I have good news and bad news. The good news is that our boat was able to make the trip to the Atlantic puffin colony on Machias Island Friday morning. And I was on it.
The bad news is that with ocean swells running at 4-6 feet, Captain Peter Wilcox did not attempt a landing. So we contented ourselves with viewing these iconic birds from an offshore vantage point aboard the boat. Some passengers voiced disappointment, but, since I had been to Machias previously, and had been able to land for some really up-close viewing, and already have a hard drive groaning under a semi-trailer full of puffin photos and videos, I was OK with that. And if any of you are questioning why I would bother to go out there again with so many images already in the bank — a legitimate question to be sure — I would answer by simply asking, in turn, “well, you had breakfast yesterday, and you had breakfast the day before, so why are you bothering to have breakfast again today?” Some of us need Cheerios. Some of us need puffins.
Staying offshore also allowed me to experiment with trying to photograph these birds in flight — a challenge, since they are very fast and quite small and the boat was under constant motion. I used all the technical help my camera could give me — (for photographic nerds: +/- 1/8,000 of a second shutter speed, f6.3, 24 frames a second shutter bursts, AI servo to continuously track and focus on moving objects, ISO set at 1600, and a 400 mm lens with 2-stops image stabilization).
Other birds of the island
The puffins share the island with other pelagic species such as razorbills,common murres and common terns.
Puffins in Peril?
Earlier this year I had read an article that Atlantic puffins had suffered a disastrous chick mortality rate in 2012 and last year: only 31 per cent of chicks survived. So I was particularly interested in observing at first hand how they were doing this year. The reason for the decline? Apparently their food supply, mainly herring, had disappeared from the area, moving further north, and the puffins were trying to feed their chicks butterfish as a substitute, but these are a larger and rounder fish, too big for the chicks to eat. So they starved to death. More on the story here. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/apnewsbreak-atlantic-puffins-peril-us .
I asked The Day’s Catch First Mate Durtan Ingersoll what the situation was like this year. He said that he hadn’t seen butterfish around at all and the herring were plentiful, so things seem to be back to normal. Let’s count this as preliminary field data. University of New Brunswick grad students, stationed on the island this summer, will undoubtedly provide more precise data as the fledgeling season advances.
Certainly the birds were flying and swimming around Machias Island by the thousands.
Crazy for a Tufted Puffin
The birding community has been all a twitter (sorry!) this year after a tufted puffin was spotted on Machias Island, the first sighting in the Atlantic since 1830. The tufted puffin is common in the Pacific Ocean, and ornithologists have been scratching their heads over how one could have possibly made it all the way over here, given that it would have had to feed along the way. There are suggestions that the newly ice-free North-West passage might have provided the means.
Meanwhile, every birder with a life list to complete and a bag of seasick pills is heading to Machias this summer.
By now, a question may be beginning to form in that grey matter of yours: “JD, did you see the rare and wonderful tufted puffin yourself, with your very own eyes?” And my answer to you would be, “Of course I did!” It was very distant (probably 250-300 meters), standing on a rock outcrop on the south end of the island, and definitely distinct from its Atlantic cousins.
More on the story at http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/tufted-puffin-seen-on-atlantic-coast-for-1st-time-since-1830s-1.2680540
An international dispute
It turns out ownership of Machias island is a matter of some dispute between Canada and the United States. In the settlement after the war of 1812, Grand Manan “and its outer islands” were ceded to Britain. Unfortunately, the outer islands were unamed in the treaty, leaving an ambiguity big enough to drive a conflict through. Both nations lay claim to the island, but perhaps Canada has the upper hand by virtue of the fact that it has had a manned lighthouse on it for years, and a Canadian flag fluttering in the Atlantic breeze. .
Land of the Grey Seals
On the return voyage from Machias, we passed to the starboard of a small rocky island populated by dozens of grey seals. Apparently on this outcrop, the higher you perch, the more clout you have, a bit like the General Motors organization chart.
Next, it’s back to the mainland, and the drive up New Brunswick towards the Gaspé Peninsula.