Study sheds light on little-known migration habits of iconic Atlantic puffin

Scientists from around the globe found that Puffins in eastern Canada don’t venture as far from home as their European relatives, possibly improving their success when it comes to breeding and feeding. A puffin is seen on the rocks along the coast of Machias Seal Island, N.B., in an undated handout image. The Canadian Press/ HO - -University of New Brunswick, Atlantic Laboratory for Avian Research

They are small, ungainly and an adored feature of eastern Canada.

But until now, little has been known about the winter travel habits of the Atlantic puffin – the stout black and white seabird known for its grace in the water and clumsy movements on land and air.

A new study released Thursday by a team of international researchers is shedding light on where the iconic birds travel in winter, and how their destination may affect their ultimate survival.

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Tony Diamond, a University of New Brunswick ecologist who collaborated on the study with the University of Oxford, tracked puffins from the colony at Machias Seal Island on the Maine-New Brunswick border using tags the size of a thumb nail affixed to their legs. The data tracked how far the puffins travelled, calculated the energy they expended and determined whether they mixed with other colonies.

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Diamond said the findings revealed that the population he monitored travelled to wintering grounds in southern Labrador and the St. Lawrence estuary, and that the short distance may explain why the population is in better shape than its endangered European relatives.

“The big surprise out of this study was relating the breeding success of colonies to their migration,” he said of the paper, published in Current Biology. “Those wintering closest to the breeding colony do better. They’re not going as far and they’re using less energy.”

They followed the migration of 270 adult puffins from 13 populations covering major breeding grounds across the North Atlantic, including 12 populations in Canada, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, the U.K. and the United States.

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Click to play video 'Warm waters could be affecting puffin breeding' Warm waters could be affecting puffin breeding
Warm waters could be affecting puffin breeding – Aug 26, 2016

Diamond said the research looked at the species’ movement across its range over eight years, combining data from various colonies to create a more accurate picture of the migration patterns of the birds that weigh about 450 grams and use their small wings to chase food underwater.

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It found that puffins from larger colonies where local winter conditions were poorer, migrated further. The wintering hotspots were south of Ireland, south of Iceland and at the entrance of the Labrador Sea, with the average distance from the colony ranging from 250 kilometres to 1,700 kilometres.

Diamond said there are several factors that could explain why puffins from certain colonies may have more breeding success, including the competition for food, how much energy they have to expend foraging for nutrients and the size of their population.

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But he said knowledge of their wintering habits is key, since it is when the species experiences the highest mortality.

“Gaining new insights into their movements and behaviour in the winters is vital to understanding the survivability of puffins,” he said. “If they come back to their summertime breeding grounds having had a tough winter, they are much less likely to breed successfully.”

He said the findings could be instrumental in helping conserve the birds through increased awareness of their habitats and marine protected areas.

“Puffins are not endangered in North America. But what is happening in Europe is probably going to happen here before too long. There are some early warning signs in puffin biology that mean it is important that we know where they spend the winter,” he said.