Since I joined the Sky Ocean Rescue program in April 2018 I have been busy with various things, from marking exam scripts to analysing data and writing papers, but my main task has been to prepare for a long field season which started last week and will last until early September. My main research project this summer, funded by Sky Ocean Rescue and National Geographic, will investigate the feeding ecology of Atlantic puffins, a key species of UK breeding seabird, which is now facing serious population declines throughout its range. I will be tracking the feeding movements of these charismatic birds in the UK, Norway and Iceland, to learn more about how and where they feed and what they feed on, and comparing different populations of various breeding success to try to determine what is causing the declining colonies.

Puffin bringing a beak-full of fish to its offspring (photo: Ben Dean)
Puffin bringing a beak-full of fish to its offspring (photo: Ben Dean)

The fieldwork, which will take place over June and July on four remote islands in three different countries, requires a huge amount of planning. If I forget to bring any equipment, I can’t just pop down to the shops to buy it or get it delivered. The main pieces of equipment I rely on include custom-made miniature GPS loggers, which are deployed on the birds to record their movements, and motion-activated cameras to film the birds feeding their chicks. But the most time-consuming part is to plan and order all the little bits and bobs without which these wouldn’t work, such as batteries, markers and notebooks – every item needed must be planned for and bought in advance. I also have to make sure all necessary licences are in place.

Miniature GPS tags deployed on the back of puffins (photo: Annette Fayet)
Miniature GPS tags deployed on the back of puffins (photo: Annette Fayet)

The first part of my two-month trip started on Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire – where over the last few days I have been deploying the cameras and GPS tags. As you read, 13 GPS devices which were deployed on a breeding puffin, are collecting the position of the birds every 5 minutes and will do so for up to 6 days. When I start removing them next week, they should allow me to see where all the birds have been finding food for their chicks. If I don’t catch them again they will fall off naturally. The camera traps are also collecting all sorts of puffin footage, from visits at dawn; to chick feeding; to quick social visits in the afternoon. It may sound glamorous, but it’s not really – my hands are already scarred with bites and my dark blue waterproof trousers are now white from the guano the birds generously release on me when I catch them! It's not all bad through, I am able to collect it and carry out DNA analysis of the poo samples which helps me identify the different prey the birds have eaten and compare the diet between healthy and declining populations. It’s hard work (most days start at 3:30am before the puffins wake up!) but I love it – it’s so exciting and I feel very privileged to be able to study these fantastic birds, to learn more about their ecology and to help protect them!

A puffin chick (“puffling”) around a week old. It will stay in the nest for 5 more weeks before taking its first flight. (Photo: Annette Fayet)
A puffin chick (“puffling”) around a week old. It will stay in the nest for 5 more weeks before taking its first flight. (Photo: Annette Fayet)

As a side project, I have also been involved with the Aldabra Clean Up project – a wonderful initiative by UK and Seychelles students and other young people to go and remove the tons of plastic debris accumulated on the most pristine island in the western Indian Ocean and 2nd largest coral atoll in the world, Aldabra Atoll. The project aims to turn this very special place, home to frigate birds, giant tortoises and critically endangered turtles (to name a few), into a truly pristine state. They’re currently looking for support – check their crowdfunding campaign!

https://queens.hubbub.net/p/AldabraProject/