Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Everything is Auk-ward: a puffin tour

Wildlife stories from a vacation in Maine – part 1

If you ever visit Maine and take a tour (via a former lobster boat) around an island where puffins breed—and you should—you might be interested in the following.

Puffins are part of the Alcid, or auk, family of sea birds, which includes species like razorbills, murres, and guillemots. (These are all, to my mind, birds that look as if they should be flightless but aren’t.)

The guillemots are the least obvious of the auk-ish birds you’ll encounter. Sleek and dapper in their smooth black plumage with white patches on the wings, they look a lot like little ducks. Like their relatives, however, guillemots use their wings to swim when they dive, and they can remain underwater for over two minutes.

As you near Seal Island (site of Audubon’s Project Puffin conservation work), you may also see razorbills, handsome birds that look halfway between a puffin and a penguin, sporting thick black beaks striped—with art-deco elegance—with thin lines of white. Razorbills nest on the island along with puffins and terns (Arctic and common).

You might also see “common” murres (a misnomer on this part of the east coast), who visit the island but don’t nest there. Murres—with their thin black beaks, short legs, and straight posture—could easily pass for penguins, except that they too can fly.

And, of course, you’ll see puffins, those charming harlequins with their clown-make-up looks and brightly colored beaks (the latter only present during breeding season—who knew?).

Puffins have been forced to strike a fine physical balance between their need to fly from enemies (and thus remain rather small, with capable wings) and fly in the sea (and thus develop a cold-protective layer of chunkiness and the short wings they need for movement in water). As a result, they look adorable.

They also look really determined in flight, pumping their little wings at what seems to be exhausting speeds in order to get, and remain, airborne.

Thanks to conservation efforts—and humans no longer rampantly slaughtering them—puffin populations along the northeast coast have increased—but they’re still threatened by a variety of factors, including several that are caused (or at least exacerbated) by humans.

Global-warming-affected changes in water salinity and temperature may be affecting the abundance of the slim fish puffins need to feed their chicks. Warmer-water species like sunfish—which have become more abundant in Maine in recent years—are too fat for chicks to swallow. This can lead to awful situations where adults gather plenty of food for their young but the chicks still die of starvation.

There are other dangers, too, including black-backed gulls that prey on the chicks. That’s where the other nesting species on Seal Island comes in handy.

There are around 2,000 breeding pairs of terns (common and Arctic) on Seal Island, and they do not take kindly to threats towards their chicks. Potential attackers are mobbed and dive-bombed until they flee. –Or, in the case of the six researchers staying on the island for the summer, until they attach headbands with wobbly antennae to their hats in the hopes the terns will go for the highest point and stop drawing blood from their scalps.

Only the researchers are allowed on the island, but that’s not so bad, given the hat situation and the fact that the island was the site of army testing, meaning there are meadows you can’t walk in for fear of being blown up.

Better to enjoy the bracing sea breeze, the high, peeping calls of the terns, the only occasionally nauseating roll of the boat over swells, and the chance to view these amazing sea birds as they—we hope—raise a healthy new generation of air-and-sea dwellers.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

1 comment:

Anca said...

I'm keeping fingers crossed for a good breeding season for all these lovely seabirds, whose habitat we have so trashed and whose lives we continually endanger. Great photos and commentary!

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