Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Puffins! Seeing the three species

Horned Puffin

The natural world is rich beyond our wildest imaginings—so much so that the greatest, most well-traveled naturalists in the world could never experience more than a fraction of the different species of plants and animals that live on this planet. Schools are woefully inadequate at teaching children about even the most abundant plants and animals living right in their own state or town. So I’m happy when someone knows what puffins are without confusing them with completely unrelated penguins.  

New York City Subway Art: Central Park Zoo stop

Puffins and penguins are polar opposites, geographically speaking, though penguins range much further from the Antarctic Circle than puffins do from the Arctic Circle—indeed, the Gal├ípagos Penguin nests north of the Equator, while the furthest south any puffin ranged historically was the Tufted Puffin nesting on the Channel Islands at about 34┬║ latitude. Sadly, the last confirmed report from the Channel Islands was in 1997. 

Like penguins, puffins spend every moment of their lives at sea except during their nesting season. Two countries on earth get to enjoy all three puffin species—Canada and the United States. No country is home to all 17 or so species of penguins. 

Tufted Puffin

The Tufted Puffin is the largest of the three and the one most closely resembling penguins, at least crested penguins such as rockhoppers. Tufted Puffins are pretty easy to see swimming in coastal waters in late summer. On this side of the Pacific, they breed on offshore islands and rocky shoreline cliffs from Alaska through central California. I saw my lifer from a fishing boat off the coast of Newport, Oregon in August 1979; Russ and I saw plenty on our Inside Passage cruise in August 2001; and I saw them on two Shearwater Adventures pelagic trips in California in September 2013 and 2019. But my best viewing ever was on the 8 1/2 hour boat trip from Seward, Alaska, into the Kenai Fjords this year. 

Horned Puffin

Horned Puffins, which nest only in the far north and spend most of their lives pretty far offshore, were much harder to come by. I saw my lifers, the only two Horned Puffin I ever saw until this year’s Alaska trip, near the end of our Inside Passage cruise after spending hours every day scrutinizing every bird I could see swimming, flying, or sitting on cliffs offshore. I saw them this year in Nome, but aways at a distance, flying. My best views were from the boat out of Seward to Kenai Fjords. 

Atlantic Puffin

I saw my lifer Atlantic Puffin in 1993 when Russ and I brought our children to Machias Seal Island in Maine. That splendidly remote island, where puffins, Razorbills, and Common Murres nest in big numbers, is the site of a Canadian Coast Guard station, even though the United States claims the island belongs to us. Since no people live on it and no oil or precious metals have, at least so far, been found on it, the United States and Canada have not come to blows over ownership. 

All of us (except Russ, taking the photo) with the captains, Barna and John Norton, after our trip to Machias Seal Island

Piggy and Tommy looking out the blind at the puffins and razorbills on Machias Seal Island

Nowadays, a boat from the Bold Coast Charter Company, bearing a U.S. flag, travels from Cutler Harbor in Maine to Machias Seal Island once a day from the very end of May through early August, during the brief time of year that puffins are nesting. 

Our boat, with the captain about to bring the last group of birders to the island.

The boat takes 45 minutes to an hour to travel to the island. When sea conditions allow a safe landing, passengers get to go onto the island, staying in very restricted areas and narrow walkways to observation blinds to see these stunning birds up close and personal. The number of participants and the walking routes and blinds are tightly regulated to protect the birds. The rest of the year, the puffins are all out at sea. 

I’ve got a bazillion photos of Atlantic Puffins, some from slides we took in 1993 and some from boat trips when I was an instructor on Audubon’s Hog Island in Maine, but the best are from my Big Year when I took that Bold Coast boat trip to Machias Seal Island. Conditions were perfect that day. I doubt I’ll ever have such amazing conditions for photographing the two western puffins, and only got a few good photos of both of them on this year’s trip, but that was plenty good enough for me.

Horned Puffin

Tufted Puffin

Atlantic Puffin

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Puffins! Distinctive Adaptations

Atlantic Puffin

Puffins are distinctive thanks to several physical features critical to their fish-eating lifestyle. 

