Several years ago, I had the good fortune to be hired on as an Instructor for a few summers, at the National Audubon Society's Ecology Camp on Hog Island near Bremen, Maine. We would bring students out on field excursions into tide pools, teach about coastal geology, dredge up some marine creatures and generally explore the natural history of the Maine coast. The highlight of the camp for the students and for me was our boat trip out to Eastern Egg Rock, a very small island in Muscongus Bay. This little rock outcrop is home to a restored colony of Atlantic Puffins. The puffins in Maine were wiped out in the late 1800s by egg hunting, hence the name "Egg Rock". Some forward thinking ornithologists in the early 1970s worked to bring the Atlantic Puffins back to Eastern Egg Rock and their efforts are truly an environmental restoration success story as the colony is thriving and even growing today.Now, nearly 20 years later, I once again find myself in the company of puffins. Here on St. Paul Island there are actually two other species of puffins that breed here, the Horned Puffin and the Tufted Puffin (I just love saying that name!). Both species of puffin are quite common, and if you take a walk along the shoreline, you are bound to see one or both species within a few minutes. When viewed up close, they really are remarkable birds.
Both Puffins are easily recognized by their large, brightly colored bills. The Tufted Puffin also sports yellowish tufts of feathers that sweep back along the sides of their heads. The tufted is the larger of the two puffins that live here. When working with Crested Auklets a couple of days ago, we inadvertently caught a Tufted Puffin in our mist net. As we ran over to free the bird, the bird took matters into its own hands (errr...wings), and tore a cannonball sized hole in the net and flew away. Pretty impressive!
Unlike the murres and kittiwakes which nest on the narrowest of cliff ledges, puffins burrow deep into the soil of the cliff face using both their feet and their bills to excavate a home. The tunnels are typically a couple of feet deep, helping to keep the eggs and chicks safe from hungry predators. The rear of the burrow is typically lined with vegetation and feathers to provide a cozy home for the brooding of the young puffin chicks and providing protection from the severe Bering Sea weather conditions. Both parents will take turns hunting for small fish to bring back to the burrow to feed their hungry little chick. You'll often see them whizzing on by, their wings a blur, carrying a load of fish in their bills.
The breeding season is the only time that the puffins spend on land. As true seabirds, they will leave the island, and head out into the open ocean to ride out the winter months somewhere in the Pacific. They will also shed the outer coating of their colorful bills, which is primarily designed to attract a mate, leaving behind one that is a dark gray in color. When the puffins return again in the spring to nest, their brightly colored bills will appear again.
When seeing the puffins go about their business, you just can't help but to smile. These comical birds, with their ornate bills and brightly colored feet are truly one of the avian gems of the Bering Sea!
If you want to learn more about the Puffin Project in Maine and about puffins in general visit:
Bird Species seen: Red-faced Cormorant, Parakeet Auklet, Least Auklet, Crested Auklet, Tufted Puffin, Horned Puffin, Thick-billed Murre, Common Murre, Short-tailed Shearwater, Wandering Tattler, Rock Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Black-legged Kittiwake, Red-legged Kittiwake, Lapland Longspur, Gray-crowned Rosy Finch.
Mammals: Northern Fur Seal, Arctic Fox