The UK is experiencing its worst March weather for 50 years with Arctic winds and snow causing havoc in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
It’s not the best time for a spring holiday as the so-called ‘beast from the east’ continues to rage across the country leaving temperatures plummeting.
But spare a thought for one of the UK’s favourite birds – the Puffin – affectionately known as ‘the Sea Parrot’.
This striking-looking black and white sea bird with its trademark bright orange bill and feet has been hit hard by the continuing windy weather.
This extreme blast of Arctic winds and troublesome weather has seen thousands of Puffins being forced onto beaches in Northumberland and eastern Scotland.
Sadly most will die as a result of starvation and there is little that can be done to help the birds as the damage has already been done out at sea.
Just up the coast from where I live in Northumberland these wonderful birds have been forced inland as raging seas have stopped them hunting and diving for food offshore.
Nature experts say it’s not the cold temperatures which have led to the current crisis.
In fact, Puffin or its Latin name Fratercula Arctica means ‘little brother of the Arctic’ which provides some clues as to the bird’s hardy nature and ability to cope in tough climates.
The UK is actually on the southern edge of the puffin’s habitat which should make life relatively straightforward for this plucky bird – apart from the regular attacks from bigger, marauding birds like Greater Black-backed Gulls.
What is causing the trouble is March’s strong winds and extreme conditions, some of the worst ever experienced in spring,
Hundreds of dead birds have already been washed ashore along the east coast, in an area stretching from Aberdeenshire to Northumberland.
It’s a shocking and worrying incident.
I’ve discovered that the death of large numbers of seabirds in a single incident is known as a “wreck”.
A similar incident involving Guillemots happened on the south England coast last month, but that was attributed to pollution from shipping.
This time it seems the extreme weather is to blame – and perhaps the fall-out from long term climate change which appears to be resulting in more extreme conditions at unexpected times of the year.
Earlier this evening I was listening to an expert from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology on the radio who said it is more than 60 years since since such a large puffin wreck was recorded.
It’s an unusual event then, but a devastating sight for bird lovers – many birds in this current ‘wreck’ have been found by tourists or beachcombers walking their dogs, which is very sad indeed.
There’s speculation that these may be younger birds rather than mature adults who are about to start their breeding season.
This could be better news according to experts because it wouldn’t be completely disastrous for breeding adults, if – and it’s a big if – they have escaped the ‘wreck’.
Normally they’d be out at sea at this time of year feeding before heading inland in late spring to have their chicks or pufflings.
Puffins are the indicators of the health of the surrounding environment and eco-system which is worrying when we witness events like this.
So what’s going on and how will it affect eco-tourism? It’s still to early to tell…
Puffin watching in the UK
Whilst we’re pondering the future of the UK’s puffins, here’s a few tips on the best places to see this bird in early spring and summer.
One of my favourite spots is the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast in North East England.
Thirty six thousand puffins can be seen on the Farnes during late spring when the birds nest in burrows on the island from late March-July.
Take the boat trip from Seahouses to the Farnes (operates daily – see Billy Shiels’ Cruises) and you’re guaranteed to see puffins during their breeding season.
You’ll see kamikaze Puffins flying overhead and on the ground as well as swimming and diving out at sea.
The Farnes is also one of the best places to see Arctic and Sandwich Terns as well as Guillemots, Shags and Razorbills.
Let’s hope that this current tragic event is only a one-off and not the start of a recurrent pattern as our climate changes and becomes more extreme.