Atlantic puffins Credit: Bob Duchesne / BDN

It’s puffin time again. Atlantic puffins have returned to their nesting islands off the coast of Maine, and at least nine boats are taking passengers out to see them. Better still, assuming Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidance hasn’t changed, masks are optional for fully vaccinated people. Both you and the puffins can once again show your colorful beaks to the world.

Three boats serve the southernmost puffin island, Eastern Egg Rock. The Hardy Boat in New Harbor offers the shortest trip. It takes a mere half-hour to motor across the bay, a serious consideration if you are seasick-prone. The Monhegan Boat Company in Port Clyde and Cap’n Fish in Boothbay Harbor also offer scheduled puffin cruises to Eastern Egg Rock.

No regularly scheduled boats visit Matinicus Rock, the next puffin island to the north. Charter boats sometimes make the trip, but it’s a little too far offshore to make daily voyages commercially viable.

On a clear day, Seal Island is within sight of Matinicus Rock, 9 miles northeast. It’s also a little far offshore, but the Isle au Haut Ferry has a fast boat named Otter, and it takes less than 90 minutes to reach the puffins. No need to rush, though. I’d argue that this is the most scenic of the puffin tours, passing through the island archipelago off Stonington, with Vinalhaven on one side and Isle au Haut on the other. This is my favorite puffin trip.

It’s such a favorite, I plan to be on Otter this Sunday, June 13, volunteering as the birding guide for the voyage. It’s such a favorite that the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon is hosting the trip the following Sunday, June 20. I’ll be one of the guides on that trip, too. It’s my favorite trip because it’s the biggest puffin island, with plenty of room for other birds. We’ll see many razorbills and both Arctic and common terns. It’s the southernmost colony of great cormorants in North America.

With luck, we may spot the red-billed tropicbird that has mysteriously returned to the island for the 17th year. If you want to see this bird, you’d normally visit the Galapagos Islands or Baja California. Only he knows why he migrates thousands of miles away from his normal haunts to summer here.

We’ll see harbor and gray seals. Seal Island is the second-largest gray seal pupping colony in the United States. However, gray seals give birth in mid-winter, so we’ll see only a remnant of that crowd.

Petit Manan is even farther north. Its location off Steuben, between the Schoodic Peninsula and Milbridge, makes it close enough to be visited by four tour boats. Two depart from Bar Harbor.

I’ve been on the Bar Harbor Whale Watch boat many times. Their fast catamarans sometimes stop for puffins, before heading farther out to search for whales. Since unusual ocean birds can often be found around the whales, I get a twofer out of the voyage. Acadian Boat Tours also visits Petit Manan from Bar Harbor.

It’s a short cruise from Milbridge to Petit Manan with Robertson’s Sea Tours. Their boats take only six passengers. Nobody gets crowded, ever.

Acadia Puffin Cruise departs from Winter Harbor seven days a week. This is my favorite puffin trip. The scenery is awesome as the Tricia Clark rounds Schoodic Point in Acadia National Park, reaching Petit Manan in a comfortable 45 minutes. There’s plenty of time to float with the puffins, and an hour’s stay among them is typical. You’ll see lots of puffins, along with their cousins – razorbills, common murres and black guillemots. Common and Arctic terns are also plentiful, and it’s the largest colony of laughing gulls in Maine.

Farthest to the north, Machias Seal Island lies 9 miles off Cutler. It’s the granddaddy of all puffin colonies, overloaded with puffins, razorbills, murres and guillemots.

I won’t be going to Machias Seal Island this year, and neither will you. This is the only puffin island that allows passengers to land and watch birds close-up from blinds, under strict supervision by the Canadian authorities who manage it. Captain Andy Patterson of Bold Coast Tours visits the island daily, but these trips are so wildly popular that he usually sells out the entire season as soon as ticket sales open in January. COVID-19 canceled Andy’s season last year, so demand was through the roof this year. No doubt about it, it’s my favorite puffin trip.

Hmm … I may be having trouble picking a favorite puffin trip.

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Bob Duchesne, Good Birding

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.