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Perspectives on a puffin survey

18 June 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Dùn to mark some puffin burrows.  I’ve explained how we do this survey in previous Diary entries so this year, rather than write the same again, I thought it would be interesting, and a little different, to write a blog that combines the experiences all the folk who went to Dùn.....

Gina:  "From my perspective, measuring the productivity of puffins on Dùn is a key part of my work programme. The information I collect contributes to a long term data set that can be used to monitor patterns over time and to compare breeding success between colonies in the UK.  It’s one of the shorter surveys I do out here, but while it might only take two days, it keeps my mind occupied for many more; I find myself constantly looking at the weather forecast and watching the sea to check if it is calm enough to allow a landing on Dùn.  So, it’s always a relief when everything comes together – clear skies, dry underfoot, calm, little swell and the day boats arriving (we rely totally on their generosity to land us on Dùn, thanks to Kilda Cruises!).

This year I was accompanied by two other people, Kevin (the St Kilda Archaeologist) and Eric (Work Party member and keen bird surveyor).  I packed an extra bundle of marker canes as I was confident the three of us would find at least 100 occupied burrows within the small window of time we had on the island.  I was right! After a slow start we found plenty of eggs and the last marker was put in place with half an hour to spare.   Phew.Final puffin burrow found, cane 120 marks the spot


This gave us time to sit at the plateau and enjoy the view back to Hirta, the island we call home.   I’ll visit Dùn again in July when I will attempt to revisit all the marked burrows and see how many chicks there are.Finished finding puffin burrows, bit of time to enjoy the view from Dun (colour)

Puffin with Hirta in the background


Eric:  “I’m here on St Kilda as a volunteer on a Work Party cleaning ditches, repairing dykes and cleits and I couldn’t believe my good fortune when the opportunity arose to assist Gina with her puffin monitoring on Dùn. While ditch, dyke and cleit work is worthwhile and essential, it is not what you’d call exciting and it was without much hope when I’d enquired with Gina a few days earlier if she needed any assistance with bird surveys.   

After confirming my ability to work comfortably on exposed cliffs and steep slopes and getting the all clear from Andrew, our Work Party Leader, we set off on a small rib to Dùn.  After judging the rise and fall of the boat in the swell, we jumped ashore and after a short scramble up slippery rocks we made our way up the step grassy slope towards the puffin colony.  Puffin productivity survey plot on Dun

Gina bravely took the lead and took the brunt of the fulmars who projected their vile, foul smelly oily vomit scoring a few direct hits.  Fortunately for Kevin and I, she also fought off the bonxies trying their best to drive us back.

Surveying puffins might sound like a magical experience because everyone loves these iconic sea parrots, but what Gina had failed to convey to us was that this involved lying face down on the ground, in mud, bird poo and fulmar puke on a steep slope on loose ground with only the rocks and the sea to catch you below should you slip.  The puffins also nest among the fulmars so this is a constant threat and the vile smelling oil liquid is nearly impossible to remove from clothes.Eric laid flat, arm inside puffin burrow trying to feel for an eggEric looking for puffin burrows

The objective of the exercise was to identify a burrow containing a puffin egg and mark this with a numbered cane.  We had 120 canes between us and the first couple of dozen burrows were vacant so it looked like it would turn out similar to many of my unsuccessful fishing trips.  However, I soon felt the nibbling of a beak and the scolding of an irate resident and felt the egg below the bird.  The excitement was intense – what an honour to get so intimate with these beautiful birds even if the experience wasn’t mutual.  Puffin at the entrance of a burrow (photo by Eric) 

After a couple of hours we had used up all of the canes and our job was complete with some time to spare for a few photographs.   We were all covered from head to toe in a cocktail of mud, bird poo and fulmar puke, but what a fantastic experience. Definitely the highlight of the trip where highlights are many on St Kilda”Pair of puffins near their burrow (by Eric)Puffins on Dun (by Eric)


Kevin:   Checking Puffin burrows on Dùn was (thankfully) a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Dùn means fortress in Gaelic, and for me, the experience very much felt like storming a fortress, even if that fortress was only my own fear of heights!Kevin taking a break from finding puffin burrows

In archaeological terms, I think Dùn is one of the most interesting of the islands of the St Kilda archipelago. Dùn has probably only been an island for around 300 years or so, and in 1800 would still have been relatively easily accessible dryshod.  Landing by boat near the centre of the island, after braving a barrage of fulmar vomit, you are met by a steep, sweeping, swath of land, sprinkled by sea pinks. This northern end of Dùn is inscribed with nineteenth century cultivation plots or Feannagan – a labour-intensive way of winning fertility from the thin soils. Finished finding puffin burrows, sitting in pink enjoying the view from Dun

The southern end of Dùn is the puffin plot and the land of sweaty palms, sharp intakes of breath, and the occasional private cry into a face full of vegetation (or perhaps that’s just me?). Kevin amongst a sea of flags that mark occupied burrows


The island is distinctive in St Kildan terms as it contains no cleits; almost every island or stac here does, even the precipitous Stac an Armin (and if Dùn is a fortress, then Stac an Armin is the kind of precipitous citadel found only in the trashiest of internet amateur fantasy novels).   Despite the terror, Dùn, lying just across the bay from my office window, is tantalising and I’m sure I'll be back - although perhaps only on the northern end...

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