Colorful voyagers

Our inflatable Zodiac skipped and bounced across choppy, wind-swept waves of the North Pacific. Off the bow, a puffin frantically scurried from the boat’s path on short, stubby wings that barely enabled enough lift to clear the water’s surface. Hundreds more were overhead in a dramatic circular flight pattern that seemed whirling and hypnotic. As part of a project to study tufted puffin populations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, two biologists and I were en route to Kohl, a small lump of an island just south of Agattu, where lichen-covered boulders and steep rock cliffs rise from the sea to lush grassy slopes. This is just one place in the western Aleutian Islands to find tufted puffins.

Regarded as Alaska’s most unique seabird and often called "clowns of the sea," the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) is amusingly colorful and clown-like in appearance and mannerism. With its black, football-shaped body and brightly painted face mask, this bird is an easily recognized character among the variety of seabirds that return each summer to the remote and harsh environment of these islands.

Forming the largest archipelago in the world, the Aleutian Islands are the nesting grounds for more than five million seabirds, or roughly one-quarter of Alaska’s entire seabird breeding population, according to biologist Elaine Rhode. Tufted puffins are among the congregating masses, becoming land-based with the responsibility of raising and fledging a single chick. At all other times, puffins are literally linked to the ocean, spending nearly eight monthsfrom mid-August to mid-Aprilat sea. Exactly where they go or what they do remains a puzzling mystery for scientists.

G. Vernon Byrd, an ornithologist who researches puffin populations in the Aleutians, states, "tufted puffin numbers have been either stable or increasing since the 1980s." Then why all the fuss about studying puffins? One compelling reason is their connection with the sea. By researching puffin societiestheir behavior, evolutionary trends, and overall population numberscrucial knowledge is gained about the well-being of our oceans.

For me, the reason is much simpler: I am fascinated with tufted puffins just because they are puffins. Their casual, clownish ways are a vivid contradiction to their complex social structure and unique physiological adaptations. These dumpy denizens of cold northern latitudes are very interesting birds to observe whether on land or at sea.

It makes sense for scientists interested in the health of the North Pacific Ocean to keep an eye on tufted puffins. Of all Alaskan seabirds, these birds are the most widely distributed species, breeding from Siberia southwards down the American coast to as far south as Santa Barbara Island, Calif. They also occur in the Bering Sea, around the shores of the Chukotskiy Peninsula, Kamchatka, Commander and Kuril Islands, with some colonies fringing the Sea of Okhotsk. Certain changes within these parts of the North Pacific may be reflected by the health of tufted puffin populations.

Tufted puffins are amazing, pelagic creatures and very dependent upon the ocean environment. Highly adapted for the frigid sea conditions in which they spend most of their time, a thick layer of fat under their skin and overlapping down feathers serve efficiently as insulation. Waterproofing of the feathers is achieved by applying oil from the uropygial gland located above the base of the tail. Like many seabirds, puffins drink sea water and excrete a salt-concentrated liquid through their nasal glands. A vigorous shake of the head rids them of this by-product.

Courtship rituals

When I first arrived on Agattu Island in early spring, I witnessed only a few tufted puffins on the near-shore waters of Kohl Island. Scouts, such as these, usually appear a day or so before the puffin flotilla arrives en masse. Within these gregarious sea rafts, courtship commences and mating will occur for a week or more prior to venturing ashore. Displaying males engage in a bill nodding motion, opening and closing their beaks as if tossing and catching a pebble in midair. During copulation, the female sinks beneath the water with only her head showing as the male thrashes his wings persistently. Excited spectators periodically feel obliged to resume bill nodding around the mating pair, and within a short time quite a commotion can ensue.

Adult tufted puffins are striking in their breeding plumage. The red and yellow wedge of a beak is used like a pick-up line in a bar. The white face is a stark contrast to the black body and is highlighted by wild yellow ear tufts of fine downy feathers. Molting of the white facial feathers and ear tufts occurs in winter along with the colorful plates of the bill. This drab winter plumage blends well with ocean water, making puffins difficult to spot by predators hovering above or swimming below.

A puffin colony is usually found at or beyond the limits of what most people deem tolerable, and Kohl Island is no different. Oversized boulders and talus slopes led us to a draping green field of tussocks. Nosy by nature, tufted puffins peeped from behind distant rocks at our approach. Stronger than their sense of curiosity is the puffin’s homing instinct, which, according to banding records, returns each one to the same nest site with the same mate year after year.

As we walked upon wet, slippery grass, the tufted puffin’s low growl resonated up through the grounda warning to intruders. Like rabbits, puffins nest in tunneling chambers excavated by using their sharp-clawed feet and stout bills like pickaxes. Older pairs have priority over nest sites and rarely need to excavate new burrows. Usually just a little spring-cleaning is needed after months of rain, snow, and ice have taken their toll.

Tufted puffins in the same area of the colony usually socialize in small groups like members of an elite club. Although they are prepared to fight, a puffin will first threaten using the yellow interior of its mouth as a signal for intruding puffins to stay clear. If this fails, the birds may grip bills, squirming about in a twisting bundle of feathers. On land, tufted puffins are always poking a beak into another bird’s business or keeping a watchful eye on their neighborsamusing behavior to watch. Puffins use this inquisitiveness to synchronize activities within different parts of the colony, thus discouraging predation of individual birds.

Over our heads, above the colony, a group of tufted puffins flew all day long in wheel-like formation as another effective means of self-preservation. Hopeless as gliders, these small-winged auks make use of air currents generated by strong, stormy winds off the sea that create powerful updrafts along the cliff faces of their colonies. When making the move from land to water or vice- versa, puffins will fly several revolutions to avoid singling themselves out for predators, like the bald eagle, which love to dine on plump little puffins.

