Atlantic Puffins


A Pair of Atlantic Puffins on Machias Seal Island off the coast of New Brunswich, Canada.



Puffins are birds that resemble penguins and like penguins they catch fish by "flying" through the water. Unlike penguins though, puffins are also able to fly through the air. Puffins live in hard to reach places, but I find the journeys well worth the effort. These birds are full of character and a lot of fun to observe.


Machias Seal Island off the coast of Canada is one of the best places in North America to view Atlantic Puffins. It can only be reached by boat. When I traveled there I sailed early in the morning from Jonesport Maine for several hours on a small boat with a few other naturalists/bird watchers. The waters were relatively calm. Along the way we could see other boats bobbing in the harbor, then the pines and rocky sea shore along the coast and brightly colored buoys marking lobster pots in the water. There are a surprising number of ducks and other birds floating and flying just off the coast. We saw a bald eagle flying out of the mist that slowly engulfed the shoreline.


Eventually the boat came upon Machias Seal Island. As we approached we started seeing small rafts of puffins in the water. Sometimes we spied a puffin diving into the water to catch fish. The birds almost look bumblebee shaped and their flight looks improbable.


The perimeter of the island is a series of inhospitable rocks. There is no pier or safe harbor to accommodate our boat, so we hade to transfer to a small motorboat and be shuttled to the island. I clutched my camera bag in the little motorboat, not taking any chances that a mishap in the last few feet would separate me from my camera and my chance to photograph the puffins.


Puffins are Pelagic, which means that the majority of their lives are spent on the open seas. The only time that they come to land is during the breeding and chick rearing periods. Even when they do come to land, they prefer isolated, rocky islands off the main coastline. So there is little human contact with Puffins, and almost all our observations of Puffins occur during those short periods that they inhabit the islands. I knew how lucky I was just to see a glimpse of the puffins.


Puffins are an enigmatic blend of clownish behavior and mystery. During their breeding season puffins have bright legs and beautiful multicolored bills. They walk on land with an awkward gait and their comical manners and appearance has earned them the nickname of "sea clowns". Yet their pelagic activities means that much of their life takes place outside of the view of mankind, and we really know very little about how they live for most of the year.


As I walked on the island the first bird that I saw was actually a rare Artic Tern. There are quite a few breeding pairs on the island and these birds are not shy about defending their nesting territory. They dive-bombed us as walked up the island. Our route took us on the outskirts of their nesting territory and they make it clear that we were intruders and not welcome. We tried to cause as little disturbance as we could. I carried my tripod high on my shoulder to make sure that the aggressive birds didn't cause a disturbance to my head.


The lighthouse on Machias Seal Island. The puffins live on the rocks along the islands edge.


The island is manned during the summer by a number of Canadian college students. These students monitor the birds on the island and perform studies of the puffins nesting behaviors. The students are a bit isolated on the island during the summer and seemed to good-naturedly tolerate our interruption. After initial introductions and directions we were led to the blinds to observe the puffins. There are so many puffins on the island that the blinds them selves had a line of puffins standing on them.


Because of its multicolored beak and its gangly antics on land, puffins are sometimes called “Sea Clowns”.


Atlantic Puffins are about ten inches tall with black backs and white undersides. Their most striking features are their colorful beaks. The beaks are primarily orange with a yellow stripe and a steel gray/blue triangular base. The black back extends to the top of their heads like a black hood and each eye is in a roughly oval patch of gray on the sides of their heads. Dark coloration immediately above their eyes almost give the impression that someone applied makeup in the shape of a teardrop around their eyes.


When the puffins arrive on the island they frequently engage in "loafing", which is pretty much what it sounds like, just standing around the rocks and socializing. The birds are quite communal and almost all activity is done in a group. While in the blind I was able to watch a pair of puffins "billing". Billing is when two puffins rub their beaks together, sort of like puffin kissing. When two birds begin courting each other they often engage in  billing. It is not uncommon for billing to draw a crowd of puffin onlookers around the courting pair.

“Loafing” puffins socializing on the rocks.


If puffins are showing aggression towards each other, frequently in territorial disputes, they will start "gaping". In gaping the puffin opens it's wings and beak. The more upset it is the wider it may open it's beak. It may also start stomping a foot to emphasize how irate it is. Of course this display may also result in a crowd of puffin spectators.


While watching the puffins I was surprised by the sounds that I heard. Frequently I could hear what almost sounded like a moaning sound coming from the birds, which seemed at odds with their animated, comical antics.


Once courting is over pairs of puffins start preparing a nesting burrow. Because they are on such rocky islands these burrows can be a real challenge to make. Many of the burrows are just hidden crevices in the rocks. But the puffins make other burrows by digging them out, in much the same way that a dog digs a hole. The puffins kick dirt and stones up, flinging the debris behind them with their feet. As the tunnel gets deeper they need to use their beaks to first loosen up the dirt. Once they have about three feet of tunnel made they line the nest chamber with grass and feathers.


A puffin entering it’s nesting burrow.


I would frequently see puffins fly in from the ocean and land among the rocks. While watching the birds walking around they seemed to just disappear from view. They were actually entering these burrows among the jumble of rocks. The entrances were often so well hidden that I couldn't tell if a bird was passing behind a bolder or slipping into a burrow.


When I visited the island the puffins were just starting to lay eggs. Puffins lay just a single egg. Each parent takes its turn incubating the egg. After about six weeks the eggs hatch. The puffin chick is called a "puffling". The puffling remains in the burrow and actually sees very little of it's parents. The parents are frequently out at sea collects small fish for the puffling. Puffins have special serrations in their mouths that allow them to hold several fish crosswise in their beaks. Frequently they can be seen landing outside the burrow and dropping a stack of fish at the mouth of the burrow for the puffling to eat.


The adults continue to feed the puffling this way for about six weeks. At that point the puffling is about full grown and ready to fledge, or leave the nest burrow. One of the puffins primary predators at this point is the black legged gull, which can grab a puffin in flight. Since the gulls frequently have nests on the same islands and need to feed their young as well, this can be a very dangerous time for the pufflings. In order to minimize the danger the pufflings usually fledge at night, when they gulls are not active.


When fledging occurs the adults have frequently stopped feeding the puffling, and it is hungry. Finally the point comes where it strikes out on it's own in search of food. In the cover of darkness the puffling makes it's maiden flight, leaving the burrow and flying to the ocean.


It is at this point that the puffins become much harder to observe and their life becomes hidden from us as they return to the sea. The puffins are very well adapted to a life at sea. They seem equally at ease riding the swells of the ocean in social rafts or diving under the ocean surface to catch fish.


Under the water the puffins actually "fly" through the water. They flap their wings under water to propel them into schools of fish, using their feet for rudders. They eat small fish like herring and capelin. During the winter they may eat crustaceans too.


To appreciate just how hardy these little birds are you should remember that not once during the frigid, snow blown winters of the northern Atlantic do these birds come to land for shelter or warmth. Most of the young puffins will not breed until their fourth or fifth year. During these years of mystery these birds will seldom, if ever been seen by humans. As far as we know, they have no need to return to land in those years.


Our few hours of observing and watching the puffins seemed to come to an end amazingly fast. We were escorted to the main boat and begin our journey back to Maine. The day was much warmer than when we started and the fog had been burned off the coast. I thought about the unusual birds that I had watched that day and was content to have glimpsed a little bit of the lives of these elusive birds.