Winter Home of Maine Puffins Revealed

Photo credit: NPS / Jim Pfeiffenberger

This piece was originally posted on Audubon.org. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission. 

By Stephen Kress

Surprising migration takes puffins north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and then south to underwater “coral canyons and seamounts” and Cashes Ledge off New England

Until this summer, the winter home of Maine puffins was largely unknown, but that has suddenly changed with revelations discovered this year.

The background leading up to this year’s discovery demonstrates the value of perseverance. In 2011, two first generation puffin geolocators were recovered from birds tagged at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in 2009 (geolocators do not transmit data and require recapture of the bird to download data).

The tags revealed a northward journey after the nesting season to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and north to the Labrador Sea, before a southward movement to the edge of the continental shelf for the remainder of the winter. This was big news–the first hint of the puffin’s then mysterious winter home. But these were just two birds and neither bird nested in subsequent years. This aroused suspicion that winter movements also could have been affected by the devices.

The quest for the puffin’s winter range continued in 2010-2012 when 38 smaller, new generation tags were attached to puffin leg bands. Although 30 of these were recovered and puffin behavior appeared normal, none contained data because of manufacturing defects. Despite this huge disappointment, 26 improved tags were attached to puffins in 2013 and 2014. By the summer of 2015, 20 of these were recovered and 17 contained useful data. These tags revealed a remarkable story.

The tagged puffins travelled northward in August to the western Gulf of St. Lawrence–a region known for abundant forage fish. The geolocators also showed that as days shortened, the puffins began heading south to the U.S. continental shelf–well offshore from New York and New Jersey where they spent the rest of the winter–before arriving back in Maine by early April. The exact routes remain a mystery.

Puffin on Deep Blue Sea at Eastern Egg Rock. Photo by Stephen Kress
Puffin on Deep Blue Sea at Eastern Egg Rock. Photo by Stephen Kress

The areas most frequented during the winter months were about 200 miles southeast of Cape Cod–including an area known as New England’s “coral canyons and seamounts.” This vast, largely unexplored area includes canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon, along with submerged mountains (seamounts) noted for colorful corals, some as large as small trees. Puffins are likely attracted to the region because of productive upwelling currents that offer abundant food–the same conditions that favor whales, porpoise, tuna, sailfish, and seabirds. Cashes Ledge, another underwater mount inside the Gulf of Maine, was also popular with puffins as it is for whales and other sea-life.

The discovery that puffins winter over these canyons and seamounts and Cashes Ledge provides another reason to protect these areas from fishing, mining, and energy development. An initiative is now underway to protect these important areas as the first Atlantic marine national monument in the United States. These discoveries were first shared by Project Puffin biologists this past week with a poster presentation at the 43rd annual meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group.

This research was made possible by donations from Project Puffins supporters, especially Bill and Maryanne Perks, Shirley Egan and the late Robert Wanner.

Learn more about these fascinating seabirds at projectpuffin.audubon.org

Puffin Project Coming to the New England Aquarium

Director of National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin Steve Kress and award-winning journalist/photographer Derrick Jackson will join the New England Aquarium Lecture Series Tuesday, May 5 to discuss their new book, Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock.

Project Puffin is the success story of how puffins were restored to their historic nesting islands in the Gulf of Maine. In the early 1970s, young puffins from Newfoundland were transplanted to Eastern Egg Rock off the coast of Maine, where hunters had previously wiped out the local population. Over the years, the number of puffins slowly increased, and now about 1,000 pairs nest on the Maine islands. Kress and volunteers regularly monitor the young puffins and their nesting success.

Kress and his team now struggle with new challenges, as when warming waters in the Gulf of Maine two years ago affected the amount of forage fish that adult puffins could bring back to the nest. Several nestlings starved and the nesting success for puffins plummeted. Kress is now studying how improvements to the management of fishing on forage species, especially for herring, might help puffins and other seabirds survive disruptions to the ocean food web.

You can read an excerpt from Kress and Jackson’s new book in the recent Boston Globe article, “What it takes to restore the puffin to Maine’s islands,” and be sure to attend the lecture next week to learn more.

Image via Wikimedia Commons, Andreas Trepte 

Flight of the Seabirds

Between 2005 and 2007, I spent one day each summer on Machias Seal Island in the Gulf of Maine. This tiny island is famous for its huge, raucous colonies of nesting seabirds, especially puffins, razorbills, and terns. Although the puffins were the main attraction, the terns caught your attention first. These quick white birds would dive-bomb your face as soon as you touched land. There were so many of them—a swirling, constantly shifting cloud of birds—that visitors had to hold yardsticks above their heads so the terns would swoop at sticks instead of people.

In 2007 that all changed. The terns just didn’t come back that summer. A landscape that just a year ago had been dominated by the terns suddenly had almost none of them. There were a few scattered birds, looking as bewildered as we were, but they were only stragglers. Along with the small team of researchers stationed on the island, we speculated about why the terns left the island—climate change, maybe, or they all got caught in a storm, or they couldn’t find enough fish and starved, or the flock simply moved on. The puffins and razorbills were still there in force, but all of us were left with the eerie sense that something had gone wrong at Machias.

