Here’s another one of those adventures I got into. The Weather Channel – the United States’ leading online and cable weather service – has sent film crews across the country, preparing for a new series of trips that will air soon. They were in the Acadia National Park area last week, capturing the beauty and adventure that Down East Maine has to offer. One of those adventures was a visit to the puffin colony at Petit Manan. They needed an expert, and I got the call.
The producers chartered Acadia Puffin Cruise to Winter Harbor for the trip, and since I’ll take any excuse to board this boat, I eagerly said yes. The boat is large enough to be comfortable, but small enough to approach the puffins without alarming them. It was noon when we met at the pier last Wednesday – an almost perfect day for the trip. I spent a lot of my free time envying the cameras and recording equipment.
There are five puffin colonies along the coast of Maine. Petit Manan is the second north of Steuben, roughly halfway between Acadia’s Schoodic Point and Milbridge, easily accessible from Winter Harbor in just about 50 minutes.
I’m not much of a puffin expert, but thought they couldn’t tell the difference, and I can pretend on camera as well as anyone. Plus, I know enough stuff about puffins to wow their viewers. Some facts might even surprise you, although it is more difficult to impress a Mainer.
Puffins are 100% seabirds. They even copulate on the water. They only come ashore to nest. If they could lay an egg on the water, they would.
Puffins only lay one egg per year. It takes up to six weeks of incubation before hatching, and another month of almost constant feeding, before the puffing can leave the nest. Once the chick leaves the burrow, it is completely alone. It will not touch the earth for four years or more.
The puffin’s colorful bill is used only for courtship purposes. The bill becomes smaller and duller after the breeding season.
Puffins live a very long time, probably over 40 years. We don’t really know, because until recently we couldn’t make a flock of birds that lasted that long.
There are two other species of puffins in the Pacific Northwest, tufts and horns. But the puffin is the only species on the east coast. It is also found in Europe, from Norway and northern Russia to Brittany, France. There are large settlements in Scotland and Ireland. About 60 percent of the world’s population is found around Iceland, where they are still eaten. In North America, the largest colony is in Witless Bay, Newfoundland.
There is an estimated population of six to eight million puffins worldwide. Although they are not considered endangered, they are considered threatened. Because they reproduce so slowly and congregate in concentrated numbers, they are likely to die en masse from disease and oil spills. As the warming oceans reduce their food resources, they face potential settlement failures and starvation. The population remains stable along our coasts, but the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s oceans, at a rate three times the global average.
Puffins can store multiple fish in their beaks at once, thanks to a raspy tongue and thorny palate. These hold the fish in place while the puffin continues to catch more fish, one by one. They are on average ten per fishing trip, but a puffin in Great Britain set the world record at 62!
Puffins have serious nails. They use them to dig burrows in the soil-filled crevices between the rocks. The egg is laid two or three feet underground, safe from most dangers.
Puffins were almost wiped out in Maine. European settlers took the eggs, ate some of the adults, and used others for oil. During a fashion craze in the late 1800s, many birds were sewn onto women’s hats as decorations. It wasn’t until Cornell University’s Dr Stephen Kress started the Puffin Project in 1973 that recovery began. Even though reintroductions have been successful, human intervention is still required to maintain the population, given a whole new range of modern threats to nesting islands.
It’s likely that much of my Weather Channel appearance will end up on the cutting room floor, in its place. For example, I was asked on camera if there were any puffin predators on these islands, just as a pair of predatory peregrine falcons buzzed by the boat. I am easily distracted. “I’m sorry, what was your question again?” “