Atlantic puffins. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

Here’s another one of those adventures I got myself into. The Weather Channel — America’s foremost cable and online weather service—– has sent film crews all over the country, preparing for a new travel series 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 Atlantic puffin colony on Petit Manan. They needed an expert, and I got the call.

The producers chartered Acadia Puffin Cruise in Winter Harbor for the trip, and since I will seize any excuse to get on that boat, I said yes with alacrity. The boat is big enough to be comfortable, but small enough to get in close to the puffins without alarming them. It was high noon when we met at the pier last Wednesday — a near perfect day for the voyage. I spent much of the idle time just envying the cameras and recording gear.

There are five puffin colonies along the Maine coast. Petit Manan is second-northernmost in Steuben, about midway between Acadia’s Schoodic Point and Milbridge, conveniently reachable from Winter Harbor in only about 50 minutes.

I’m not really a puffin expert, but I figured they couldn’t tell the difference, and I can fake it on camera as well as anybody. Besides, I know enough puffin stuff to impress their viewers. Some facts might even surprise you, though it’s harder to impress a Mainer.

Puffins are 100 percent seabirds. They even copulate on the water. They only come ashore to nest. If they could lay an egg on water, they would.

Puffins lay only one egg per year. It takes up to six weeks of incubation before hatching, and another month of near-constant feeding, before the “puffling” can leave the nest. Once the chick leaves the burrow, it’s completely on its own. It won’t touch land again for four or more years.

The puffin’s colorful bill is for courtship purposes only. The bill becomes smaller and duller after 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 bird band that lasted that long.

There are two other puffin species in the Pacific Northwest, tufted and horned. But the Atlantic puffin is the only species on the East Coast. It’s also found in Europe, from Norway and Northern Russia as far south as Brittany, France. There are sizable colonies in Scotland and Ireland. About 60 percent of the world population is found around Iceland, where they are still eaten. In North America, the biggest colony is in Witless Bay, Newfoundland.

There is an estimated population of six to eight million Atlantic puffins in the world. Though they are not considered endangered, they are regarded as threatened. Because they reproduce so slowly, and gather in concentrated numbers, they are susceptible to mass die-offs from disease and oil spills. As warming oceans reduce their food resources, they face potential colony failures and starvation. The population remains steady along our coast, but the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, at a rate three times the world average.  

Puffins can store multiple fish in their bills at once, thanks to a raspy tongue and a spiny palate. These hold the fish in place as the puffin continues to catch more fish, one-by-one. They average about ten per fishing trip, but one puffin in Britain set the world record at 62!

Puffins have serious toenails. They use them to dig burrows in the soil-filled crevices between rocks. The egg is laid two to three feet underground, safe from most dangers.

Puffins were nearly 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.  Not until Dr. Stephen Kress of Cornell University started the Puffin Project in 1973 did recovery begin. Even though the reintroductions were successful, human intervention is still necessary to sustain the population, given a whole new range of modern threats to nesting islands.

Probably much of my appearance on the Weather Channel will end up on the cutting room floor, where it belongs. For instance, I was asked on camera if there are any puffin predators on these islands, just as a pair of predatory peregrine falcons buzzed by the boat. I’m easily distracted. “I’m sorry, what was your question again?”

Watch more:

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.