Now new research suggests that puffins in the Gulf of Maine might be in trouble, too. These football-shaped, brightly-billed birds are an icon of the northeast coast. They prefer cold water, so they’re rarely seen further south than the coast of Maine, but they’re common from the Bay of Fundy to Baffin Bay and across the Atlantic to Iceland and Scandinavia.

But recently, scientists from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center have observed puffins with unusually low body weight. Even more troubling, puffins that show signs of starvation are washing up in large numbers on beaches on both sides of the Atlantic. And survival rates for fledgling puffins at Maine’s two largest colonies have dropped noticeably.

Unlike the disappearance of the terns at Machias, scientists think they might know what’s behind the starving puffins. Sea surface temperature in the Gulf of Maine has been unusually high, and the water is only getting warmer. These high temperatures are probably changing the distribution of Atlantic herring, the puffins’ primary food source, making it very difficult for the puffins to find enough to eat.

Scientists think puffins are trying to replace herring with butterfish. Butterfish, also known as dollarfish, are oily like herring, with a flattened shape that can reach 12 inches in length. They once stayed in more southern waters, but rising temperatures have pushed them north and earlier plankton blooms have let them flourish. But butterfish aren’t great food for puffins. They’re too big for puffin chicks to eat, and researchers have found piles of uneaten butterfish next to starving baby birds.

What climate change will mean for puffins in the long term is still unclear. They may successfully transition to new prey species or follow the herring north. Or, like the terns of Machias, they may just disappear. But New England’s marine scientists will be watching closely to see what impacts warming waters will have on our seabirds.

Monkfish Look Like They Could Bite Your Foot Off

This fish looks like it was designed by Stephen King, with its angular gaping mouth, needle-like teeth, and beady eyes. Imagine your reaction if you were enjoying a refreshing dip in the ocean then you looked down and saw that face staring up at you. I pride myself on surfing with the sharks in the bracing New England ocean, but seeing that crazy face by my feet might just leave me unhinged for a minute. These fish range throughout the North Atlantic, and as far south as Florida, so I know they’re around.

Really, though, your odds of encountering a monkfish are very low and if you did, they probably wouldn’t attack you. They usually hang out on the ocean floor, where they lie in wait, lure in prey with a filament-like “esca” that sprouts from between their eyes, and snatch up whatever unfortunate little fish happens to show interest.

As effective as this strategy seems to be, this bottom-dweller does get up near the surface every now and then – to eat birds. Researchers have recently discovered little puffins in the bellies of monkfish that were caught between 275 and 495 feet down, off the coast of Chatham, MA. Monkfish fish get around! And, I will confess, I didn’t even know we had puffins in New England.

I would really love to see some Crittercam  footage of a monkfish swimming up from the dark, cold depths and rushing a cute little unsuspecting puffin. Pow! Like a shark attack, but smaller and uglier. I’m going to be thinking about this the next time my feet are dangling off my surfboard (although researchers think the puffins were diving down 10 or 20 feet when the monkfish nabbed them). Still – as if the shark anxiety wasn’t bad enough.

Here are some other interesting monkfish facts (these and more can be found in this fact sheet from World Wildlife Fund).

  • Monkfish are also called goosefish, bellyfish, allmouth, and lawyer (that last one seems a little harsh).
  • These fish have been found almost 3,000 feet down.
  • They can eat things larger than they are, and are not very picky. Cod, lobster, and birds are all fair game.
  • Monkfish was not considered marketable in the U.S., until a government funded marketing campaign convinced people they were missing out on something that Europeans had been onto for a while.

Julia Child and a large monkfish. © copyright 2000-2007 Getty Images, Inc. [Steve Hansen/TimePix]
Julia Child and a large monkfish. Copyright 2000-2007 Getty Images, Inc. [Steve Hansen/TimePix]
 While monkfish have yet to show any interest in eating us, we do seem to enjoy eating them. In New England alone, commercial landings have averaged 35 million pounds a year since 1990. Hopefully this important and unique Gulf of Maine dweller will be able to withstand the  fishing pressure that is now upon them. Given the state of collapse of our cod fishery, healthier bottom dwelling fish stocks are being increasingly targeted to help sustain the fleet. This sort of action might backfire if populations of monkfish and other groundfish begin to plummet as the cod have, leaving fishermen with less and less. Worse, there are pressures on groundfish other than fishing, like warming seas and ocean acidification, which make it important that we set some habitat aside for our ocean ecosystems to adapt and build resiliency to our changing environment.

As odd looking and voracious as monkfish are, they are an important part of our New England ocean ecosystem. I hope that our fisheries managers and researches keep tabs on monkfish populations so we don’t imperil this true ocean oddity. Especially since I haven’t seen that Crittercam footage yet.