Pausing for Puffins: A photo essay

Everybody loves puffins, those pudgy sea parrots , with beaks like striped candy, wings like stubby oars, and orange feet like fly swatters.

Puffin, Alaska, Kodiak, Island, horned, alcid, wings

While kayaking in a protected harbor, I approached a “puddle” of puffins on the water. Normally they take off upwind, but when the air is calm it’s anyone’s guess. This guy took off, heading right to left in front of the bow. Then he (she) suddenly banked to the left and headed right for me. I braced my camera against my temple, pressed the shutter button and didn’t let go…

I have a special fondness for puffins. I watch for their return to Kodiak Island in late April and mourn their departure the first week of September. Between those dates, puffins entertain me while I’m chopping onions and serving rhubarb cobbler…

Since 2003, Marty and I have hosted gourmet dinner cruises aboard our 42-foot yacht. I’m the chef and my husband Marty’s the skipper. This summer, we did 85 trips. At six guests per cruise, that’s a lot of salads from our garden. Our dinner cruises are more like a wildlife viewing trip with a nice dinner on the side. Every seat at the dining table has a view of mountain-coastal scenery, sea otters, sea lions, eagles, Deadliest Catch boats, an occasional whale and numerous seabirds, like puffins.

Puffin, Alaska, Kodiak, Island, horned, alcid, wings, fish, breakwater, St. Herman harbor

Sometimes you get lucky. I was chopping veggies during one of our dinner cruises and happened to glance at this puffin looking content and comfy on Kodiak’s St. Herman Harbor breakwater. At the beginning of the season, I vowed to have a camera on board with me. We did 85 dinner cruises this year…

While our guests have plenty of opportunities to take pictures, I don’t. At 6 PM we head out the channel and for the next 3.5-hours I’m preparing the night’s meal, from appetizers to dessert. Then there’s dishes to do, credit cards to process, and the guest book to pass around with a dish of M&Ms (that’s M&M for Marion and Marty).

Galley Gourmet dinner cruises, Kodiak, Alaska

Chocolate-rhubarb bars with fresh salmonberry and mint.

If a sea otter should float by on its back or a puffin pops up with a fish in its beak, I keep my camera (a Canon 5D Mark II) within arm’s reach on the chart table. As for lenses, I rent a Canon EF 500mm f/4 or a Canon EF 200-400mm F/4L IS lens from Borrowlenses.com.

Puffins fly fast, very fast; up to 50 miles per hour. Their wings can move so quickly, 5 to 7 beats a second, they often become a blur. And beat their wings they must, if they want to stay airborne. Like bumblebees, if they stop flapping their wings, they drop like a stone.

Puffin, Alaska, Kodiak, Island, horned, alcid

Take off, finally! After struggling for what seems like an eternity to a bird, this horned puffin is airborne. Well, almost.

Underwater is another thing. Puffins, whose scientific name means “little brother of the north”, fly-swim underwater as if performing a ballet. If you find yourself in Seward, Alaska, be sure to stop by the Alaska SeaLife Center to watch the puffins perform.

One time, while kayaking, I happened to be wearing my polaroid sunglasses. A puffin dove off a cliff and torpedo-plunged into the water nearby. For a few feet, I could see wings pivoting, flapping and pressing against his body, propelling him downward…

There are three kinds of puffins in the world: Atlantic, Horned and Tufted. The Atlantics are the smallest ones; the Tufted are the largest, standing about 15 inches tall. Around Kodiak Island we are blessed with two species of puffins (and it’s not the Atlantic guys).

At first glance, you might think these puffins are standing around, admiring the blue harebells. They're actually resting for a few moments after crash-landing on this ledge. Puffins might fly like angels underwater, but grace and agility stops there.

At first glance, you might think these puffins are standing around, admiring the blue harebells. They’re actually resting for a few moments after crash-landing on this ledge. Puffins might fly like angels underwater, but grace and agility stops there.

This summer, I trained my lens mostly on the tuxedo-clad Horned puffins, watching them paddle around kelp beds in quiet bays and perched on rocky crevices near their burrows.

Horned, puffins, Alaska, Kodiak, Island, Fratercula corniculata

Let me whisper sweet nothings in your ear. Puffin pairs form long-term bonds. After breeding, puffins spend all winter at sea. In the case of these horned puffins, most likely in the Gulf of Alaska.

Not much is known, really, about a puffin’s life. In April, the puffins return from the open ocean, having spent the winter in conditions that would make Captain William Bligh seasick. Mated pairs nest in the rocks or in the sod on top of a cliff or overhang. Egg-laying season is between Mid-June and early July. The adults take turns incubating the single egg for about 40 days.

Once it hatches, the parents again take turns caring for, and feeding the chick. This increase in activity, when mom and dad do their best to keep junior happily fed, makes for the best puffin viewing (August 1 to 30).

puffin, Alaska, Kodiak, Island, horned, alcid, wings, fish, breakwater, Fratercula corniculata, St. Herman harbor

Another puffin-eating-dinner shot. Horned puffins have delicate table manners.

Puffin, Alaska, Kodiak, Island, horned, alcid, wings, fish, chick, Fratercula corniculata

Puffins are generalist eaters, but they’re preferred food is fish. In mid summer, food-finding escalates in order to feed the chick. A puffin’s beak is highly specialized, allowing it to capture many fish in one “mouthful” without dropping the load.

puffin, horned, Kodiak, Alaska, Fratercula corniculata

After tapping the surface of the water Fred Flintstone style, a puffin finally takes off.

