There are four species of puffins in the world: Atlantic; horned; tufted; and the rhinoceros auklet. Only the Atlantic puffin is found in the North Atlantic Ocean and is the smallest of the species; the other three puffins are found in the Pacific Ocean. All puffins have a lifespan of 20 years or more and all are “pelagic,” which means that they live on the open sea and only return to the land in order to breed.
In August 2015 I had the opportunity to observe and photograph Atlantic puffins at their nesting site on a small island offshore from Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan in Quebec, Canada. I flew into Toronto and then drove 1,000 miles to Mingan (see the map below). I spent the next three days in a cabin along the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence Seaway. Each day I was transported in a small open boat out about 10 miles to an island where the puffins were nesting, dropped off, and then picked up at the end of the day.
The Atlantic puffin has a black crown and back, pale grey cheek patches, a white chest, and white underparts. This deceptive coloration is called “counter-shading,” which means that the animal has different colors on their backs and stomachs. This makes the puffin harder to see from both below in the ocean and above from the air while it swims. Its broad, boldly marked red and black beak and orange legs contrast with its plumage. Its striking appearance has resulted in nicknames such as “clown of the sea” and “sea parrot.” The Atlantic puffin is the official bird symbol for the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador. It molts while at sea in the winter and some of the brightly colored facial characteristics are lost. However, during the breeding season, puffins change their costume. Their beaks grow thicker and brighter, white feathers replace black ones, and eye ornaments appear with their faces now resembling a Japanese Kabuki actor. The appearance of the adult male and female are identical except that the male is usually slightly larger. Atlantic puffins can fly at approximately 50 miles per hour. The puffins beat their wings rapidly to achieve this speed, reaching up to 400 beats per minute.
Atlantic puffins spend the autumn and winter in the open ocean of the cold northern seas. They return to the coastal areas at the start of the breeding season in late spring. They nest in clifftop colonies, digging a burrow in which a single white egg is laid. After hatching, the chick will feed mostly on whole fish and will grow rapidly. After about 6 weeks it is fully fledged and makes its way at night to the sea. It then swims away from the shore and does not return to land for up to 5 years when it will start the breeding cycle. Atlantic puffins are very social birds and make their nests in large groups called colonies.
Colonies are usually on islands where there are no terrestrial predators, but adult birds and newly fledged chicks are still at risk of attacks from the air by gulls and skuas (a seabird similar to a seagull but larger). Sometimes a skua will harass a puffin arriving with its beak full of fish, causing it to drop its catch. The diet of the Atlantic puffin consists mostly of fish but they will occasionally eat shrimp and other crustaceans when readily available. The most consumed fish are sand eels, herring, and capelin. When fishing, puffins swim underwater using their semi-extended wings as paddles to “fly” through the water while using their feet as a rudder. They swim fast and can reach considerable depths, staying submerged for up to a minute.
After spending the winter alone on the ocean, it is not known whether Atlantic puffins meet their previous partner offshore or whether they encounter each other when they return to their nesting site from the previous year. They are monogamous (mating for life) and both parents provide care of the single chick; the male spends more time guarding and maintaining the nest while the female is more involved in incubation and feeding the chick. Once they arrive at the nesting site, they soon set about improving and clearing out a burrow. Often, one stands outside the entrance while the other excavates, kicking out quantities of soil and grit that usually showers the partner standing outside. The puffins dig their burrows by using their bills to cut into the soil and then shoveling away loose material with their feet. They dig like a dog might, shoveling dirt out behind themselves.
The greatest natural predator the Atlantic puffin faces is the great black-backed gull. This very large gull can catch adult puffins mid-air. This gull also circles high above a puffin colony, picks out a solitary puffin, and catches it from behind by dive-bombing the unwary puffin. Herring gulls are also predators and are kleptoparasites (birds that steal another bird’s food). These gulls will often wait for puffins returning from sea with their beaks full of fish, pursue them, and then steal the fish like an aerial pirate. They will also pull puffin eggs or chicks from their nest whenever they can.