Photograph by Robert F. Bukaty, AP
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With a beakful of hake, an Atlantic puffin returns to its chick on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine. When they aren’t breeding or nesting, these tiny birds spend most of the year on the open ocean.

Photograph by Robert F. Bukaty, AP

Adorable Puffins Are Tougher Than They Look

Atlantic puffins spend eight months of the year on the open ocean, but until now, where they went each winter was a mystery.

The cute little Atlantic puffin might not strike you as a vessel built for life on the open ocean. But nothing could be further from the truth.

For starters, the black, white, and orange feathers puffins are completely waterproof. And the tiny birds spend epic lengths of time at sea, with fledglings riding the waves for a full two years before ever setting foot on land. And now scientists have tracked the birds through the winter, finding in a study released February 11th how these survivors make it through the winter.

Even though they’re tough, puffins are at risk from a changing environment, so locating their winter food supply could help to protect them.

Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) are well-adapted to a life live mostly on the water. They can even drink seawater and expel the excess salt out of glands in their nostrils, says Steve Kress, founder of the National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin.

“If it wasn’t for the fact that they had to lay an egg, puffins probably wouldn’t come to shore at all,” says Kress.

But for all the things we have learned about Atlantic puffins in the last forty years, one aspect of their lives has remained a mystery. Where do the birds spend the winter?

Winter on the Waves

Each August for the last 40 years, Kress has watched the puffins of Maine head out to sea and not return until the following April. Where did the birds go once they abandoned the shore? Nobody knew.

In 2009, Kress began trying to fit the little one-pound (500 grams) birds, which are members of the auk family, with geolocators.

Nesting Puffin A baby puffin makes its way to the ocean for its first solo swim.

“But the first generation of those devices were actually a little large, and the puffins didn’t behave normally on land,” he says.

Now the team has attached newer, more compact devices to 19 puffins that returned to Maine’s coast last spring.

The birds appear to make a two-stop migration, going north to the fish-rich waters of Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, then heading southeast and spending the rest of the winter on the open ocean about 200 miles off Cape Cod. Also known as the “coral canyons,” this underwater mountain range running along New England is home to an intense array of biodiversity.

Tony Diamond, a puffin researcher of 22 years, has also been trying to track the birds’ migrations. Diamond’s birds, which nest on Machias Seal Island in New Brunswick, seem to take more of a hodge-podge approach. One animal travelled to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while eight others made for the Gulf of Maine or even ventured as far south as Cape Hatteras in North Carolina.

“Yes, the results are surprising,” says Diamond, who is a research professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of New Brunswick, “but on the other hand we didn't have clear expectations to compare them with!”

Protecting An Open Ocean Oasis

The Atlantic puffin is considered vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, in part because climate change seems to be affecting the bird’s prey.

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Steve Kress, who has spent four decades studying puffins, hunkers down in a wildlife blind on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine. “They are remarkable animals, for sure,” says Kress.

Indeed, Kress says two of the puffin’s favorite foods, herring and white hake, have been shown to be sensitive to changes in surface sea temperature.

This makes the puffin’s wintering grounds all the more important. Nutrients that rise to the surface along the underwater mountain range support a vibrant ecosystem that includes corals the size of small trees, schools of halibut and cod, pods of whales, and yes, even surface-feeding seabirds.

Some argue that the addition of puffins to this list is yet another reason the area should be protected as the first marine national monument on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Otherwise, the fragile ecosystem may be threatened by dredging, undersea mining, and oil drilling.

(See photos of the beautiful ocean places protected as U.S. marine protected areas.)

“I think the main thing is we have the opportunity to protect these areas now that we know where they are,” says Kress.

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