Atlantic Puffin

All three species of puffins have about the smallest wings possible for keeping their round little bodies aloft. They must flap them very rapidly to stay airborne. Those tiny wings, powered by thick, myoglobin-rich pectoral muscles, can also beat rapidly through water. Unlike loons, puffins use those powerful wings to propel themselves underwater, chasing down lots of tiny fish in a single dive. Those thick pectoral muscles contribute to the puffin’s thick, round shape.  

Atlantic Puffin

Except when bringing food to the nest, puffins catch one fish at a time and eat it underwater. Parents probably eat one or two fish underwater before gathering a number more to bring back to the nest, but that's usually impossible to observe. That is why so very much more is understood about the diets of nestling puffins than adults.  

During nesting, puffins travel back and forth between where fish are plentiful and their burrow. They fish near their nest colony when suitable prey is plentiful right there but, when fishing is better further away, they may travel 60 miles or more from the nest. They can’t afford to waste more time and energy commuting than necessary, so in addition to specializing on small schooling fish, puffins have important physical adaptations for carrying as many as possible on each trip. The tongue and the roof of the mouth both bear inward-facing spines. 

Atlantic Puffin

The moment a puffin grabs one fish, the quick-acting tongue tip instantly pulls it as far back as possible, holding the fish fast between the roof of the mouth and the surface of the muscular, spiny tongue. The bill itself isn’t involved in holding the fish, so the bird can instantly open it to grab another, and another, as the busy tongue tip keeps pulling each one up and back. Puffins are often photographed carrying a dozen fish or more to their nest burrows. The record is an amazing 61 fish brought to the nest in a single trip by one Atlantic Puffin. 

Puffin (Fratercula arctica) with lesser sand eels (Ammodytes tobianus)
Atlantic Puffin carrying lesser sand eels. I wish I'd taken this photo! It was taken by Charles J. Sharp
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To carry more than a few fish at a time depends on another critical feature—that colorful circle at the corner of the beak. 

Atlantic Puffin

If you think about high school geometry, most bird bills open at a simple angle, the corner of the bill forming a sharp vertex. But the corner of a puffin bill is stretchy and flexible, allowing the upper and lower bills to stay parallel even when held fairly far apart, so a lot of fish can be held securely along the entire length without fish near the gape getting sliced into.  

Atlantic Puffin

The one important constraint of this method of fishing is that puffins are designed for catching and carrying small schooling fish, such as herring, hake, sand-lance, capelin, and arctic cod. The combination of overfishing and warming seas has drastically changed northern fish populations. When not enough tiny fish are available, puffins may bring to the nest fish too large for chicks to swallow, leading to the chicks starving even with plenty of food right in front of them—a horrifying tragedy. Puffins deserve so much better. 

Atlantic Puffin

Puffins! A little history

Horned Puffin 

When Russ and I were in Alaska, if I’d been limited to seeing and photographing just one species of bird, I’d have picked the Horned Puffin—one of the most treasured birds on my life list yet one of the few that I’d never photographed. Indeed, before this trip I’d seen only one in my life, at the northern end of Alaska’s Inside Passage in 2001. I was also hoping for good Tufted Puffin photos—I’d seen lots of them on that Inside Passage trip, and also on a couple of pelagic boat trips off California and once from a fishing boat out of Newport, Oregon, but had very few photos, hardly any of them good. 

Tufted Puffin

Oddly enough, I have over a thousand photos of Atlantic Puffins from boat trips off the Maine coast, including hundreds of excellent close-ups from a couple of hours in an observation blind on Machias Seal Island during my Big Year in 2013.   

Atlantic Puffin

In all the world, there are only three species of puffins. They belong to the genus Fratercula, a word that comes from Medieval Latin for friar or monk. Some believe the generic name was given because flying puffins draw their feet together as if in prayer, but the predominant theory is that their black-and-white plumage reminded someone of the monastic robes worn by friars. Either way, I find it bewildering that anyone would think of a somber-garbed, celibate monk when naming birds with such extraordinarily jolly and colorful faces who mate right out there in open water and on their colonial nesting grounds in full view of other seabirds and ornithologists. Two common nicknames, the “clown of the sea” and “sea parrot,” could have provided more understandable roots for puffins' genus name.  

Atlantic Puffin

It’s true that only adults wear this spectacular plumage, and only during the few months of the year that they’re courting and nesting; their faces grow much duskier, they shed the large, colorful plate at the base of the bill, and the bright orange bill tip, legs, and feet grow duller after they leave the breeding islands for the open ocean when their young no longer need them. 

Young Tufted Puffin
Immature Tufted Puffin. Non-breeding adults are a little brighter, but not much.

But puffins, especially Atlantic and Horned Puffins, are seldom seen except during that short breeding season. The rest of the year they are too dispersed and too far out at sea for much observation. The people who first named them were much more familiar with breeding than non-breeding adults, so you'd think they'd have chosen something more apt.

Atlantic Puffin

I like to pretend that the English word puffin, which sounds like "puffy," reflects the birds’ adorable plumpness, but it has a much more sinister derivation. An unrelated seabird, the Manx Shearwater, holds the scientific name Puffinus puffinus, which comes from Middle English for the delicious, fatty meat of the defenseless nestlings, which for centuries were snatched out of their burrows by the thousands in Ireland, Scotland, the Scottish islands, and the Isle of Man. Puffins were given their vernacular name because their nestlings are equally plump and defenseless. Fortunately, Iceland is the only country in the world where puffins are still legally hunted.  

Atlantic Puffin

The only puffin found on the Atlantic is, appropriately, called the Atlantic Puffin. The two on the Pacific are the Horned and Tufted Puffins. Some taxonomists believe that Tufted Puffins are more closely related to Rhinoceros Auklets than to the other two puffins.

Rhinoceros Auklet
Rhinoceros Auklet

These ornithologists place Tufted Puffins in a monotypic genus, Lunda, but the American Ornithological Society is still keeping Tufted Puffins in Fratercula.

Audubon painted all three puffins in his Birds of America, but he saw just one species in life, the Atlantic Puffin, during his 1833 journey to Labrador. 

He used specimens from Britain’s acclaimed ornithologist John Gould to paint his Horned Puffins in 1834 or 1835. 

He wrote of his Tufted Puffin painting that a hunter had shot his specimen at the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine in the winter of 1831-32. 


Scientists have long questioned the accuracy of that claim, but this year a Tufted Puffin turned up in a few spots in Maine, making Audubon’s account more believable.

Next time I'll cover the unique adaptations that make puffins so wonderfully distinctive. 

Saturday, August 13, 2022

August: the month of tiny treasures

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm

Every year as March folds into April and winter feels more and more endless, I start yearning for hummingbirds. Usually I’m sufficiently realistic, or resigned, to leave my hummingbird feeders packed away until May, but this year I jumped the gun in April because of the Rufous Hummingbird that turned up in my yard last November and remained until December 4. But like every one of the years I’ve lived here, not a single April hummer turned up, and my first Ruby-throat of the year appeared right on schedule, on May 10. 

As thrilled as I am to see the first hummingbird, a whole lot of other birds appear at that exact same time every spring. Warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers, and a host of other new arrivals divert my attention. I can count on daily hummingbirds through the rest of May into September, and of course I’m delighted to see each one—how could I not be? But I'm afraid I take them pretty much in stride. 

Well, I take them in stride up until August. By then, both local adult males and migrating ones from further north are everywhere, along with increasing numbers of local fledglings growing independent, and suddenly the air around feeders and hummingbird gardens is electric with hummingbird activity. At the exact same time, bee balm and jewelweed are in full bloom, both depending on this huge wave of hummingbirds for pollination. August is the month to photograph hummingbirds up here, when so many are visiting these colorful flowers.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm

This year, I’m spending just about every weekday babysitting another tiny treasure, my grandson Walter. His birthday is in August, which has thus evolved into both my month of hummingbirds and my month of Walter magic. The previous owner of Walter's house planted a wonderful stand of bee balm in the front yard. It's on the west side of the house, so it’s shaded all morning but comes into ideal light for photography right at Walter’s nap time. That’s where I’ve been spending my time while Walter is asleep.


Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm
Notice the tiny flecks of pollen on this bird's head and the base of the bill.

Hummingbirds are extraordinarily territorial. One adult female has claimed ownership over every one of those bee balm plants and goes ballistic whenever another hummingbird shows up. When not feeding there or somewhere in the backyard, she perches in a birch tree where she can make sure no other hummingbirds dare visit. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird resting in birch

Unfortunately, she does not approve of paparazzi, so if I don’t already have my camera up and my eye behind it when she arrives in the bee balm, the moment I move into position to take a photo, off she goes. 

