Slayton: In pursuit of puffins

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(HOST)   Ten miles out in the Atlantic Ocean, where downeast Maine meets the Bay of Fundy, there’s a tiny island with a host of unusual seabirds. Recently, Tom Slayton went in search of both the island and the birds.

(SLAYTON) As we leave Cutler Harbor and motor out onto the open ocean, the temperature drops noticeably. Suddenly it’s cold.

The day is sunny and calm – unusual for far downeast Maine. Even so, we pull on sweaters and zip up parkas against the chill, as our craft labors over the swells of the Bay of Fundy.        

Actually, it’s a good thing that these northern waters are cold. The puffins like it that way. And that’s what we are here for – Atlantic puffins, those small, slightly comical seabirds that sport a large, multi-colored beak and are feathered, like penguins, in black and white plumage that looks, for all the world, like a tiny tuxedo.

Puffins are the smallest members of a family of ocean-going birds known as alcids, which are the northern hemisphere’s equivalent of penguins.

We’re eager to see any members of the alcid family – murres, razorbills, guillemots, whatever – because, like all wild birds, they’re interesting and beautiful. And because puffins, especially, are funny and cute.

But, though they are undeniably cute, puffins are very tough little birds – real survivors, prospering out on the North Atlantic with whales and icebergs, year-round.

I’d be happy to see one or two puffins, and a razorbill or common murre would be a nice extra. However, as we approach Machias Seal Island, we begin to see little black dots floating on the water, and more flying through the air – and suddenly we’re seeing puffins! Thousands of puffins! Puffins flying, puffins swimming, puffins heading for their onshore nests with beaks full of fish! They look like tiny headwaiters with big orange noses and tiny webbed orange feet. More puffins and razorbills  and murres than we can count.

Unlike penguins, puffins and other alcids can fly – sort of. They are clumsy in the air and often come in for a landing slightly out of control, little orange feet extended, wings flapping madly, until they hit the water with a splash, then bob back up ready for action.

Their wings are better designed for swimming and fishing underwater. These little birds, hardly a foot long, can dive to 200 feet below the surface! The icy tides of the Bay of Fundy bring millions of  fish to this island, like a giant conveyor belt, and the birds come by the thousands to feed and breed.

On the trip back to shore, I realize that I’m happy, just to know that these fascinating birds are out there, doing their puffin thing – catching fish, raising their babies, living their lives completely free of the complications we shore-bound humans seem so talented at introducing to the world.

Puffins alone are worth the effort to stop global warming and end our destruction of the natural world.  They are their own self-justification. And they’re funny and beautiful to boot.

They’re out there right now, swimming and fishing in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. That thought continues to please me and makes me appreciate anew this lovely, fragile world we live in.

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