December 15, 2018
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This holiday season, give the gift of puffins

Bob Duchesne | BDN
Bob Duchesne | BDN
The Atlantic puffin is perhaps the most beloved bird in Maine, even though most Mainers have never actually seen one.

Black Friday. One day after giving thanks for the things we have, we go out and get more things. Frankly, I have enough things. I don’t know what you were planning to give me for Christmas, but I would prefer something edible so I don’t have to store it with all my other things.

Wait a minute. I have a better idea. This holiday season, give puffins.

It’s remarkable. The Atlantic puffin is perhaps the most beloved bird in Maine, even though most Mainers have never actually seen one. This colorful little clown is on T-shirts, postcards, coffee mugs, and every possible souvenir. I searched to see if any of Maine’s microbreweries offered a puffin pale ale, but alas, I didn’t find one. Now that pot is legal, “Puffin” would make a great brand name. Note to self: Secure the trademark.

Puffins nest on five islands along the Maine coast. Four of those are visited by commercial tour boats, and most offer gift certificates. Rather than battle the Black Friday crowds, it would be a simple matter to give someone a puffin trip for next summer. Here are some possibilities.

The newest boat is also the oldest. Acadia Puffin Cruise leaves Winter Harbor daily from May through August for visits to Petit Manan Island, nine miles northeast of Schoodic Point. Their 40-foot vessel is the Tricia Clark, but long-time birders may remember this same boat as the Chief, belonging to Barna Norton. Barna founded the first puffin tour company in 1939, steaming out of Jonesport to visit the colony on Machias Seal Island. Barna’s boat has been completely refurbished, and I really loved it during my first ride with them last year.

Robertson Sea Tours visits Petit Manan from Milbridge, the closest point of departure for the puffin colony. Jaime Robertson has made it really easy to buy gift certificates. The icon for purchasing tickets is right at the top of his website. Smart fella.

Two boats run over to Petit Manan from Bar Harbor. The distance is a little farther, but the jet-powered catamarans operated by Bar Harbor Whale Watch are so fast that they make up the time in a jiffy. These puffin visits are done in combination with whale-watching, so the island stop tends to be a little shorter. But the cruises pack in much more time at sea for other wildlife pursuits. I get out on these boats every chance I get.

Acadia Boat Tours makes dedicated trips to Petit Manan, leaving from their base at the Atlantic Oceanside Hotel in Bar Harbor. It’s a slower boat, but you’re less likely to lose your hat.

Farther down the coast, Captain Andy Patterson and the Bold Coast Charter Company have been taking folks out of Cutler aboard the Barbara Frost to see the puffins of Machias Seal Island for over 30 years. This is the only puffin colony where you can land on the island to watch or photograph puffins at close range, which makes this tour insanely popular. All of the tickets usually book up as soon as they go on sale after the New Year, making a gift certificate inadvisable, since it may be difficult to redeem. My suggestion is to just book this one for yourself ASAP.

A great alternative is to visit the other Seal Island. This Seal Island is accessible via Stonington, where two boats make regular visits. If you go on the Isle au Haut Ferry puffin trips, there’s a good chance you’ll be sharing the rail with me aboard their new boat, Otter. They generally go out every Sunday, and they’ll be adding Thursday trips for 2019. I often go along as their “expert” seabird spotter. They spoil me.

Captain Bill Baker also visits Seal Island a couple of times a week, leaving from his dock at Old Quarry Ocean Adventures in Stonington aboard the Nigh Duck.

The southernmost puffin colony is Eastern Egg Rock. It’s only 5 miles from the mainland, making it possible to visit without a long boat ride — a good option for seasick-prone puffin fans. The Hardy Boat in New Harbor is closest, and runs the most trips to the island. The Monhegan Boat Line runs trips several times a week out of Port Clyde. Likewise, Cap’n Fish runs out to the island four times a week out of Boothbay Harbor.

The best thing about giving puffins for holiday presents is that gift certificates are easy to wrap. As a gift wrapper, I’m a hopeless case.

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

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