Tourists flock here and hop on tour boats in hopes of catching a glimpse of whales migrating off the Maine Coast. But, for several months in the summer, puffins —nicknamed the clowns of the sea — also entertain whale watchers.
“One of the funny ways I like to describe them: imagine a Nerf football with wings; that’s what a puffin looks like flying through the air,” says Angi King-Johnston, senior naturalist at Bar Harbor Whale Watch.
Departing from Bar Harbor’s town pier (1 West St.), Bar Harbor Whale Watch runs whale and puffin tours from late May through mid-August. The ships venture about seven miles farther east to Petit Manan Island, where a puffins return every year to breed. Along the way, the vessels pass through whale-feeding grounds.
The Atlantic puffin, the smallest of three species, spends its life offshore in the northern and mid-Atlantic Ocean. Like some Mainers, they head south to balmier climes and winter far off New Jersey and New York. Two other species, tufted and horned puffins, live off the West Coast.
Atlantic puffins are about 10 inches tall and weigh as much as a soda can, according to King-Johnston.
The squat birds will humorously belly flop or crash into a cresting wave when flying over the water’s surface. Despite their clumsiness, the tuxedoed seabirds are deceptively athletic, reaching speeds of up to 50 miles per hour and diving down as much as 200 feet below the surface.
Puffins’ distinctive orange bill, often likened to a clown’s red nose, is equipped with barbs enabling them to carry fish to their mates and chicks. Puffins have been photographed with about six or more fish hanging out of their bills.
Zack Klyver, head naturalist at Bar Harbor Whale Watch, said seabirds often excite people as much as the marine mammals usually seen whale-watching.
“There are a lot of people that are passionate about seeing puffins, but they are surprised by the variety of the birds that are there [with them,]” he notes.
Arctic terns are among them. They undergo one of the longest migrations, averaging about 40,000 miles round-trip. Klyver said the seabirds’ great endurance impresses passengers.
“For people to realize that these birds are out here and spend their whole lives at sea, having to survive storms.” he said. “Seabirds are remarkable in that they live an environment that covers 71 percent of the Earth,”
Petit Manan Island, a 16-acre island, boasts 58 pairs of mating puffins. It is home to other bird species including wider, terns, razorbills and guillemots, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Last year, 93 percent of Petit Manan’s puffin pairs produced a chick. While that percentage seems promising, actual numbers of breeding pairs are trending down. In 2009, 109 pairs were recorded on the island, dropping to 54 in 2016, before the slight jump of four in 2017.
Linda Welch, a biologist at Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, said that a harsh winter like this past one could have damaged nesting burrows.
“If you have a bad winter, you could see a lot of burrow loss.” Welch said. “We’ve been experimenting with artificial burrows and trying to create additional nesting habitats for them.”
Welch said she has not surveyed the island to see if artificial nests will be needed this year.
Predators are usually larger seabirds like seagulls. Petit Manan attracts some unique ones.
“We’ve had ravens coming in and taking eggs,” Welch said. “We’ve had puffins taken by peregrine falcons too.”
Atlantic puffins spend nine months of the year roaming at sea, only using rocky islands and coastlines for breeding between May and August. They nest by burrowing down into soft soil between boulders.
Puffins lay one egg per breeding season. They often breed with the same partner for life. While that seems romantic, their attraction is more to the nest’s sustainability than to their mate.
“They’re not attracted to each other, they’re attracted to the successful nest,” King-Johnston said. “As long as that nest is successful and producing young, the same male and female will come back to it year after year.”
Steve Kress, executive director of the Seabird Restoration Program for the National Audubon Society, led an initiative called Project Puffin in which puffins were re-colonized on Eastern Egg Rock, off the mid-Maine coastal town of St. George.
“It was a long-shot project that looked like it was likely to work or it was misspent funds for a species that was lost and not technically an endangered species,” Kress recalled.
The project, run from 1973-1982, involved hand-rearing thousands of puffin chicks and transporting them to Eastern Egg Rock. They also brought puffin chicks to Machias Seal Island along the Canadian border.
After four pairs started the colony, the population steadily grew. Last year, 172 pairs were reported, an increase of 22, compared to 2016.
Kress said colonizing habitats like Eastern Egg Rock and Machias Seal Island could spur population growth at islands between the two — like Petit Manan.
Kress said the biggest problem now is climate change and how it changes the habitats and available food for puffins.
“They have a likelihood to return to where they hatch,” he said. “The more puffins are fledging in the Gulf of Maine the more likely the colonies there will grow and the more likely they will colonize new islands.”