Fred Flintstone, car

When puffins take off from the water, it’s after a long struggle to get airborne. I can’t help but see similarities between puffins and Fred Flintstone, who revved up his car by plodding along the ground with his feet.

puffin, flying, wings, kodiak, Alaska, horned, alcid, ocean, seabirds, photography

When attempting flight, puffins are like skipping rocks, bouncing again and again across the surface of the water, until some unknown law of physics permits them to become free from the water’s pull and thus airborne.

Meanwhile, back at the nest… At about 40 days after hatching, the parents abandon their chick and head back to sea. Talk about tough love. It’s hunger that drives the chick out into the open ocean. So you suppose parents with teenagers or Twenty-Somethings dream of closing the cupboards and locking the fridge?

Sometimes in late August, we anchor up for dinner to find horned puffins and tufted puffins swimming around each other in tight circles like miniature bumper cars. I don’t know why they tolerate each other more in late summer, except that the demands of parenthood eases, which perhaps makes them more neighborly. Either way, these gatherings provide wonderful opportunities to photograph the more skittish tufted puffins.

puffins, tufted, kodiak, Alaska, photography, alcid, island, workshop

Bath time: A tufted puffin ruffles his wings, creating an air-water spritzer that sends water droplets flying.

Tufted Puffin, Fratercula cirrhata, Kodiak, Island, Alaska, birds, birding, alcid, seabirds, birders

Tufted puffins are the largest puffins in the world, and I think, are the most shy and reclusive. The “tufts” are specialized feathers that develop in time for the breeding season.

How do I love puffins? Enough to dedicate May 1st as “Celebrate the Return of Puffins to Kodiak Day” in my 2014 wall calendar.

Now it’s October. We’re finished with boat trips for the year. Wind-driven, salty rain is pelting against my office windows. I look forward to seeing my puffin friends next spring.

Kodiak, Alaska, photography, workshops, calendar, puffin

The cover of my 2014 calendar of photos, recipes and gardening tips features one of the highlights of my summer: Photographing a puffin head on. Though the encounter lasted only a few seconds, it left me stunned, silent and happy.

Some final notes:

A proud mama struts downriver to share a freshly caught salmon with her cubs. Photo by Justin Reznick.

A proud mama struts downriver to share a freshly caught salmon with her cubs. Photo by Justin Reznick.

When we’re not dinner cruising, thinning spinach in the garden or tending to guests in our B&B, we take birders and photographers on puffin and wildlife viewing-photo trips. After observing puffins for so many years, we’ve gotten to know their habits and hangouts. If you’re interested in any of these opportunities , give me a call at 907-486-5079.

Another opportunity to see puffins with us in Kodiak, occurs in August 2014 as part of a special coastal brown bear photography workshop, through Light and Land Photography Tours.

puffin, flying, wings, kodiak, Alaska, horned, alcid, ocean, seabirds, photography, diving, fish

The end.

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12 Responses to Pausing for Puffins: A photo essay

  1. Jean says:

    Thank you for this Marion. Like you I am a puffin enthusiast. Being in Scotland I only know the Atlantic puffins. I first met them when I used to rock climb on sea cliffs many years ago and since then have sought them out in many different places in the north of Scotland, mainland and islands. Your photos are brilliant. Jean x

    • marionowen says:

      Hi Jean, Thanks for your comments. I’ve heard that Atlantic puffins are quite the characters; in some places are totally unfazed by humans. Either way, puffins are so captivating to observe. Do the Atlantic puffins leave for the winter?

      • Jean says:

        They have already gone off to sea for the winter. We only see them when they are on land to breed. The Atlantic puffins are in crisis, around here at least, because they feed the pufflings in the burrow almost exclusively on sand eels and climate change seems to be making them more scarce every year. Sand eels are bottom of the food chain for many sea birds in northern Europe and there has been a general decline in many populations. A real worry, we hope some new protected areas of sea and seabed will at least limit the destructive effects of over fishing and dredging. Are the Alaskan puffins thriving?

      • marionowen says:

        I’ve heard that some of the Atlantic puffin colonies are hurting; this last year was very good for the puffins because there was a lot of feed close in to the burrows. Not all years are that good, though. Fortunately, there is a variety of food for them.

  2. Ileen Ellison says:

    Marion, Great puffin pictures!! How do I get one of your calendars?

    Ileen

  3. Robin says:

    Marion,
    As always — your photo’s make one stop to ponder the marvels of nature.
    Thank you for these moments.
    Robin

  4. Tom Watson says:

    Fantastic puffin photos! One of my two favorite puffin stories involves a potential customer of one of the charter flight operators working out of the downtown spit many years ago. The gentleman entered clutching the air charters flightseeing brochure. “How much will it cost to go see one of these?” he asked as he pointed to the colorful, full-bodied photo of a puffin on the cover.
    “$300” responded the pilot, eager to hook a sale. “For only $300 I can go see one of these?” asked the visitor. “That’s right!,” guaranteed the pilot proudly. “Fantastic price!,” said the man. “You see, son, this is a picture of an Atlantic puffin! We’ll have to fly to New Foundland to see this bird!” The pilot had requested a file photo of a puffin from the state’s tourism office who had apparently acquired a “puffin” pix for its wildlife photo file. No bird watchers in Juneau I guess!

  5. Kathleen Pearson says:

    Love your Puffins and want the calendar. 🙂

  6. marionowen says:

    Hi Kathleen… glad you like the puffin photos. For the calendar, I can mail you one. $15 + shipping which is about $4. I’ll be announcing more on Facebook.

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