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Romeo, Romeo.  Wherefore art thou Romeo...

Tufted Puffins

These amazing birds breed on
Haystack Rock!

Hey Baby, I'm right here.  Keep cool, mama.

      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 versatile!
      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.

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...

     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 clicking here.

     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 seabird page.


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