Audubon Scientists Uncover Winter Home of Maine Atlantic Puffins

Formerly Unknown Migration Revealed in Gulf of St. Lawrence and U.S. Continental Shelf

NEW YORK- New findings recently announced by the National Audubon Society at the Pacific Seabird Group convention in Oahu, Hawaii reveal the first-ever mapped winter grounds of the Maine-breeding  Atlantic Puffin, a species of conservation concern. Long a mystery, geolocation data helped discover surprising winter pathways and migration timing for where puffins spend much of their year when they are not at their nesting islands.   

“Potential threats of commercial fishing, offshore wind, and climate change have prompted the need for information on the non-breeding movements and wintering locations of seabirds that nest in the Gulf of Maine,” said Dr. Stephen Kress, Director of the Audubon Seabird Restoration Program.  “The discovery that Maine’s puffins winter over submerged Atlantic canyons and sea mountains provides another reason to protect these areas, and better understand what needs to be done to reverse population declines.”

Once common along Maine’s coast, Atlantic Puffins nearly disappeared there due to hunting and egg collecting in the 1800’s. Since 1973, Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, pioneered by Kress, has restored breeding Atlantic Puffins and other seabirds to islands off the coast of Maine. Today, the program has reestablished more than 1,000 puffin pairs to three crucial islands.

Until recently, little was known about the movements and distribution of Maine’s Atlantic Puffins outside of the breeding season in May to August. In 2011, Audubon researchers recovered geolocators from two puffins tagged at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge back in 2009. These two tracking devices suggested a northward journey to the Gulf of St. Lawrence—a region known for abundant forage fish, a key food source-- after the nesting season, before a southward movement ranging from the Labrador Sea to Bermuda in winter months. This was the first hint of puffins’ actual winter homes.

“Puffins are perfectly at home at sea. A surprise to many is that adult puffins spend about eight months resting and sleeping on the waves,” said Kress. “They can drink salt water and eat under waves too.  Young puffins are even more ocean going, spending at least the first two years of life on the water without ever stepping foot onto land.”

Studies continued with improved, smaller geolocation devices to rule out speculations that earlier models affected puffins’ breeding behavior and migration routes. Since 2010, 38 advanced geolocators were attached by Audubon researchers to leg bands on puffins from Matinicus Rock and Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. By March 2015, 19 of these trackers were recovered from returning puffins.

Data showed the birds travelled a northward distance in August to the western Gulf of St. Lawrence. The data also showed that as days shortened the puffins left the Gulf of St. Lawrence and headed south to the U.S. Continental Shelf-- well offshore from New York and New Jersey where they spent the rest of the winter on water—before arriving back to Maine’s islands by early April.

The areas most frequented by tagged puffins during the winter months are about 200 miles southeast of Cape Cod—including an area known as New England’s “coral canyons and seamounts.” This vast, largely unexplored area includes canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon, along with submerged seamounts noted for colorful corals, some as large as small trees. Puffins are likely attracted to the region because of the productive upwelling that offers abundant food-- the same conditions that favor whales, porpoise, tuna, sailfish and other seabirds.  Cashes Ledge, another underwater mountain range inside the Gulf of Maine, was also found to be popular with tracked puffins, as it is for whales and other sea-life.

Together, these locations have been proposed for designation as the first Atlantic marine national monument in the United States.  Kress hopes to recover more geolocators over the next year to help inform an international conservation plan. For more information and updates about Audubon’s ongoing efforts to help Atlantic Puffins, visit

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