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News / Puffins return and leave again

One of the first puffins this years - Photo: John Moncrieff

THE PUFFINS, the signature bird of Shetland’s Sumburgh Head bird reserve, have returned.

Assistant RSPB warden at Sumburgh Head Newton Harper spotted the first birds to arrive in fog and wind on Saturday evening.

Within an hour, he said, there were at least 300 of the comical birds on the east and west facing cliffs, heralding the arrival of the summer breeding season in the face of inclement weather.

Other summer visitors have been reported the length and breadth of the isles, including the bonxie, whimbrel and wheatear.

This year the RSPB have teamed up with Promote Shetland to provide an even better visitor experience, with extra webcams including an infra red device designed to catch for the first time a puffin chick fledge and leave its burrow.

Mr Harper said he had a hunch the puffins would return on Saturday when the fog descended on the cliffs.

“It was very foggy and windy and rainy, pretty dire in fact, and during the last couple of summers I had noticed the puffins quite liked hanging around in the fog,” he recalled.

“So I went up to Sumburgh Head and there was a couple flying around on the west side. After about 10 minutes there were 14, they all seemed to follow one another.

“It was quite exciting and when I looked on the east side there were about 80 and within an hour there must have been at least 300 right up against the wall.”

However within a couple of days the entire flock had disappeared back out to sea, and this week birders were biting their nails in anticipation of their return.

“We’re not quite sure why they’ve gone, but it may be because the weather is a bit rough,” Mr Harper said.

Ornithologists are very concerned about the seabirds around Shetland as numbers plummet due to the shortage of sandeels. Last year they were recorded flying hundreds of miles in search of food for their chicks.

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Sumburgh Head has recently recorded 1,000 breeding pairs, but numbers on Fair Isle have halved in the past eight years. A study 10 years ago recorded 100,000 breeding pairs in Shetland, the next survey will only take place in 2014 if funds permit.

The highly popular RSPB/Promote Shetland puffin cam exposing life inside a puffin burrow goes back online on Friday at

Promote Shetland director Andy Steven said this year they had five cameras inside and outside the burrow pointing at the cliffs.

“Last year we got footage of an egg being laid, which was a first. No one has seen a chick leaving the nest so we are hoping a new infra red camera outside the burrow will capture that this year.”

He added that there was always the possibility that the burrow would remain empty.

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