Atlantic Puffins are odd, stumpy seabirds that look like a mad scientist somehow engineered them out of genetic materials from a penguin, a toucan, a hummingbird, and a football. Perhaps that’s why they’re called the clowns of the sea. They’re funny looking!
They’re also cute -cuter than their Pacific cousins, Horned and Tufted Puffins. They’re probably the only bird truly worthy of a plush animal toy.
With their black backs, white fronts, and stubby tails, they might be mistaken for foot-tall, baby penguins. Except for one thing — those colorful, over-sized beaks! Their orange and yellow stripes and large, sideways, steel-blue triangle make a bold contrast with the puffins‚ sober black and white bodies. Adding to their quirkiness are bright orange feet and what look to be triangular eyes.
If I were a bulkier, shorter person, I’d consider being a puffin this Halloween; all it would take is a black tux, white shirt, orange running shoes, and a colorful proboscis.
The best place to see puffins is Iceland (where they catch them with nets as they fly, then cook them, and eat them). But it’s getting easier to watch them off the coast of Maine thanks to Project Puffin, a program begun in the 1970s. At that point in time, puffin nesting sites in the US were reduced to two small islands north of Bar Harbor, Maine. Dedicated conservationists established two other colonies nearby, and now there are several pelagic tours in the area to take birders out to see the puffins at their breeding grounds.
I skipped Maine and took a boat trip this summer from Englishtown, Nova Scotia to Bird Island off the north coast of Cape Breton. It was well worth it.
Puffins are especially fun to watch in the air and diving for fish. They have slender wings that allow them to swim underwater like penguins. But the combination of stumpy bodies and short, slender wings means they have to flap their wings faster than any other birds except for hummingbirds. Their wings beat at 300-400 per minute, or five to seven times a second, almost but not quite a blur.
Seeing swarms of puffins buzzing around you or bobbing in the ocean with as many as ten small fish tucked into their beaks is quite a treat. No matter how gloomy you are, watching puffins will definitely cheer you up.