Machias Seal Island: Pelagic Paradise (Predominately Puffins)

Atlantic Puffin, Machias Seal Island

Atlantic Puffin, Machias Seal Island

When I go out birding, I seldom go looking for anything specific. Based on where I’m headed and what time of year it is, I’ll have a sense of what might be around and what I can expect to see, but that’s usually the extent of it. Of course, there are times when I’m on a mission—perhaps to photograph Harlequin Ducks off Barnegat Light or watch Piping Plovers and Least Terns on the Connecticut shore, or to give enthusiastic chase to a chance rarity that’s dropped in out of the blue (anyone who’s ever crossed multiple state lines or scrambled to the top of a parked car to view a bird that just shouldn’t be there can attest to the special thrill in encountering the extreme unexpected). Sometimes, it’s the prospect of cold winter days alive with northern finches that gets my blood racing: A flock of Common Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, or Bohemian Waxwings can warm you up faster than a piping-hot mug of cocoa. And rare or not, what birder doesn’t enjoy adding a new species to the life list?

The allure of the possible, this promise of discovery, is one facet of birding that drives me into the field. After all, who knows what’s waiting to be found? But that’s only a single aspect, a piece of the equation. For me, birding is about much more. It’s about finding something new in the familiar, reacquainting myself with old friends, immersing myself in Nature and drinking deeply from her cup.

However, there are those birds that, for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to, needed to, had to see. Some I’ve encountered in aviaries, others through photos, and still others I’ve only heard about—but all are united by my desire to cross paths with them in their natural environments. This, of course, takes planning and shifts birding into a more focused activity with a specific objective: get out and find the bird. It also doesn’t always work. To be successful in such a singular pursuit requires a confluence of elements: season, weather, time of day, absence or appearance of predators, and the activity and presence of the birds themselves, just to name a few. These, in turn, are affected by a variety of factors, almost all of which are completely out of your control—and any one of which can thwart the best-laid plans.

But when everything comes together, it’s pure magic.

Atlantic Puffins, Machias Seal Island

Atlantic Puffins, Machias Seal Island

Early last week, I spent time with a bird I’ve been waiting more than half my life to see. Leaving western Massachusetts, my family and I traveled up the Maine Coast to within sight of Canada, and then hopped a boat and steamed 10 miles into the Bay of Fundy to a 20-acre rock known as Machias Seal Island—summer home to perhaps the most charming and charismatic bird north of the Equator. We had journeyed more than 400 miles to be in the company of Puffins.

The morning of our adventure broke cool and early, Cutler Harbor socked in with fog thick as Mississippi mud. From the outset, our chances to land on the island looked slim—you could measure visibility in feet, and the swell that had already prevented landing for several days seemed unwilling to release its hold over the bay. But conditions were safe to make the trip out, so off we went: 13 passengers and two crew. If nothing else, we’d be close enough to see the birds from the boat, even if we couldn’t make it ashore.

While we were underway, the fog lifted a bit, and as we approached the island, Puffins began materializing out of the mist—a few at first, then steadily more until there were several hundred floating around us. I was thrilled. I’d only known these birds through other people’s images, and now here they were in the flesh. And it wasn’t only the Puffins: Machias Seal Island is home to Arctic Terns and Razorbills as well, and both species joined in the avian exhibition. Landing or no, the trip proved to be incredible.

As we rounded the south end of the island, though, the sea seemed to change. Was it an overabundance of optimism, or was the water beginning to flatten? I began to cautiously let hope in around the edges, but by the time the landing platform came into view, there was no doubt: the swell had all but vanished. We would land.

Two trips of the skiff got us all safely to shore, and within 15 minutes we were in blinds, surrounded by seabirds and deep into a singularly beautiful experience. Razorbills and Common Murres (a regular visitor to the island) were scattered about the rocks, Arctic Terns wheeled and soared overhead, and a lone Northern Gannet rested at the edge of the fog. All were wonderful to behold, but the Puffins stole the show. Thousands of these engaging little birds hopped or rested among the rocks, preening themselves with their oversized and improbably colored candy-corn beaks. They flew in from every direction, alighting mere feet from where we sheltered in the blind, their behavior betraying not a hint of concern for the humans gawking at them through 10-inch cutout windows. It was spectacular.

