June 25th, 2019

While on our trip to Harpswell Maine, my wife Kathy and I decided to take the opportunity and take a scenic cruise with a company based out of Boothbay Harbor, Cap’n Fish’s, to go check out some puffins.  As most know, birds are our favorite and having the chance to view and photograph puffins is an opportunity we could not pass up.

What Are Puffins…?

Puffin Floating in the Water

If you don’t know much about puffins, they are a very unique and interesting bird.  First, they are not as big as most people realize.  They are only about 10-12 inches long, smaller than most species of ducks.  They have black and white feathers and a large parrot-like beak, why they are nicknamed “sea parrots”.  Puffins spend most of their lives at sea, resting on waves when not swimming.  Their range spans from the eastern coast of Canada and the U.S. to the western coast of Europe.  During the winter months, a puffins beak is a dull grey in color, but in the spring it blooms to a deep orange, believed to help puffins assess potential mates.  Puffins are carnivores, feeding mostly on small fish like herring, hake and sand eels.  Puffins are great flyers, looking almost like big bumble bees in the air.  They flap their wings up to 400 times a minute and can speed through the air at over 50 miles per hour.  They are also great swimmers using their webbed feet as rudders as they dive down more than 200 feet in search of their favorite fish.  During the warmer months of the year, thousands of puffins gather in colonies on the coasts of islands of the North Atlantic Ocean to breed.  They usually pair up with the same parter from years past, some partnering for 20 years or more.  Using their sharp claws and beak, they burrow into grassy banks or rocky crevices to create their nests, lined with feathers and grass, to start a family.  After the female lays her egg, both parents take turns incubating the egg for the next 36-45 days before a baby puffin hatches.  In the wild, puffins live around 20 years with gulls being the main predator.  Gulls can swoop down and snatch puffins from mid-air or from the ground.  An alert puffin is a safer puffin.  Puffins are not classified as an endangered species, but their numbers are declining.

Eastern Egg Rock Island

A Group of Female Common Eiders

EER is the closest puffin colony to the continental United States, and is the world’s first restored puffin colony.  EER is a 7-acre island located in outer Muscongus Bay, 6 miles east of New Harbor Maine.  The island is primarily granite rock with dense pastures of grass, raspberry and elderberry, fertilized annually by the birds.  The island is owned by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and is managed by the National Audubon Society.

During the 19th century, this island was home to a puffin colony, but over years of fisherman using the island for much needed meet supplies (eggs and fish), the puffins were pushed from the island and by 1900, all gone.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s when an effort to reestablished the colony, headed by Steve Kress, was started.  Prior to starting the puffin re-colonization process, the existing black-backed and hearing seagull colonies on EER had to be removed as these birds are the puffins primary predators.  To start the puffin colony reestablishment, close to one thousand baby puffins were brought in from Newfoundland over the next few years and were raised by researchers and Cornell graduate students on the island.  Knowing that puffins return to the place of their hatching to nest and raise a family, the researchers plan was to raise these chicks with the hopes they would return years later.  It took great effort and time, but in 1981 the first mating pairs of puffins returned to the island to nest, 5 mating pairs the first year.  As of 2017, nearly 200 mating pairs of puffins nested on Eastern Egg Rock island.  This exercise in reestablishing the lost puffin colony was so successful, the practice has been used world wide to reestablish other bird colonies successfully.

The Puffin Cruise

Using Cap’n Fish’s Audubon Puffin and Scenic Cruises, Kathy and I rode on the cruise ship, Pink Lady II to go out to Eastern Egg Rock island to see the puffins for our first time.  The weather was great and the 30 minute ride out to the island was a nice one.  Since this was an Audubon sponsored cruise, we had two Audubon employees along for the ride to fill us in on puffin facts.  We had a very scenic ride through Muscongus Bay, getting to see 3 lighthouses and many sailing ships.  I had my “big” lens with me and a monopod, to help stabilize the camera and lens.  My plan (and hopes) were to have several opportunities to capture those cute, fat little birds on the rocks, in the water and in the air.  Of all the other passengers, there was one other photographer on board that also had a camera setup similar to mine.

When we arrived at the island, I immediately headed down to the bow of the boat to setup and start trying to capture some puffin images.  Not long after I setup, I found that taking pictures of fast, little birds while on a large, moving ship in semi-heavy seas is far more difficult than I anticipated.  Trying to follow and capture images of these cute little guys on a ship that is constantly listing back and forth was hard, really hard.  In the end, after making two quick trips around the island, I found that I was unable to capture nearly as many images as I had hoped.  Nonetheless, frustration aside, I did really enjoy the experience, learned a lot and have a true appreciation for these birds and more so, the people that are behind establishing this new colony and the people that help maintain it to this day.  If we ever make our way back up to Maine, we are definitely getting out to see these great little birds again, maybe next time on our on personal charter.