One of my photography goals, when I was in Maine in June, was to photograph Atlantic Puffins. I had never seen a puffin, except in various media. They are very unusual, beautiful seabirds, and I was excited that I might have the opportunity to see and photograph them. In June, some Atlantic Puffins nest on several of Maine’s outer islands. Therefore, I knew my chances were good.
Puffins have predominantly black and white plumage, a stocky build, and large beaks. They shed the colorful outer parts of their bills after the breeding season, leaving a smaller and duller beak. Their short wings are adapted for swimming with a flying technique under water much like a penguin. In the air, they beat their wings rapidly (up to 400 times per minute) in swift flight, often flying low over the ocean’s surface at speeds reaching 55 MPH.
Puffins are pelagic seabirds, meaning that they remain at sea except during breeding season when they nest and raise their young. The female lays one egg per year, and both the male and female take turns with the egg and later the young puffin. Puffins nest in borrows within the rocky island cliffs.
Before leaving for Maine, I searched the Internet to locate the islands where the puffins nest, the accessibility of the islands, and availability of boats to take me to them. I was able to locate one charter company that was licensed to drop 16 people from its boat on Machias Seal Island to view and photograph the puffins from 4 blinds. Unfortunately, the boat was sold out. Determined to find a way to see some puffins, after arriving in Maine, I located a charter boat, operated by Buzzy Shinn, with a 26 foot boat that could take me and my wife to Petit Manaan Island. Petit Manan Island is a small island that is part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge and has over 140 pairs of nesting puffins.
Buzzy’s 26 foot boat, the Alyce K, was perfect for the trip, which was about 10 miles to Petit Manan from Milbridge, where Buzzy kept the Alyce K. Besides being a very experienced captain, Buzzy was an excellent “tour guide,” pointing out various sites along the way to include seals on one of the islands that we passed. Since we had the boat to ourselves, Buzzy circled the small island so that I could photograph the seals.
When we arrived at Petit Manan, we could see many puffins both in the water and on the cliffs along the shoreline. Unfortunately, we could not land on the island; therefore, Buzzy kept the boat as close as he could without disturbing the puffins and other seabirds. It turned out to be extremely challenging to photograph the puffins, because the Atlantic’s waves were causing the boat to pitch up and down and from side to side, while at the same time the puffins also were moving up and down. Fortunately, the Atlantic was fairly calm that day, and I was able to get some decent photographs, considering the conditions.
It was about 9:30 AM, when we arrived at Petit Manan Island, so the morning light was good and not too harsh. We stayed there for well over an hour watching and photographing the puffins. The below image is an example of how the waves hid the puffins, making photographing them difficult. They were in the camera’s viewfinder and then they were gone behind a wave.
Before leaving, Buzzy brought the boat in a bit closer, and I used my 600mm lens to photograph the puffins on the cliffs. There seemed to be as many puffins on the cliffs as there were in the water. This too was challenging because of the boat’s rocking up and down as I tried to focus on the puffins. Below are two of those images.
Puffins are hunted for their eggs, feathers and meat, and their populations have drastically declined due to habitat destruction and exploitation during the 19th century and early 20th century. Unfortunately, they continue to be hunted in Iceland where they are part of the national diet, and where the species does not have any legal protection. Puffins are hunted by a technique called “sky fishing,” which involves catching low-flying birds with a big net. Sad, but true.
Puffins were listed as threatened in Maine in 1997 because of their small population size and limited distribution. All nesting islands (Petit Manan Island, Matinicus Rock, Seal Island, and Eastern Egg Rock) are intensively managed for seabird restoration.
The National Audubon Society started a project called Project Puffin in 1973 to help restore the Atlantic Puffin population to the Gulf of Maine. You can read about Project Puffin at: http://projectpuffin.org/index.html. It is a very informative Website on puffins with live video cams of the nesting puffins.
As you can see from my photographs in this blog article, my goal of photographing the puffins was achieved. Even if I was not able to photograph the puffins, just seeing them in their natural habitat would have been success enough. I have more wildlife images, as well as photographs of some of Maine’s wild flowers that I will be posting soon. However, before I do, I will most likely post an article containing images of a pair of Osprey chicks that I have been photographing since returning from Maine. They have been growing fast and will most likely fledge next week.