I Want To See Puffins

Atlantic puffins (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Atlantic puffins (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Atlantic puffin in flight in light fog (photo by Henning Allmers via Wikimedia Commons)
Atlantic puffin in flight in light fog (photo by Henning Allmers via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Atlantic puffin brining home food for its chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Atlantic puffin bringing home food for its chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. Video from Newfoundland & Labrador tourism)

Day 2, July 9: Morning at Cape Spear. Afternoon at Witless Bay on seabird/whale boat trip.

One thought on “I Want To See Puffins

  1. Elliston, Newfoundland is where we were able to see Puffins up close. What a wonderful experience! FYI, Elliston is also the Root Cellar Capital of the World!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *