Perishing Puffins

Ah Puffins, those cute, colorful and comical sea birds , full of character and playfully known as “sea parrots” or even “clowns of the sea”.


I chased them last year in Maine on 2 different occasions. It was an educational experience. Before Maine my exposure to these funny little birds had been National Geographic photos, close ups of the colorful beaks loaded with herring or eels.

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With their bright colored beak, white breast and black back, these birds look like a cross between a parrot and a penguin. They are a major tourist attraction since being brought back to the northern Maine Islands about 40 years ago.


I was surprised about how small they are. It makes getting an iconic photo like Nat Geo’s almost impossible. You need access to the islands, not a rolling deck on a tour boat. You need a large telephoto lens and a tripod but I don’t think you need a lot of luck. I saw many puffins and many had the fish hanging from their beaks but they were tiny and distance made capturing that “money shot” a long shot.


Fast forward to this year and a cruise to Alaska. On the maps showing our cruise route were places marked with Puffins. I was hoping that I’d get to see some of the little birds here, maybe sitting on an iceberg or two but if any were in the area they got by without fanfare and I missed them.

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Puffins have been on my mind lately. I still want to find a way to get that special photo. The Mass Audubon Society (of which I am a member) had an overnight excursion with special access to the Puffin Colony but the cost was too rich for me at the moment so I let the idea pass so it was with some concern that I watched a news clip today on the state of the Puffins in Maine.

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According to the release young puffins died at an alarming rate last season because of a shortage of herring, leaving adults to try to feed them another type of fish that was too big to swallow. Some chicks died surrounded by piles of uneaten fish.

Parent Puffin feeding baby puffin chick. (have a look at my other puffin photos, click on my name). Image shot 07/2008. Exact date unknown.

I ┬ádidn’t hear any of this last year. Maybe it wasn’t shared with the tourists as we tried to line up the perfect shot.

This summer, the chicks are getting plenty of hake and herring, said Steve Kress, director of the National Audubon Society’s seabird restoration program and professor at Cornell University but the report went on to say that researchers are still concerned because occupancy rates in the nest burrows are down this year. Puffins were nearly wiped out in Maine about a century ago. Reintroduction was begun only about 40 years ago.

Puffins raise only 1 chick, known as a Puffling, in an underground burrow. Puffins are less adaptable than many other seabirds so the health of a puffin colony is a good indication of the health of the sea and certain fish stocks.

I hope the colonies recover fully and continue to grow. After all, like so many tourists to Maine, I haven’t got my perfect photo yet!

(The wonderful close ups came from the web. I can’t offer credit for them as the photographer wasn’t Identified nor were the photos watermarked. But these are exactly what I want to take!)

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