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The Puffins to See

Dear Bird Folks,

A few weeks ago you advised a family from Minnesota on where they could travel to see a roadrunner. Ironically, in a classic case of “the grass is always greener,” I live in the middle of roadrunner country, but would really like to see a puffin. Would you suggest that we travel to the Pacific to see those puffins or would it be better to go see the puffins in the Atlantic? And where are the best places to see puffins on either coast?

-Grant, Tucson, AZ


Yes Grant,

The grass is always greener. At least the grass in Minnesota is always greener than the grass in Tucson. It is unless you live near one of those silly water-sucking desert golf courses. And even then I think the grass really is nothing more than spray painted rock, but don’t quote me on that. And just for the record, the family looking for a roadrunner was from Wisconsin, not Minnesota. I realize that they are basically the same place, but I figured that I’d better correct you just in case somebody out there was actually paying attention to any of this.

The answer to your question is easy. See the Atlantic Puffins, they are the classic puffins. The pacific’s Tufted and Horned Puffins are fine birds, but they are just puffin wanna-bees. Seeing them is like eating low fat ice cream or going to Arizona to see London Bridge. It’s just not the same. ( A note to everyone except Grant: London Bridge really is in Arizona. Look it up. I’m not kidding.)

Back in the 70’s and 80’s the Atlantic Puffin was the bird that everyone was talking about. Is was constantly the star of nature shows and clocked more TV airtime than Regis Philbin but with less makeup. Area merchants filled the selves with everything from puffin mugs, to place mats, to puffin underwear. I think I still have my pair.

Worldwide the Atlantic Puffin population was still fairly healthy, but the Maine colonies had taken a hit. By 1973, over-hunting had wiped the puffins off all but one of Maine’s islands. The remaining colony was at constant risk from an oil spill or some other disaster. That’s when the National Audubon Society started “Project Puffin” in hopes of reestablishing the birds to their former nesting colonies.

Like most birds, puffins return to breed in the same area where they themselves were raised. So hundreds of newly hatched puffin chicks were transported from the colonies in Newfoundland to Maine’s Eastern Egg Rock. The tiny birds were placed into artificial burrows (puffins normally nest in underground burrows) and were hand fed small fish. Once fledged, the young puffins left their artificial homes and headed off alone into the cold Atlantic. Puffins usually don’t breed until they are five years old, so it would be years before we would know if Project Puffin succeeded.

Well, apparently those transplanted baby Canadian puffins enjoyed Maine’s cheap lobster and those yummy wild blueberries because after a few years of floating out in the Atlantic, many of those birds returned to Eastern Egg Rock. The hard work had paid off. The long-ago destroyed nesting colony slowly became alive with breeding puffins. In addition to that colony, another one was also reestablished on Seal Island in Penobscot Bay. The Maine coast has once again become a safe place for the Atlantic Puffin.

Maine has several towns where you can grab a boat for a puffin tour. One popular destination is Port Clyde. (And yes, it is really called Port Clyde. Remember we are talking about Maine here.) New Harbor and Boothbay Harbor are also starting points for puffin trips.

However, the puffin trips that most people talk about leave from Jonesport, one of Maine’s most northern coastal towns. The Jonesport trips go out to the famous Machias Seal Island. This small island is home to over 3,000 puffins. And the best part is that once you get to the island you will be able to go on shore, sit in a wooden blind, and watch those striking Atlantic Puffins from six feet away. That’s the good news. What they don’t tell you about is the two hour, seasick-filled, hair-raising boat ride into the unpredictable swells of the North Atlantic or the treacherous landing onto seaweed-covered rocks. But hey, there have to be a few surprises.

Wherever you go, Grant, make sure you take your trip between early June and the middle of August. The puffins have pretty much gone back to sea by late summer. If you wait too long, you could be traveling all that way just to look at barren rocks. Then the only thing you could do is spray paint the rocks green and pretend you were back in Tucson.