The Atlantic Puffin: New Brunswick’s Own Sea Parrots

Given the dreary weather, I thought the next few weeks would be a good time to talk a bit more about some of the amazing birds that may well be best viewed in our region. Granted, quite a few species of birds come to mind, given that over 200 different species of birds actually elect to set up housekeeping in our fair province. However, at this point, it should be said that very few of these 200 or so species seem to generate quite as much interest or curiosity as the Atlantic Puffin (a.k.a. “sea parrot”, given its colourful, parrot-worthy frontal equipment). For more puffin images, feel free to check out my Puffin Album here:

Puffin Album

Birder’s ID- the Atlantic Puffin-

If you get a good look at an Atlantic Puffin in summertime, it is rather difficult to mistake it for anything else. This species’ colourful beak, a breeding period ornament that puffins use to great effect during courtship, makes them unique in this part of the world. However, when viewed from a distance, in flight and over water, the Atlantic Puffin can certainly be confounded with a few of its alcid cousins, such as the Razorbill and the Common Murre, both of which are also found in the Bay of Fundy. These latter two are generally encountered more frequently while out and about in the Bay, except perhaps around Machias Seal Island.  Both of these birds are larger and less chunky than the stubby little Puffin, although their flight pattern on long, narrow wings with rapid wing beats is similar.

Birder’s Nature Notes: Where they are-

While Atlantic Puffins are fairly widespread in the northern North Atlantic (they are even Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial bird) there is only one spot in New Brunswick where puffins nest: Machias-Seal Island. This tiny rocky outcrop, an hour or so boat ride south of Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy, is home yearly to about 5000 breeding pairs of Atlantic Puffins (fide Sea Watch Tours website). The puffins share the island with a few thousand more pairs of other nesting seabirds, including Arctic and Common Terns and Razorbill Auks (Puffins’ not quite as flashy cousin).

What they doAtlantic Puffins are true seabirds. They spend the greater part of the year in the open ocean where they float, sleep and dive (very adeptly) for fish. In fact, puffins, along with other alcids and a few other groups of seabirds, share a very interesting fishing technique known as “wing-propelled pursuit-diving”, which is sometimes referred to as flying underwater. This enables them to catch and eat a variety of seafood, including shrimp, squid, and, in our area, especially fish such as herring and sand launce. These are captured usually less than 30 m down, but can range as deep as 60m or more! Being bonafide seabirds, puffins only come on land to nest, which happens in our neck of the woods in June, July and early August. This provides us land lubbers with a unique opportunity to observe and learn more about these amazing birds on “land” at this time of year.

How do I get out to see them?-

Fortunately, Machias-Seal Island is perhaps the best place in North America to observe Atlantic Puffins. Sea Watch Tours out of Grand Manan leads daily tours to the “puffin islands”, weather permitting of course, in July and Early August. Incidentally, they are the most experienced and consistently eco-friendly marine tours I have had the pleasure of taking in our region as well. Contact Kenda or Peter Wilcox at Sea Watch Tours at 1-877-662-8552 to book your tour to see the puffins today!

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Comment by Ken MacIntosh on December 29, 2012 at 8:27am

Looks good to me! There are several other members with more pelagic birding experience; I hope they might comment. Machias Seal Island is absolutely worth the trip for close-up viewing of Puffins and terns, Razorbills if you are lucky.

Comment by Denis A. Doucet on December 29, 2012 at 7:09am

Done! Do give it a re-read and see if it is more consistent with your experience, now. I really appreciate your constructive criticism, Ken.

Comment by Denis A. Doucet on December 29, 2012 at 7:01am

I think I will also amend my blog text to reflect the fact that other alcids are indeed easier to see in the region than puffins without the extra effort. That is certainly true. Thank you for bringing that to my attention, Ken.

Comment by Denis A. Doucet on December 29, 2012 at 6:55am

Wow, Ken. That is amazing stuff. I see you are one of the participating authors. I will read it more thoroughly shortly and save it for sure, but the numbers of Razorbills moving to and fro is simply astounding and more importantly, the fact that it may represent the MAJORITY of the N Am population using the Bay in winter, especially the area around the Prioprietor Shoals. This is important stuff. Along with the Semipalmated Sandpipers (75% of the world population passing through in fall) and the Right Whale thing, this again highlights the major importance of the Bay as an important bird (and wildlife) area. On a general note, it is certainly true that one much more rarely sees Puffins from the ferry than other alcids, based on my limited experience of a few dozen ferry trips to Grand Manan over 15 years while working for Fundy Hiking and Nature Tours. I do also remember our vertebrate zoology prof at the time (Louis Lapierre) mentioning something about the idea that puffins went quite a ways offshore in winter, more so than some of the other alcids.

Comment by Ken MacIntosh on December 29, 2012 at 6:35am

Denis, your photos continue to amaze me. One thought on the relative abundance of auks in our region, while puffins outnumber the others as breeders on MSI, in my experience one is much more likely to encounter razorbills or murres, perhaps even dovekies, from the GM ferry, or perhaps other place in NB waters other than in the immediate area of MSI. Falk Huettmann made some interesting observations about wintering alcids; the publication is on-line here.

Comment by Glenn Pinsent on December 28, 2012 at 11:14pm

Love this , great read .

Comment by Denis A. Doucet on December 28, 2012 at 9:54am

PS Back when I wrote this article several years ago, 1000 pairs of Puffins was pretty accurate. These days the number may well be different. The Sea Watch Tours website says 5000 pairs. I am trying to find out more about that this AM and will update the blog if need be. If anyone notices any other mistakes, PLS let me know.

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