Razorbill, Machias Seal Island

Razorbill, Machias Seal Island

After an hour, we had to depart—too soon, but then an entire day spent there wouldn’t have seemed long enough—so we reluctantly took our leave of the birds. I silently thanked them for allowing me to share in their lives, even for a moment. And then, with a last few goodbyes, we were off, back to the boat and on to the mainland and the intrusions of humanity.

But those few evanescent moments remain, the Puffins leaving indelible marks on my heart and soul with their little webbed feet. I’m not the same person as I was before setting foot on the island; an experience like that changes you. I now know what’s possible: the Puffin colony on Machias Seal Island is healthy and strong, the fishery still provides what the birds need to raise their young and see the next generation off into the world.

For how long, though? If we continue our rampant assaults on the world around us, what future remains for these marvelous creatures? What steps can we take to safeguard their survival? And can we afford the loss if we fail? I, for one, don’t believe we can: The flipside of learning what’s possible is recognizing the cost of losing it, and while the disappearance of any species is a price far too high to pay, contemplating a world without these delightful and utterly winsome little birds borders the unbearable. It is a reality we do not want.

The Puffins ask very little of us: clean water, clean air, space enough to live out their lives, and a nourishing supply of food for their young. Small requests to allow them to thrive, and easy enough for us to grant. In so doing, we’ll ensure that Machias Seal Island remains a haven for future generations of Puffins, and that our own future generations can continue to stand spellbound among them. After all, the very things vital to the birds prosperity we require for our existence as well. And by action or circumstance, we may find before long that we depend on the health of the Puffins, that both our species are balanced on the same edge, and that their survival is delicately intertwined with our own.

Atlantic Puffins & Razorbill, Machias Seal Island

Atlantic Puffins & Razorbill, Machias Seal Island

Dying In The Midnight Sun

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Iceland is rich in natural wonder and timeless beauty, filled with panoramic views and otherworldly vistas. It is a realm of Northern Lights and boundless summer sun. And it is home to one of the world’s most charming and iconic birds: the Atlantic Puffin.

Every summer, thousands of these whimsical birds return here to nest and raise their young—joined in their efforts by Arctic Terns, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Northern Fulmars, Razorbills, and Common Murres, who descend here in multitudes to feast and nourish their chicks on the bounty served up by the frigid North Atlantic. In all, 23 species of seabirds—including about a third of the world’s Arctic Terns and the vast majority of its Atlantic Puffins—rely on Iceland’s coastline, fields, and sea cliffs to shelter their young, and on the rich surrounding waters to feed them.

At least they did. Over the last decade or so, though, drastic changes have played havoc with Iceland’s seabirds: 10 years of breeding failures are decimating the once thriving colonies of Arctic Terns, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Atlantic Puffins. Now, researchers are finding many historical nesting sites empty; in some places, where they’ve previously banded hundreds of fat, healthy chicks, they’re recovering hundreds of carcasses. In the hardest-hit areas, the cataclysm is total: all the chicks—an entire generation—are dead. Aevar Petersen, a retired ornithologist with the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, has been surveying Arctic Terns on Flately Island for 41 years. Some summers, he and his colleagues have banded nearly a thousand chicks. This year, they’ve done five.

“Normally, there would be hundreds of birds here,” he says. “Now, there may be a few chicks. But they probably won’t make it. This is what we’re seeing in the whole of Flately, and further afield.”

Atlantic Puffins © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Atlantic Puffins © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

On the Westman Islands—home to a mixed seabird colony so extensive that it borders on mythical—more than 800,000 Puffin pairs typically shack up and raise their young. No so today: this summer, during his regular Puffin survey, South Iceland Nature Center biologist Erpur Snaer Hansen finds burrow after burrow empty—a trend that’s been going on for more than a decade.

