“Have you ever seen a puffin?” was the first thing we heard as we headed out to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, on the east coast of Newfoundland 30 minutes out of the capital of St Johns.
We were aboard the O’Brien tour boat “The Puffin”, (aptly named) on a 2 hour tour, which took us past a mother Humpback whale and her calf as well as 2 Fin whales and literarily thousands of circling and diving birds. This was already an amazing sight before we pulled up to Gull Island, the largest in a group of islands in the reserve.
What a spectacle! There were over 260,000 puffins nesting on this island. “Puffins-ville” is prime puffin real estate. It is predator free, (well almost, the gulls and skuas keep trying their luck!), it is on a cliffside; has a covering of topsoil so they can tunnel a nest; and it’s close to the sea so they can launch off easily to go fishing for capelin, a local fish which is their main diet. And launch off they do, by the thousands and we spent a happy hour watching these guys whizzing about, fishing and returning home to feed junior.
Puffins lay one egg per pair and the fledgeling, after about six weeks, simply steps out of the nest one evening, (less predators), and half flies, half falls into the ocean, where it then paddles like crazy out to sea – they’ve been found 3km away the following morning! That’s it, no tearful goodbyes as junior heads out to the ocean for 2 – 3 solitary years before returning as a mature adult, to mate and presumably finally socialize.
Puffins live in these colonies from late spring until fall, when they head out to open sea. On the ground, Puffins look very cute and almost comical as they stand in little groups, looking like a bunch of puppets in a children’s story!
But these are seriously tough little birds. Throughout the winter on the frigid North Atlantic ocean, they live a solitary life, bobbing like little corks in the waves, preening constantly to keep the outer feathers well-oiled and diving up to 200ft for fish. According to researchers who study them, they remain toasty warm with perfectly dry down feathers, so don’t worry, they’re all over it, thanks to several millennia of evolution!
Puffins are not alone on gull island, there are thousands of Common and Thick-Lipped Murre, Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots and various gulls. I could write about any of them, but really the puffins steal the show. They are a delight to watch!
A wonderful experience. Whale watching alone was worth the ticket, but for bird lovers? Well, “Have you ever seen a puffin?”