Solving a puffin puzzle

From May to August the Atlantic Puffin leads a bold and highly visible life. Summer breeding grounds, like Machias Seal Island in the Bay of Fundy, attract tourists, naturalists and photographers who enjoy up close and entertaining encounters with the ‘parrot of the sea.’ But as summer fades the puffin disappears from land, a phenomenon that up until recently has been a mystery.

Scientists have long puzzled over where puffins go during their winter migration. Now thanks to advances in technology they are able to get a more accurate picture of where these sea birds spend two thirds of the year.

Satellite tags are one of the best ways to track migrating birds, but they can be expensive and weigh quite a bit. At roughly 20 centimetres tall and weighing similar to a can of soda, the puffin presents taggers with a particular challenge.  

Heather Major, a seabird biologist at the University of New Brunswick, says they do not want to attach anything to a bird that weighs more than one per cent of its body mass.  Heavier than that and it impacts their ability to fly.

Luckily advancements in tracking technology has meant instruments such as geo location tags are becoming smaller and lighter while at the same time being able to make more measurements and store more data.

And they can be just small enough to attach to a puffin without the puffin being bothered by it.

In 2017 Major’s UNB team attached 29 geo location tags to puffins. The following year they were able to retrieve 20 of them. Each day the tags had recorded such data as light levels and water temperatures. 

“We found that they were leaving Machias Seal Island and spending time in the Gulf of Maine and Cape Cod and then going as far south as Cape Hatteras in the winter,” says Major. “And then they start to make their way back up to the island in March.”

Puffin couples often reunite every year at the same nest site.

So why had no one seen them during those winter months?

Surprisingly the puffins were spending about eight months of the year out on the open ocean where they are perfectly at home. 

Puffins are better swimmers than fliers, so it makes the most sense for them to be close to their food source, expending the least amount of energy to do so. When not feeding on schools of small fish they can rest and sleep on the waves. They can even drink saltwater.

In fact breeding is the only reason puffins go on land and young puffins spend at least the first two years of their lives on water without ever stepping a webbed foot on land!

Fast fact: Despite being more comfortable in the water than the air, puffins can still fly quite fast, flapping their wings about 400 time a minute and reaching speeds of about 80 km/hr.

Article originally published in Brainspace Magazine Winter 2020/21

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