Saturday, October 16, 2021

At this time every year I think about the Puffins

Puffins gathering. Photos by Carol Kinkead

Puffins gathering. Photos by Carol Kinkead

by Carol Kinkead

My Husband Jim and I love the coast of Maine and we have vacationed there many times. I had a feeling that we really should go to see the puffins for ourselves, instead of just reading about them, so off we went to Cutler, Maine, which is just about as far north as you can go without going into Canada.

To understand the puffins and why I think of them in January one must visit their summertime playground fifteen miles out in the Bay of Fundy, and then contrast it with their winter time haunt – the bitter cold water of the Atlantic Ocean. We rounded up the best captain in Cutler and made our way to his boat dock one very foggy day in June. No one dishes up pea soup fog like the down home Mainers. I was sure that we would not be able to make the trip to Machias Seal Island due to the inability to see a hand in front of your face. Our Captain told us not to fret as they go out in all kinds of weather, and fog is the least of his worries, having great navigational aids and all.

Now I know a thing or two about the kind of boat he had, a Maine ‘Lobsta’ boat. In my days of teaching scuba diving the students were taken out to the dive spot on a lobster boat, useful because of its broad rear deck which was used as a portable diving platform. I was told early on in my diving experience that these boats “will scare ya to death before they kill ya”. My scuba diving days held me in good stead so I didn’t bother to worry.

Back to the puffins. We steered against an incoming tide, no mean feat in that notorious Bay. After a 45 minute trip we were at the island and could hear the puffins whooshing around us as we approached. They are not shy and will come up to the boat to greet their visitors. They don’t stay long because they have a reason to be in the water, and that is fishing for dinner for their young.

Machias Seal Island is owned by the Canadian Government which maintains the island year round. In the summer months there are scientists and researchers on the island as well as those who maintain and keep the lighthouse working. Visitors come and go one boat load at a time so as not to unduly disturb the puffins and auks, just about the only two species of birds in residence. We were asked to stay together as a group, and then we divided up into smaller groups of four to go to the blinds. A blind is a small wooden



house with many small windows covered up by wooden shutters and the idea is to open a shutter for viewing the birds, and then shut them again, very quietly. We had ample time to take many photographs and observe these unique birds in their own habitat.

Machias Seal Island looks to a first time observer like a man made collection of huge granite boulders thrown up on top of a grassy spot in the sea. It is actually entirely natural – not one boulder has been moved with modern machinery. So the puffins and auks take advantage of this little bit of island paradise preserved for them.

Four thousand puffins and two thousand auks were counted last season.

The puffins arrive on May 15, mate and produce their young, feed them and then by August 15, they have all departed for the north Atlantic water for the rest of the year.

If you have never seen a puffin you haven’t lived (as the Mainers say). They have unique bills, brightly colored and shaped by nature to suggest a clownish demeanor. They present a calm, serene presence but these small birds are the hardiest of sea birds. Nine months in the cold north Atlantic water is a rather harsh life.

Year after year the puffins return to the same island, and to the same nest. How they can pick out their spot in such a jumble of granite blocks is mindboggling. Most of the birds have been tagged and their data is monitored carefully by their island caretakers.

These wonderful birds arrive at Machias Seal Island to mate and nurture their young all in a three month period. The parents take turns on the surrounding water catching small fish. They return to the nest, beaks full of food and feed the young. This goes on until the young puffins are ready to fledge and go about feeding on their own. The parents literally stop feeding them so the small ones will be ready for the rigors of being on their own in the coming, now fast approaching, cold, harsh months on the open Atlantic Ocean.

Our trip ended as we made our way to St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, a very small Canadian town which sits directly on the Bay of Fundy. The bay is considered a tidal bore, a phenomenon which causes the incoming tides to form a wave as it pushes its way into a narrow river. This causes the Bay to have the highest and lowest tides in the world, a range of about 36 feet. 100 Billion tons of water flow into and out of the Bay twice a day. Jim and I agree it was a unique trip, as it had all of the components we look for: adventure, nature, good food and lodging and magnificent views and lots of opportunity for pictures. Why not see for yourself!

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