Follow by Email

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

TUFTED PUFFIN, yes TUFTED PUFFIN, in NORTH KENT - the FIRST record for Britain

Adult summer Tufted Puffin, The Swale off Oare Marshes NR, North Kent, 16 September 2009 (Murray Wright)
Oare Marshes regular Murray Wright had to do a double take this morning when he came face to face with a very odd-looking seabird which he eventually worked out was a TUFTED PUFFIN (Lunda cirrhata). Murray had been seawatching from the sea wall hide 450 yards east of the end of the Oare Marshes hide during the morning and after watching a Leach's Petrel battling with the near gale force NE wind had got on to three skuas flying in towards The Swale.

Whilst scanning, the TUFTED PUFFIN suddenly swam into view from the right, perhaps swimming out of Faversham Creek, at about 1055 hours. Remarkably it was just 50 yards offshore and full of excitement and panic, Murray rattled off as many images as he could whilst the bird was in close view. It was being pushed west by the fierce wind and after a short while flew west but landed again after 200 yards on the sea. It quickly drifted on the high tide towards the Oare Marshes approach road and 'pier' but after a period of time, when a further six observers visiting the reserve and fortunate to be in the area managed to get on to it, it flew again at 1110 hours and flew strongly west into The Swale and out of view.

During all of the commotion, Murray had managed to inform Birdline South East of his find as well as other local birders and within a very short time indeed, the dramatic and almost unbelievable news had travelled widely and nationwide. However, virtually as soon as birders were leaping into their cars, the bird had already disappeared out of view. The hope was though, that like many Little Auks before, the bird would simply fly back east and out of the Swale on the ebbing tide.

Geoff Burton was the first on the scene, but despite being just 15 minutes away, he missed the bird. Soon, birders from all over Kent were arriving, closely followed by those travelling from farther afield. It was not long before a crowd of 100 or more had gathered and the Oare Marshes warden had to very kindly organise special parking arrangements by opening up an adjacent field. A vigil was then kept by an army of watchers, with the Swale being well and truly scrutinised from one end to another during the afternoon and evening. By nightfall, there had been no further sign of this remarkable and perhaps legendary bird.

As such, it represents the first British record of this highly pelagic species. There has been just one previous Western Palearctic record of an adult in SWEDEN at Lagans mynning, Laholmsbukten, on 1 and 8 June 1994 (VFaS 22: 136, 1995), although an adult was seen this summer in Greenland (details awaited).

The species is kept in captivity where at least 5 are on show on the artificial cliff-face at the 'Living Coasts' Wildlife Park in Torbay (South Devon) but I do not know of any other collections either in Britain or on the Continent that harbour this bird. The Park was contacted today and they confirmed that none of their birds had escaped.

Tufted Puffin is one of the most abundant and conspicuous seabirds of Alaska where Sowls et al in 1978 estimated the population to be in the region of 4 million individuals. In terms of breeding distribution, the species is restricted to the North Pacific Ocean, breeding from NE Siberia and Cape Lisburne in the Chukchi Sea south through the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands to the Farallon Islands and Hurricane Point Rocks in northern California. In winter, birds range widely and often solitarily, often far out to sea, ranging as far south as Honshu in Japan and to Baja California.

Todays Kent individual was in adult breeding plumage, retaining its bill-sheath and red bill and long pale cream crown plumes (see Murray's photographs).

Interestingly, two days ago, a local birder was seawatching off Canvey Island (on the Essex side of the River Thames) late evening when he had an auk fly past at distance which he described as small, dark and heavy at the rear, with a different jizz to a Guillemot or Razorbill and an odd flight action. At the time the observer thought it was a Puffin and being a very rare visitor to the SOG area, he alerted several birders that evening. In retrospect, there is every possibility his strange bird was this Puffin and could suggest it has been in the Thames Estuary since the near gale force NE wind set in.