Clumsy landings

A high stalling speed makes landing difficult for these birds. Unable to fly slowly without losing control, puffins use their webbed feet as flaps for extra lift, but they usually end up crash-landing into other puffins, which react by squawking and snapping at the clumsy pilot. With short legs that are positioned at the rear of their bodies, puffins have an upright posture much like a penguin’s. Moving like drunks about the colony on their red, stubby, webbed limbs, tripping over rocks and tussocks is a common occurrence.

Our intrusion into the colony had caused one puffin to quickly dive into the safety of a nearby burrow. Once underground, tufted puffins are almost impossible to extract from their dens, which may be two to three meters in length, according to French ornithologist Jean Dorst. Regardless of this fact, we unloaded our packs and prepared the few tools we brought to collect data.

An excellent indication of the amount of food available to puffins is the growth rate of chicks. Banding the adults and juveniles with numbered anklets may also provide information on their wintering, feeding, and breeding habits. On hands and knees, I reached my heavily gloved hand down into a burrow for the adult puffin to bite. By holding onto its lower mandible, I gently coaxed the bird out.

A tufted puffin’s bill is a remarkably powerful tool, beautiful in design and function. Both upper and lower mandibles are sharp-edged, and the roof of the mouth has backward-pointing tooth-like projections that dig into their slippery prey of small fish. This adaptation, along with spines on the tongue, permits puffins to hold numerous fish at once. The current record holder had 62 in its beak.

Deriving all their nutrients from the sea, tufted puffins of the Aleutians mainly feed on Pacific sandlance, capelin, and squid. Supplementing this diet, puffins will also eat prawns, other small crustaceans, and sea urchins. Exactly how puffins locate fish is unknown, but they are expert hunters, sometimes diving as deep as 200 feet.

Although their bodies are designed to cope with the squeezing pressure of water at such depths, tufted puffins usually feed by performing shallow dives over shoals. With a beak-load of fish destined for its hungry chick, an individual bird finds protection against pirate gulls and ravens by once again flying among the circling ranks of other puffins before landing in the colony.

Juvenile tufted puffins are more docile than adults, especially in the early stages of their lives, and a single chick is easily removed from the burrow after its parent. Dull black above and gray beneath, the little birds are voracious eating machines. The chicks grow fast and fat on a diet rich in fish oil. Both parents share in the rearing duties, beginning with an estimated 40-day incubation period of a single egg. After we recorded our data, both juvenile and adult were placed back at the mouth of the burrow. Obviously flustered, the parent scolded us as it waddled down the narrow tunnel out of sight.

Adult tufted puffins are diurnal, which means changing of the guards occurs during the day. Juveniles, however, only leave the burrow when the time has come to fledge, which is approximately six weeks after hatching. Departing for the sea under the cover of night to avoid the ever-present daytime predators, fledglings run down the slopes and plummet into the ocean waves.

Ocean voyagers

This first leap is just the beginning of their ocean voyage. Once the young puffins leave, they will spend the next four to five years at sea before maturing to breeding age. Scientists know that "juvenile puffins and wintering adults of the Aleutians spend their time in the North Pacific and Bering Sea, but it is unknown from which particular colonies the birds are from," said Byrd. If a young puffin survives its time on the ocean, it will return to the colony where it was born, find a suitable life mate, and begin contributing offspring to the population.

Done with our work day on Kohl Island, we shouldered our packs, but not before removing the 30 or so ticks that had silently crept onto us and our gear. Each bird, both adult and juvenile, we examined had the blood-sucking parasite on some part of its body. Puffin colonies are full of these disease-carrying ticks. To the puffins they seem an unfortunate annoyance that does not seem to be hindering population numbers in any way.

More detrimental to puffin numbers was the introduction of species of land mammals to some of these islands. Russian ships brought the first rats, and then World War II troop and supply carriers expanded the rodent’s domain. Small enough to enter puffin burrows, rats found defenseless chicks an easy meal. Between 1836 and the 1930s, fur traders deliberately dropped off pairs of foxes on nearly all the Aleutian Islands. With the concern solely on profit, fox farmers were attracted by the free food offered by bird colonies.

"Large-scale efforts are still in effect to remove fox from the Aleutian Islands," said Byrd. "By successfully eliminating the land predator from Agattu, tufted puffin populations from Kohl have been allowed to expand back to this island, which historically supported a colony." Puffin numbers are increasing due to these safe nesting areas.

Tufted puffins faced one other challenge: the Japanese salmon fishery near the western Aleutian Islands had resulted in direct mortality by the drowning in gillnets of thousands of puffins. A study published in 1985 estimated that nearly 15% of tufted puffins nesting in the western islands were killed by the fishery between 1981 and 1984. Mounting concern for puffins and other seabirds resulted in a 1988 passage of legislation to close the area surrounding the western Aleutian Islands to high-seas salmon fishing.

"No longer a moratorium, gillnetting is now completely banned in the western Aleutians," said Byrd. "Although it did not appear the gillnetting caused a substantial decline in tufted puffin numbers," Byrd adds, "by removing gillnets from the picture, puffins gained just one more advantageous edge, helping to increase their numbers."

Back in the Zodiac we zipped amid an icy wind toward camp on Agattu. In the evening’s dwindling light, I watched the few puffins left in the air as they passed like small projectile missiles into and out of a dense fog. Tufted puffins live in a world where predators threaten, food may be scarce, and hazards such as oil spills may await. Scientists have only scratched the surface in learning about these intriguing sea birds.

By Ocean Navigator