The devastation extends beyond Iceland. All throughout their ranges, seabirds are suffering. Says Petersen,

“What is happening in Iceland, we see happening in so many other areas in the North Atlantic. And the fact that we’re seeing them over such a wide area points to a common factor.”

So what’s going on here? What went wrong? In essence, drastic changes in Earth’s oceans—their chemistry, climate, food base, and toxic load—are affecting their ability to support life. Historical food webs are collapsing. And the one species directly responsible for the damage, Petersen’s common factor?

Us.

We chain-smoke fossil fuels, lay waste to our planet’s natural resources, dump garbage wherever we see fit, and poison the very systems that sustain life. We’re creating a toxic cocktail that’s pushing these birds closer and closer to the brink. Fortunately, there’s still time. Entire populations haven’t yet foundered, and seabirds are notoriously hardy: millions still cruise the Arctic skies and ride the North Atlantic currents. They can recover from a few bad breeding seasons. A few. But as population declines extend from years to decades, it’s only a matter of time before they pass the breaking point and disappear forever.

And then what? After we lose the Puffins, Terns, Kittiwakes, and all the marvelous birds that blanketed the Icelandic landscape, who’s next?

Again, us. We are. Seabirds, says Carleton University doctoral student Jennifer Provencher,

“… are critical for detecting changes that are happening even more rapidly than we suspected. We are getting basically a year-to-year-to-year update of the health of the oceans and the health of the environment through these seabird studies.”

If there’s a canary in the North Atlantic coalmine, it’s the Atlantic Puffin. The North Atlantic is a major engine of Earth’s weather, and one of the most productive and important fisheries in the world; the Puffin’s troubles could be the intimations of a global crisis, one in whose remorseless grasp we may find ourselves, and which we may be hard-pressed to break. Holding to our present course may lead us to a bleak and dire future. These delightful, unassuming, comical little birds are sounding out the first warnings of a catastrophe that reaches far beyond Westman burrows. We would do well to heed them, for the demise of the Puffin may presage our own.

Even if it doesn’t, though, even if we don’t follow the Puffins into darkness, we will still have suffered a profound loss. We will have driven to extinction a charming creature whose only desire is, like our own, to thrive, to prosper, and to live free from harm or persecution—and when they do die, to do so on their terms, not through a brutal act of thoughtlessness and greed.

Our history gives me small reason to hope. And yet I do. I still cling to the idea that enough of us can shake off this madness and summon the will to change—that, in the final moments, we will save the Puffins and all their kin who fill the northern summer skies with cacophonous alacrity. We’ve done it before. In Maine, some 40 years ago, Dr. Stephen Kress launched Project Puffin and pioneered a method of attracting seabirds back to historical yet long-abandoned nesting grounds. In so doing, he engineered a seabird recovery that was nothing short of miraculous. Today, Dr. Kress still works with Project Puffin and the National Audubon Society to monitor and protect Puffins in the northeast United States. Across the pond, Tom Brock and the Scottish Seabird Centre are keeping tabs on Puffins among Scotlands’ islands; now, after several years of struggles, it seems that the Puffins have finally had a good breeding season. Researchers in Iceland—Petersen, Provencher, and Hansen among them—continue to watch over seabirds in the North Atlantic. And all over the world, voices far and wide are awakening people to the Puffin’s plight, educating them about conservation, and, through images and words, igniting in others the love they have of these delightful, remarkable birds.

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

I don’t believe their fate is sealed. We can change direction, and shift to a course that ensures a future for Puffins, Terns, Kittiwakes… and us along with them—but we have to move fast. If we fail, then we’ll have let slip yet another opportunity to act for the common good. But if we succeed in hauling them back from the edge, then we may just save ourselves as well.

Photographer, filmmaker, and Mass Audubon instructor Shawn Carey (Migration Productions) has done wonderful work in capturing Puffins at their best. You can find his photos here.

He’s also posted a couple of Puffin videos here and here.

And you can stay on top of the latest research into what changes in bird populations are telling us about the health of the planet through Environmental Health News’ “Winged Warnings” series.