When things go ‘jump’ in the night… a puffling’s first flight to sea revealed by thermal imaging 

Emily Burford (BSc!) writes about her dissertation project using thermal imaging to study seabird biology, appropriately at the peak fledging time for puffin chicks, known as ‘pufflings’…

I visited Skomer Island during July last year to start my dissertation project on how light pollution might affect puffling behaviour. 

Thermal image of two adult puffins with their puffling. Photo: Matt Wood / University of Gloucestershire
Adult puffin with its puffling. The adult has a colourful beak and red feet, the puffling is black and white (probably to keep a low profile to avoid predators and attention from other puffins). Photo: Allan Rose

I was told that it was unlikely that I would witness a puffling fledging, as this happens at night, but determined to see one take to the sea I sat up till the early hours of the morning with the UGlosBioscience thermal imaging camera, which can detect warm-bodied features in total darkness. To my delight I saw a puffling make its first flight out to sea! Do check out this YouTube link:

Puffling fledging seen by thermal imaging

In the video, both parents are with the chick, which turns around to look at the sea, and then jumps off the cliff towards the sea. The parents look down after their chick and then look at each other, almost as if they don’t know what to do next! A warden on the island told me that a man has been visiting Skomer for 9 years trying to see a puffling fledge and he never has, so I feel extremely lucky to have witnessed this activity, which rarely been seen or captured on video. 

Aside from fledging, I also witnessed other behaviour such as puffling interaction with their parents. The parents actively guard the nest until it is dark to protect the pufflings from the gulls that might predate them. If the puffling ventures too far out of its burrow whilst it is still light, the parent will give it a gentle nudge back in with its bill. When conditions are dark enough, so that they cannot be clearly seen, the pufflings will venture out of their burrows on their own and stretch their wings. They do this consecutively for a few evenings until they are ready to fledge.

Puffins are very sociable birds and this can even be seen in their young. Prior to one of the pufflings fledging, other pufflings came out of their burrows and joined it as if they were gathering to watch how it’s done… or perhaps they wanted to wish their friend good luck! Whilst watching my footage back I also noticed that it was common for the fledglings to do a poo before they took to flight, I found this particularly amusing!

Emily using the thermal imaging camera to study Manx shearwaters. Photo: Andrew Cunningham

My time on Skomer watching the pufflings was an amazing experience, for any seabird/bird lover, I would certainly recommend a trip to the island, it truly is a very special place. While my puffin project didn’t quite go to plan, I was able to return to Skomer study Manx shearwaters using thermal imaging. I would like to thank the wardens and island volunteers for their kind support and invaluable advice during my stay on Skomer Island. 

Emily Burford BSc (Hons) Ecology & Environmental Science

(Emily is one of our first students to graduate this year from this new and expanding course… well done to all of our 2017 graduates!)


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