These amazing birds breed on
Tufted Puffins (Fratercula cirrhata) are pelagic birds which spend most of their
life bobbing along out in the North Pacific Ocean. They are a comical looking bird,
with brightly colored bill, white face, bright orange feet, and long, buff colored tufts
sweeping down the back of their heads. But their appearance belies their toughness
and versatility; for the puffin, of all creatures, makes use of all of the elements
in living its life. It lives on the water, dives under the water - more that 200'
deep - flies in the air, and nests in burrows under the ground. Now that's
Every year, around April 1st (a good day for a bird dressed
like a clown) the Tufted Puffins show up at Haystack Rock here in Cannon Beach. They
spend some time in loose flocks out on the ocean while looking for their mates or meeting
new ones. Then they descend on the rock to claim their burrows. There is a
period of time where they clean out old burrows or dig new ones and while they continue to
perform the rituals of courtship and mating. Much activity takes place during this
time. Finally, the female lays her single precious egg and incubation begins.
Few puffins are actually visible while the egg is incubating. The ones who are not
setting at the bottom of their burrows spend most of their time out at sea. You can
still see them as they come and go, but it will take patience.
'Long about mid to late June, the eggs begin to hatch and
things really get hopping up there. The parents must go out to sea and catch
fish to feed the rapidly growing chicks and they are going and coming constantly.
The nestlings take 45-50 days to fledge. When they reach full size, the parents
simply abandon them and head out to sea. After a few hungry days, the newly fledged
young puffins come up out of the burrow and literally jump off a cliff.
Why must their first act be to jump off a cliff? It
is because of their wings. Puffins propel themselves under water by
"flying" with their wings. Because water is so dense, their wings are
short and stubby and very strong. (Check out their small wings in the photo below.)
This same feature makes them poor flyers. They must beat their wings very
rapidly in order to fly at all and they sure don't glide! Jumping off a cliff gives
the newly fledged puffin a big assist in getting up some airspeed for that first
flight. I'm sure it is also very helpful to the busy parents as they come and go
while raising the young one. It is the presence of dirt for burrows at the top of
tall cliffs for easy take-offs that makes Haystack Rock a good puffin rookery.
If you want to see puffins, I recommend three things:
1) Come during the right time of year. Early April to mid May, or late June through
July are the best.
2) The best viewing is during low tides. The puffins nest on the north and northwest
slopes of Haystack Rock and you can get into a better position to view the north side when
the tide is low. Morning through early afternoon is probably the best time of day
due to the angle of the sun, though in late June the sun is so far north that it doesn't
matter that much.
3) Take binoculars at least, and a spotting scope if you have one. With your eyes
they look like big bumblebees flying around up there. With binoculars you can
positively identify them. But with the higher magnification of a scope you can
really watch their behavior: billing with their mates, standing there on the edge of
the cliff with their wings out flapping hesitantly and trying to get up the nerve to jump,
coming in for landings which may work out or may result in crazy, feet-extending, back
flapping crashes! They always seem to walk away smiling, though. If you don't
have a spotting scope, try to visit while the Haystack
Rock Awareness Program is on the beach. They frequently have spotting
scopes setup for viewing the puffins. You can see their schedule by
Spotting the first one can be difficult. The best way is to
watch for one flying in and then follow it until it lands. There are usually only
two kinds of birds flying around the rock: gulls and puffins. Gulls soar gracefully,
puffins do not. Look for the small, black bird who is flying like he means business
and there is your puffin. Once you have watched it land and have seen it on the
ground you will suddenly start seeing puffins all over the place.
One thing I don't recommend is climbing on the
rock. Let me rephrase that: DON'T CLIMB ON THE ROCK! It is dangerous, illegal, and
very disturbing to the birds. Even more disturbing to them is the occasional
helicopter which must come and pluck some idiot off of the rock who shouldn't have been
there in the first place. There is also a very large fine for climbing on the
rock and the Coast Guard will charge you for the rescue. So please keep your feet on
the sand and everyone will be happier.
If you are interested in other
seabirds, take a look at the USGS
Birds & Birding