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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
Some final notes:
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.