On a birding trip to Newfoundland:
I want to see puffins.
Newfoundland is the best place to see puffins in North America. In late spring and summer more than 260,000 pairs — half a million birds! — nest at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. No wonder the Atlantic puffin is a provincial symbol of Newfoundland & Labrador.
Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) are one of three puffin species but the only ones in the Atlantic Ocean. Ranging from The Gulf of Maine to the Barents Sea at Murmansk, Russia, their largest nesting colony is in Iceland at 3-4 million pairs.
Puffins are so pelagic that they only come to land when they nest. The rest of the time they live far out at sea, often alone, for 20 to 30 years, reaching sexual maturity at age 4-5.
In late spring the puffins come back to Newfoundland, all duded up with bright beaks, pale faces and orange-red legs. Each pair claims and refurbishes its nest burrow and courts by slapping bills side to side (see video below). The female lays a single egg and both parents incubate for 40-45 days.
When the chick hatches the frenzy begins. The parents fly out to sea and bring home 10 or more fish at a time, carefully stacked in their bills. When the chick fledges, about 40 days old, he leaves the burrow at night and jumps into the sea.
Fish are key to the puffins’ survival but many fish populations have crashed in the North Atlantic — and so have puffins. Their largest nesting populations have declined rapidly with complete breeding failure every year in southern Iceland since 2003. In 2015 the IUCN listed them as Vulnerable to extinction. Puffins are starving in the eastern North Atlantic. In Iceland, where people eat puffins, the hunt had to be down-scaled considerably.
In Newfoundland, Atlantic puffins are well protected. Scientists are the only ones allowed on the nesting islands. The rest of us see puffins from the boat. Here’s what it’s like.
Half a million really cute birds!
Day 2, July 9: Morning at Cape Spear. Afternoon at Witless Bay on seabird/whale boat trip.