I do have some nice photos of her from when I’m ready and don't have to move when she flies in, and I have some even better photos of a second hummingbird who doesn’t seem to care at all if I’m moving about right near her. Unfortunately, I don’t have too many photos of her because she gets driven off the moment the other female notices, so I can only photograph her during the first female's brief forays to the backyard. And even more unfortunately, I can’t tell the two birds apart in the photos except when the "owner" is in the birch tree—it’s only their behavior in reaction to me and my camera that distinguishes them in the bee balm.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at bee balm

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm 

I haven’t seen any adult males at the bee balm. I’ve watched male Ruby-throats take on birds as large as Bald Eagles, but they’re intimidated by the slightly larger females. So I haven’t had a chance to get any photos of a male at Walter's bee balm, and soon those adult males will be gone for the year. (Young birds and adult females stick around weeks longer.)

Walter and Chuckie Chickadee

Walter has seen hummingbirds hovering at the window where the house’s previous owner used to have a feeder. He’s SO delighted to see these sprites, even tinier than the chickadees he loves so much. Walter's most thrilling encounter with hummingbirds was last week when he came to our house for dinner. He and I were on the front porch when a female flew to my feeder, a few feet from us. Walter has an adorable habit of waving and saying “hi” to animals, and he said "hi" over and over to this tiny creature who hovered, wings buzzing, and looked straight at him. A palpable magic filled the air between this tiny bird’s sparkling eyes and those of my entranced little grandson. (My son-in-law made a recording of Walter saying "hi" last week, and I mixed it with buzzing hummingbirds to make this approximation of the audio.)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm

There is so much magic that deserves nurturing and preserving on this Earth we all share. Why is it so easy to forget and to take this incredible planet for granted?

Discovering milkweed

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Alaska, Part 11: Winding Down and the End of the Road

Moose cow and twin calves

On June 23, the day after our final full day of birding in Alaska (that amazing boat trip through some of Kenai Fjords National Park) our group spent a few hours birding in Seward before driving back to Anchorage. We started out at a wetlands where we said goodbye to Trumpeter Swans, Wilson's Snipe, and Short-billed and Glaucous-winged Gulls. 

Wilson's Snipe

We stopped by the feeder where we’d seen sooty Fox Sparrows and a very uncooperative Rufous Hummingbird two days before. We saw the sparrows again, but this time the hummingbird was even less cooperative. We were still missing a few species like Pacific Wren, so we walked through a lovely wooded neighborhood. No luck on the wren, but we did see another Townsend’s Warbler...

Townsend's Warbler

... added Brown Creeper and Pine Grosbeak for the trip, and watched an extremely cooperative mother moose with twin calves. 

Moose cow and twin calves

Moose cow and twin calves

We also stopped where we’d seen the American Dipper on the 21st. Despite very poor lighting, we were close enough that I got my best dipper photos ever. 

American Dipper

American Dipper

We went back to the hotel to pack everything, stopped for lunch, and got on the road again, making few stops en route to Anchorage. We had time for showers and some packing before our last dinner and checklist compilation together. One member of our group flew home that night. Our guides and most of our group were flying out first thing in the morning, but Russ and I would be lingering to take an evening flight. 

NXQH4404.jpg

That gave us plenty of time for leisurely birding on the 24th. After breakfast, we took a nice little path behind the hotel that Erik Bruhnke had told us about. We didn’t see anything new but watched a singing Alder Flycatcher and Orange-crowned Warbler...

Alder Flycatcher

Orange-crowned Warbler

...and more of the ubiquitous White-crowned Sparrows. 

White-crowned Sparrow

We also came upon a Black-billed Magpie in stunning plumage. I had excellent light and clicked photo after photo before realizing the poor thing was missing almost its entire upper bill. It looked like either a congenital deformity or an old injury. 

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie

I watched it capturing some insects on the ground using its tongue to compensate for the missing bill. I don’t know how it was managing to keep its feathers in such pristine order, but I presume its tongue played a role in that, too. I felt sad but also filled with admiration for the plucky bird who was playing the hand it was given so well. 

