Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Puffins Have Returned

After a mild winter on the North Coast, the happenings of Spring are coming early this year. The daffodils bloomed early, the invasive Scotch Broom is blooming already, and the Tufted Puffins (Fratercula cirrhata) are already returning to Haystack Rock! Six puffins were first spotted on April 2nd and have been seen on several days since the first sighting.

The Tufted Puffin is a pelagic bird, spending most of the year at sea, typically more than 60 miles off the coast, with no land in sight. They spend their time at sea either individually or in pairs and return from the sea each spring to bear and rear their young. The puffins nest on remote rocky islands with grassy areas in which they can burrow. There are few places on the Pacific Northwest Coast that fit their nesting needs, but Haystack Rock is a perfect spot for them, and they return here year after year.

The Tufted Puffin is the largest puffin in America and the only puffin that nests at Haystack Rock. It's large orange bill, orange feet, white face and black body make it a distinctive bird. The puffin typically lives 15 to 20 years and reaches breeding age at about 3 years. During breeding season, golden plumes curl over the back of the head and neck. They are most often seen in flight and need a running start to take flight. They then flap their wings furiously to stay in flight and do not glide as other birds. They dive and swim underwater, using their wings to paddle and their feet to steer their way through schools of small fish, which they catch in their bills. When not in flight, they can be spotted - for the patient and eagle-eyed observer - standing at their burrow entrance guarding their chick. 



Tufted Puffin (Haystack Rock 2014)
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Sheffield

The puffin pairs, who probably form long-term pair bonds, excavate their burrows, which can be up to 5 feet deep, on the parts of Haystack Rock that are covered deeply in soil and plant life. The nest chamber can be lined with grass or feathers, but sometimes is not lined at all. The female will lay a single egg in the burrow and both parents share the responsibility for incubating the egg for a period of about 45 days. After hatching, both parents will feed the nestling, carrying the food in their bills from foraging missions.  Fish is the primary food when feeding the chick, but puffins also eat squid, marine worms, and shrimp. The time required until the fledging leaves can range from 30 to 60 days depending primarily on the availability of fish. When the chick fledges, it will 'flutter' to the water as most young puffins are not yet able to fly and is then no longer cared for by the parents.


Tufted Puffins Near Their Burrow (Haystack Rock 2014)
Photo Courtesy of Susan Glarum

The Puffins will be at Haystack Rock about four months while each pair prepare their nests and care for their nestling so there are plenty of opportunities to visit Haystack Rock and watch for them. The puffins will be officially welcomed back to Haystack Rock by the children from the local elementary schools on Earth Day, Wednesday April 22nd. Check the Twelve Days of Earth Day website for the time of the official welcome and for other events during this twelve day celebration in Cannon Beach. 

Happy Puffin spotting!

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