Scientists as well as bird-watchers have long wondered exactly where puffins go in the winter months, which they spend far out at sea. Now, researchers in Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, also known as Project Puffin, are beginning to unravel the mystery. Geo-locating- technology has enabled the first ever winter tracking of individual Atlantic Puffins from North America and revealed their far-flung travels.
Like many seabirds, little has been known about the lives of puffins when they are not on their island nesting colonies. Because the birds travel far from land, observations of their whereabouts are very limited. In 2009, National Audubon Society researchers attached tracking devices to the leg bands of eight puffins at their summer nesting island Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, a 65-acre treeless island located 21 miles off the coast of Rockland, Maine. Last June they recovered the devices from two puffins – and learned that while there was some overlap in the winter home, one of the two seafaring birds ranged from the icy waters of the northern Labrador Sea to warmer waters near Bermuda.
“I’ve spent decades helping to restore puffins to their nesting colonies in Maine,” said Dr. Steve Kress, Vice President for Bird Conservation for the National Audubon Society; “It is an amazing moment for all of us who work with these birds to have a glimpse into where they go after they leave the islands.”
Dr. Kress and researcher Scott Hall presented the long-awaited information to the seabird scientific community on February 8 at the 39th annual meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group in Turtle Bay, Hawaii.
Puffins, which can live more than 30 years, return each year to the island where they nested. They usually appear in early spring and each pair lays their single egg in a deep rock crevice. After the egg hatches, parents tend the chick for six weeks. The chicks head off to sea in July, and their parents typically follow within the next few weeks, spending the next eight months of the year living an oceanic life. Although puffins are occasionally seen at sea in the winter, nothing was known about the specific movements of individual Maine birds, until now.
“This is just one example of what Audubon researchers are doing up along our shores up and down the Atlantic Flyway and beyond,” said Audubon Chief Scientist Gary Langham. “But it’s also another chapter in success story of the Atlantic Puffin recovery in Maine, led by the pioneering spirit and amazing perseverance of Steve Kress, whose techniques for seabird restoration have become a global model used in Europe, Mexico, and as far in the Pacific as Midway Island.”
The first Maine puffin ever tracked spent October through December in the outer Gulf of Maine, moving northward along the continental shelf of Nova Scotia on his way to the Gulf of St. Lawrence where he spent most of January, before heading south to the far offshore waters of the Mid-Atlantic States, nearly to Bermuda. The tiny, capsule-shaped tracking devices measure light intensity and time of day to estimate day length and plot the puffins’ locations (+/- 115 miles). Unlike satellite transmitters that are attached to larger animals, these geolocators store information until the animal is re-captured and the device is removed to retrieve the data.
Although several of the tagged puffins returned to Seal Island in 2010, and again in 2011, the wary birds eluded capture until June 23, 2011 when one of the puffins (named “Cabot” after a human seafaring explorer) landed on top of a puffin trap. Waiting in a nearby observation blind, 19-year old Ben Donnelly, an Ithaca College student, quickly responded, pulling a string release that dropped the puffin with its prize into a box where he and island supervisor Sarah Gutowsky removed the precious tracking tool. Days later, a second puffin carrying a geolocator was also captured.
Both birds were later found to have roughly similar haunts at sea, though Cabot’s travels were more extensive--especially his venture north into the Labrador Sea. As seabird habitats are increasingly threatened by climate change, fisheries, off-shore drilling and wind farms, it is becoming increasingly important to discover migratory patterns to better safeguard the birds at both their nesting and winter homes. Additional studies are necessary to confirm these results and to look for further patterns.
While soaring seabirds such as albatross and shearwaters are known to fly much further than puffins, Cabot’s flight is all the more amazing for the energy expended. Puffins typically fly by rapid flapping, in which they reach speeds of up to 50 mph, beating their wings 300-400 beats per minute.
Year 1 (June 2009 to May 2010)
Puffin Cabot was tagged with a geolocator on August 2nd 2009. He departed Seal Island in mid-August, heading northeast. He spent October through December in the outer Gulf of Maine, moving northward along the continental shelf of Nova Scotia on his way to the Gulf of St. Lawrence where he spent most of January, before heading south to the far offshore waters of the Mid-Atlantic States, nearly to Bermuda. He stayed in this region from February to April, before returning to Seal Island in May, 2010.
Year 2 (May 2010 to July 2011)
After spending most of the summer at Seal Island, Cabot departed Seal Island in late July, repeating his travels northeast along the ocean coast of Nova Scotia, past Sable Island and on to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In this second year, he kept moving north, eventually to the deep waters of the northern Labrador Sea. As in year one, Cabot then moved south to the offshore Mid-Atlantic waters, a distance of 2,800 miles. By May, he had returned to Seal Island, where he was captured on June 23, 2011. His eight month journey covered a remarkable round trip distance of about 4,800 miles.
Puffins had been absent from Seal and other Maine islands due to excessive hunting for meat and feathers in the late 19th century. They were restored to the island over an eight year period by hand-rearing and releasing chicks brought from Newfoundland. Now, more than 500 pairs nest on Seal Island.
For more information and maps of the Puffin sea journey http://projectpuffin.org/wanderingpuffins.html
Read more about Project Puffin success here http://projectpuffin.org/nsarchive/ERUpdate_2011.pdf
To Adopt-A-Puffin for your Valentine, visit: http://projectpuffin.org/ValentinePuffins.html
To visit a Maine Puffin Colony with Dr. Stephen Kress, see: http://projectpuffin.org/OrnithCamps.html