsies on some of the dead birds. These confirm that they are grossly under-weight and without any fat. However, many are probably only 1-3 years old, too young to be likely to breed this year since puffins do not become sexually mature until 4-5 and most do not breed until they 6-7 years old. If this first sample is typical, then the breeding population may not suffer.
The puffins at the main colonies in the area – the Farne Islands and the Isle of May National Nature Reserve– are censused every 4-5 years. A whole count of the colony on the Isle of May is to be carried out in late April this year. It may then become clear whether what has happened to numbers since the last count. Hopefully there will be little change!"

Additional information

A follow-up blog post mapping the wreck was published on 12 April: Assessing the 2013 Atlantic Puffin wreck

2012 – a bad year for butterflies?

Butterflies have been making headlines in the UK today, but sadly not for good reasons. New results from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS) were released earlier, and the figures show that in 2012 13 of the UK’s 50+ species of butterfly suffered their worst year on record. Only four species saw their populations increase.

Last year’s relentless rain and cold, previously documented by CEH in our monthly hydrological summaries, created disastrous conditions for many butterfly species as they struggled to find food, shelter and mating opportunities.

Marsh Fritillary - down 71% in 2012 (photo: Tim Melling / Butterfly Conservation)

UKBMS is run by CEH and our partners in the scheme Butterfly Conservation (BC) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, and has collated records since 1976. The scheme now involves thousands of volunteers collecting data every week throughout the summer from more than 1,000 sites across the UK. CEH and BC are very grateful to all the volunteer recorders for their hard work and tenacity in walking their butterfly transects during 2012.
The full table of results (pdf) comparing 2012 to 2011, giving details for 56 butterfly species found in the UK, can be accessed on the UKBMS website. Last year I blogged about how the UKBMS annual figures are used as indicators by Government to monitor long term changes in the UK’s biodiversity (See: Butterflies, biodiversity indicators and long-term change).

More information on the 2012 results can be found on the CEH and Butterfly Conservation websites. If you’d like to know more about the methodology behind the scheme this page on the UKBMS website should help.

Barnaby Smith

Thursday, 21 March 2013

INTERACTing at the edge of the world

A guest blog by Dr Andy Sier on CEH's involvement in the EU-funded INTERACT project.

My colleague, Jan Dick, and I have just had the good fortune of travelling to Greenland. This was our first time in the country, and it was a memorable experience. But first, you’re probably wondering "why Greenland?", so let me explain.

We’re involved in a project, funded by the European Union, called INTERACT (short for International Network for Terrestrial Research and Monitoring in the Arctic). This is a network of 33 terrestrial field bases in northern Europe, Russia, USA, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Scotland. INTERACT is designed to build capacity for research and monitoring in the European Arctic and beyond, by increasing  access to these research stations and facilitating cooperation between the project’s partners. INTERACT is actively building a vibrant Arctic environmental research community.
Members of the INTERACT project. 

The UK’s only site in the INTERACT network is in the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland. Long-term environmental monitoring of the site is carried out by CEH and Scottish Natural Heritage as part of the UK Environmental Change Network. It’s also part of the GLORIA programme examining temperature effects on vegetation across alpine Europe. So, there is a history of environmental research in the area. Our site is one of the most southerly in INTERACT, the northernmost site being at 83° N on Ward Hunt Island, Canada. Jan represents the Cairngorms site in INTERACT and we are both involved in the project’s outreach activities.

The Cairngorms ECN site, which is part of the INTERACT network
of Arctic and subarctic research sites.

Each year project members gather for an annual meeting held at one of the research stations. Our hosts this time were the Greenland Institute for Nature Research in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland.

The Greenland Institute for Nature Research, hosts for the
INTERACT meeting.
(Photo by Riku Paavola)

Flying over Greenland for the first time was incredible. My first sight of what is the world’s largest island (at over two million km2) was of spectacular jagged peaks rising up from the surrounding ice and snow. Between these mountains snaked glaciers, deeply scarred by crevasses. Beyond this coastal strip was the Greenland ice cap, a wide plain of featureless ice that is two miles thick in places. The whole scene appeared incredibly beautiful but also fragile; I found myself thinking about the greenhouse gas emissions required to get us to Nuuk, and their effects on this Arctic wilderness.

