By Nick Thomas
By now, thousands of Atlantic puffins that spent the summer nesting on rocky islands off the coast of Maine have skipped town and are heading toward their winter retreat in the Atlantic.
The remarkable resurgence of these colorful and distinctive birds in recent years is due to the dedicated efforts of the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Restoration Program.
So when I generated a wish list of the five bird species I hoped to encounter during my summer-long visit to Maine this year, puffins easily soared to the top. They beat out the much-loved black-capped chickadee, the gorgeous pileated woodpecker, and even the symbolic bald eagle.
In early August, I finally traveled to Maine’s “puffin central” — Eastern Egg Rock, some 6 miles from New Harbor in Muscongus Bay — armed with an old camera fitted with a meager 200-mm lens and anticipated a photographic challenge.
Adorned with glowing orange beaks, feet and matching eye rings, these miniature black and white feathered missiles can dart through the air at more than 50 mph, making it tricky to capture sharp images in flight.
Bobbing up and down aboard a boat churning through the ocean current near the island didn’t help either.
Nevertheless, I snapped dozens of puffin photos as the birds dashed by and, as expected, most were disappointing blurry streaks. Then, just as we veered homeward, several obliging birds landed about 100 yards from the boat, briefly reposing on the bay’s blue weaving waves before launching themselves airborne and permitting a few not entirely embarrassing shots.
In addition to their cool appearance, the puffin lifestyle is fascinating. Land dwellers for several months during breeding season, puffins support their young with a hearty meal of fish delivered in overstuffed beaks.
In profile, the beaks may seem voluminous but from other angles, they are surprisingly slender, yet their serrated bills can clamp down and secure dozens of small fish at a time, a rarity among seabirds.
Around August after their single colorless puffling (how cute is that name!) has ditched its underground nest, they inevitably abandon their mates. Parents and offspring all go their separate ways.
They prefer to live a solitary existence out at sea where they have adapted to riding the rough Atlantic waves, and descending to fish-rich ocean depths of about 50 feet to feed,although they can dive much deeper. Like many seabirds, they can drink seawater thanks to their built-in biological water desalination system.
Despite the long separation, most eventually navigate back to their original nesting island to reunite with the same mate year after year.
All birds molt to replace old or damaged feathers, but puffin shedding has not been well documented since they are generally far out at sea when it occurs after breeding.
University College Cork researchers recently used miniature electronic tags to measure how long puffins remained in the water or in flight and determined there was a dangerous 2-month period where the birds remained flightless in the chilly choppy Atlantic.
Even their distinctive orange colorations fade to gray after shedding part of their characteristic beak, perhaps making them less noticeable to Atlantic puffin predators. But as summer returns each year, so does their color.
Many birds display bright orange beaks and some even sport matching footwear. But puffins possess the pigmentation trio, displaying the same orange coloration surrounding their distinctive teardrop-shaped clownish eyes.
But it’s an avian illusion. Their eyes are conventionally round, with overlapping skin flaps giving the eyes an almost triangular appearance.
A few years ago, scientists at the University of Nottingham determined that puffin beaks glow under ultraviolet light. This photoluminescence is well known in nature since, unlike humans, birds can see UV light.
It’s thought this may enhance courtship rituals during mating or even help pufflings find their parents in low light. When studying live birds, the scientists even fitted them with custom miniature sunglasses to prevent eye damage from the light.
As if puffins weren’t cool enough already.
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, in Alabama, and has written features, columns and interviews for numerous publications. He spent this past summer traveling in Maine.