Maine’s beloved puffins are having a productive mating season on remote islands off the state’s coast. That’s great news for the colorful, well-recognized sea birds. (Check out the “puffin cam” hosted by Explore.org to see some yourself.) According to National Audubon Society scientist Stephen Kress, the bright-beaked waddle-walkers are well on their way to setting a record for breeding pairs.
Atlantic puffins are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. A mere 1,300 puffin pairs live in Maine, while others live on hard-to-reach islands off the state’s northeast coast. Mathias Seal Island boasts the largest puffin colony in the Gulf of Maine. The island sits in disputed waters between the United States and Canada. It is home to more than 5,000 puffin pairs.
Scientists believe puffins are threatened by a recent trend of warmer ocean temperature, by fluctuating food sources, and by predators like gulls. Squid and butterfish dominate the warmer Atlantic waters. Neither are nutritious for puffins.
Atlantic puffins are known for having long-term relationships. Males and females work together to build a nest several feet under ground. They line the soft soil with grass, leaves, and feathers. Females lay a single egg. Both parents incubate and protect it. Atlantic puffins nest in remote places like Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge and Eastern Egg Rock Island. In 2018, nearly 750 pairs nested on those islands. The 2019 breeding season number is projected to be higher.
Several factors impact elevated nest numbers. This year, the cooler-than-usual Gulf of Maine has been brimming with perfect puffin cuisine. When waters are cool, excellent puffin prey like young haddock, hake, and herring are in abundance.
Puffin nests began to fill up ahead of schedule this year. Females laid eggs earlier than usual. That’s an indicator that puffin parents are healthy.
In spite of good health, puffins’ breeding patterns fluctuate. Their population trend tracks like a roller coaster. Good years alternate with not-so-good years. Historically speaking, this year’s good news probably doesn’t indicate a long-term puffin population trend.
I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. — Psalm 50:11