Mountains in eastern Greenland.
(Photo by Andy Sier)
A glacier in eastern Greenland.
(Photo by Andy Sier)

We touched down at Kangerlussuaq, just north of the Arctic Circle, where the outside temperature was a chilly -29 °C. By comparison, Nuuk, being further to the south and nearer the coast, was a mere -8 °C.

Small iceberg in the waters around Nuuk.
(Photo by Riku Paavola)

Great progress is being made within INTERACT. I think this is largely due to the energy of those involved and the wonderful team spirit. Although I’m a newcomer to the group, I really feel among friends at INTERACT meetings, and we all seem to feed off each other’s enthusiasm. INTERACT can measure its success by the numerous research stations who are now joining as "observer stations". Ten such sites have joined already and more are in the pipeline. They all see the benefits of working together, sharing ideas and learning from other people. To me this is capacity building in action: helping to overcome the challenges of working in extreme environments and creating better facilities for the research that is so vital in this fast-changing region of our planet.

Together with our colleagues Lis and Christer, we presented our outreach work to the team. We’ve been busy on many fronts, including talking to school children and local and indigenous people. While in Nuuk, for example, we discussed hunting and fishing with two residents, a hunter and a government wildlife officer. We’ve also been creating educational hiking routes using the ‘Earthcache’ concept, developing online resources and extending our reach via social media.
A local fisherman and hunter addressed project members
(Photo by Andy Sier)
Greenland encapsulates many of the issues that make projects like INTERACT so essential. Changes are happening fast, with concerns over the fate of the Greenland ice cap and melting sea ice, increasing interest in oil and mineral exploitation, a rising population, impacts on animals and plants and changes to traditional ways of life. It may seem remote, but the Arctic is closer than we think, for its future will affect us all.

The population of Greenland is 56,000 and rising. Nuuk, the capital
is expanding rapidly. There is an acute shortage of housing, so a lot
of new apartment blocks like these are being built.
(Photo by Andy Sier)
Old Nuuk has many wooden buildings.
(Photo by Andy Sier)

Additional information

There is more information about INTERACT on the project website. The Outreach section (developed by Andy) features an image gallery and links to INTERACT’s Arctic Research blogs and Facebook page.
Find out more about the UK’s Environmental Change Network at http://www.ecn.ac.uk/.

Staff page of Dr Andy Sier at CEH

Staff page of Dr Jan Dick at CEH

Thursday, 14 March 2013

A window on weather conditions at Wallingford

A 50th anniversary at CEH has passed almost unnoticed. The meteorological station at our Wallingford, Oxfordshire site has now been measuring daily rainfall, sunshine and temperature parameters since 1962 (when the Hydrological Research Unit, which later became the Institute of Hydrology, was established here).

The station is used to monitor local weather conditions on a daily basis and data is submitted regularly to the Met Office. As well as forming part of the UK Climatological Observation Network, records from the site are used to support instrumentation calibration and other scientific projects. Such long-term observations help develop an understanding of hydrometeorological systems and may also show trends over time which could be linked to environmental change.

Near real-time data from the met station from the last six months is now available to view on our website, while full historic data can also be requested. You can also learn more about the type of manual observations which are recorded at the site, and a little bit more about how far back some of the records go, in an information leaflet entitled "Why measure meteorological variables?" [PDF].

A ground level rain gauge in the foreground and a
Stevenson screen in the background at CEH's met station
in Wallingford, Oxfordshire.
Photo: Harry Dixon/Centre for Ecology & Hydrology


Rainfall measurement revisited - a paper in Weather by John Rodda and Harry Dixon revisiting work done at Wallingford in the 1960s looking at raingauge design

Weather Monitoring - a paper published in June 2011 in AWE International by Mark Robinson and Geoff Wicks  

CEH's Wallingford Meteorological Station