Page last updated at 01:23 GMT, Friday, 14 November 2008

Breeding success for Farne birds

A pair of shags (Image: Joe Cornish/NTPL)
Shags are one of the seabird species to have seen numbers rise this year

Seabirds at a key North Sea colony have generally enjoyed a successful season in 2008, a survey has shown.

Four key species - shags, eider ducks, guillemots and razorbills - have all recorded population increases on the National Trust owned Farne Islands.

The survey's findings are in sharp contrast to the nationwide trend, which has seen an overall decline in the number of seabirds at UK colonies.

However, puffin numbers on the islands have fallen by a third in recent years.

"Many seabird colonies have suffered badly this year with the cold spring and wet summer and through a lack of sandeels, the staple food of the seabirds, which can be catastrophic for any seabird colony," explained David Steel, the National Trust's head warden for the islands.

"(But) it's been a reasonably trouble-free summer for the Farne Islands with a good supply of sandeels around the islands, and the seabirds have managed to come through the poor weather conditions."

The RSPB, in a report published in October, warned that a number of species found in British waters faced a "dire" outlook.

It warned that warmer sea temperatures were believed to be affecting the amount of plankton in the sea, and consequently the number of sandeels available as prey for the birds.

Counting chicks

The survey, led by Mr Steel, monitored more than 1,700 nests on the islands, which are home to more than 80,000 pairs of breeding seabirds, to count the number of fledged chicks.

Puffins in front of a lighthouse (Image: John Walton/NTPL)
The Farnes' puffins did not enjoy a successful year

Results revealed a very good year for shags, eider ducks, guillemots and razorbills.

"The islands witnessed a year-on-year increase in the population of several species, but more importantly eider and shag numbers," revealed Mr Steel.

"Both species reported their best breeding seasons for more than 10 years."

The data suggests that the Farnes' colonies were faring much better than the majority of other breeding sites.

"Seabirds around the UK had a mixed breeding season in 2008," observed Matt Parsons, co-ordinator of the UK Seabird Monitoring Programme for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

"While European shags bred very successfully, many species fared poorly, especially kittiwakes, Arctic terns, Arctic skuas, guillemots and fulmars.

"In the northern Isles, home to a high proportion of the UK seabirds, the season was particularly poor; kittiwakes there raised few chicks and their breeding numbers continue to fall."

The Farne survey revealed that the islands' kittiwake population had dropped to its lowest level since 1981.

And a survey of puffins revealed that the number of the iconic seabird had fallen by a third in just five years.

"Overall puffin numbers are down… yet the numbers of puffin chicks are fairly healthy," said David Steel.

"More research is needed into what is happening to the puffins during the winter months and why they're not coming back."

In order to understand why so many puffins are failing to survive the winter, which they spend at sea, the National Trust and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology are planning to fit satellite tags to a number of the birds in spring 2009.

They hope the tags will reveal where the puffins overwinter and offer an insight into possible reasons for their decline.

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