Black-billed Magpie

We got back to the room and showered, packed up, checked out, and put our luggage back in the hotel’s storage room one last time, and then headed back out for a last visit to Lake Hood. We got more lovely looks at the same water birds we’d seen the day before our tour officially began.

Red-necked Grebe

Greater Scaup

Since we had plenty of time before our evening flight, we got to explore a little further along the lake, taking us to a line of docks people use to get in and out of small seaplanes. That’s where we saw a bird we’d missed first time around there, a Red-throated Loon swimming close to shore. 

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon

It didn’t seem to mind as we approached closer and closer. Finally we reached the dock nearest to the bird and I started walking on it, so focused, literally, on the bird, my eye firmly against my camera’s viewfinder, that I had no clue what was happening when the ground dropped out from under me—the dock I was walking on had a step! I crashed on my knee and hand and as my camera hit the dock, its lens hood popped off into the water. Oops. 

If you’re going to get injured while on a wonderful trip, it’s probably best to wait until the very last day to do it. Russ and I were about to head back to the hotel anyway to eat lunch and lounge around before it was time to take the shuttle to the airport. Taking a big fall while photographing a stunningly beautiful bird was jarring, but I must be more monomaniacal than even I realized, because as I pulled myself up, there was the Red-throated Loon at a perfect angle, and I resumed clicking away on my knees. My camera was working just fine without the lens hood. 

Red-throated Loon

Poor Russ is not monomaniacal about anything, except maybe me—when I finally looked up at him instead of down at the bird, he looked utterly stricken. I was still clicking away while he fished my lens hood out of the water and asked how bad I was hurt. I could still take pictures, so clearly was not at death’s door. When the loon finally swam on to where shrubs blocked my view, Russ helped me to my feet. My knee looked pretty bad, though it didn’t hurt much to stand or to walk. But pulling up my pants leg to see it, I could feel that I’d injured my finger, too. Fortunately, it was on my left hand. Unfortunately, it was my ring finger, and I didn’t think through how I should have instantly taken my wedding ring off. That didn't occur to me until we were back at the hotel and the finger was the color and shape of a sausage. It took a good 20 minutes of icing it and painful twisting and turning to get the ring off. 

I’m on blood thinners, so I would've headed to the emergency room immediately had I hit my head. But the injuries to my knee and finger seemed manageable. We parked ourselves at a table in the hotel lobby to eat lunch and work on our laptops. I backed up all that day’s photos and started writing blog posts while Russ did some actual work. My finger looked way worse than it felt. I could type just fine, and my knee didn’t hurt while I was sitting or walking. 

Russ and I waited to take the shuttle to the airport in the lobby. The glass of ice next to my computer is where I soaked my poor finger after falling at Lake Hood.

The rest of the day was uneventful. The hotel shuttle got us to the airport in plenty of time, and we found a nice quiet spot to wait before boarding. When we got on the plane, a flight attendant brought me some ice for my finger, and then I fell asleep. We arrived in Minneapolis early in the morning and in Duluth at midmorning. Our great Alaska adventure was at an end. 

My knee and entire leg below it were dark purple for over a week, and took a few more weeks to go through that weird rainbow of discoloration before it went back to normal. And my finger is still a bit too swollen to get my wedding ring on. My doctor was much more concerned about my falling at all than about the minor knee or finger injuries, but I reassured him that the fall wasn’t an old lady fall—it was a crazy bird photographer fall. 

Two weeks ago, when my knee still hurt when I knelt and my finger still ached when I tied my shoes, Russ asked if those last loon photos had been worth it. The best Red-throated Loon photos I’d ever taken before this trip were at a very great distance in winter plumage. 

Red-throated Loon

Then I got some decent shots of them on the Nome leg of this trip...

Red-throated Loon on nest

Red-throated Loon

... but nothing like these final closeups. If my injuries had been serious enough to make birding or playing with my grandson harder, I’d say no, it wasn’t worth it. But even right after it happened, the injuries were not serious and now are completely behind me. My camera didn't suffer even a glitch and the lens hood cleaned up good as new. And all those photos are right there to enjoy whenever I like for the rest of my life. I may be crazy, but yep. It was worth it. 

Red-throated Loon