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Puffins & Penguins on Cape Cod

Dear Bird Folks,

A friend from Wareham told me that he has heard that puffins or penguins are being seen on the Cape. I told him that he is crazy (which he is). Could any of this be true?

– Jerry, Osterville


Oh Jerry,

I don’t know how to break this to you, but your crazy friend has one up on you, man. I can’t believe that you have to get your news from a guy from, of all places, Wareham. And to make things worse, he is right about both birds. Yes, as strange as it seems, there are both puffins and penguins being seen on the Cape.

How could you not know about the puffins? They have been nesting here for years on the tip of Jeremy Point in Wellfleet. Up north, puffins build nests in burrows dug under rocks on remote islands. Out on Jeremy Point, the puffins have moved into the rusting wreck of an old four-wheel drive Range Rover that was trapped out there during a bad storm in 1959.

The puffins know that the soft sand will collapse if they try to dig burrows for the nests, so instead they lay their eggs in hidden parts of the old truck. Most nests are found under the seats, but I have found puffin nests in the glove compartment and one pair was sitting on eggs in the bottom of an old ice cooler. And as amazing as this puffin colony is, the unbelievable thing is that three years ago the Park Service wanted to tow the Range Rover away because its beach sticker had expired 42 years ago! To save the puffins, every February an anonymous person hikes the entire beach to apply a current beach sticker on the bumper of a 45 year old pile of rust. It seems silly but it keeps everyone happy.

The penguins on the other hand don’t nest here; they are from a growing population that escaped from the National Aquarium in Baltimore five years ago. They don’t come here to breed, but come here to eat the millions of small fish that inhabit Cape Cod Bay. The penguins can’t spend all day in the bay because it is too warm for them. (And it gets warmer every time someone in Boston flushes a toilet.) So twice a day they swim through the Cape Cod Canal. They move into the bay in the morning and back through the canal into the cooler waters of Nantucket Sound for the evening.

The penguins were first spotted by the people on the whale watching boats who, for years, not being very bright, thought they were just young killer whales. While roller blading the bike trail that runs along the canal, I’ve often seen penguins sunning themselves on the decks of passing barges as they hitch a ride. I’m always amazed that none of the bikers have ever noticed these unusual birds. I guess the bikers are too busy enjoying those silly biker outfits they are wearing. The sailors love the penguins, I guess they like the company. Although one time a number of penguins busted open one of the containers that was on the deck of the barge. It was a case of Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks. They ate about half the fish sticks. They would have eaten them all but they ran out of tartar sauce.

So there you go, Jerry, your crazy friend was actually right this time. And if I were you, I’d go check out both of these cool birds. They are the easiest to see when they first return in the spring. They stop to rest in bayside harbors, like those in Wellfleet and Provincetown. They always seem to show up seven days after the new moon in March. That would mean the very best day for spotting both the penguins or puffins would be this Sunday, April 1. Let’s hope that it’s a nice day. That’s this Sunday, April 1, the return of the puffins and penguins day. April 1 is also noted for something else too, but right now I can’t seem to remember. But it will come to me.