Here on Petit Manan Island, we spend much of our time watching terns: figuring out how many of each species we have, counting nests and eggs, reading bands, determining what they’re eating, and making general behavioral observations. But it’s always a treat to get to work with our photogenic little Alcids on the rocky shoreline: the Atlantic Puffins!
We try to be objective researchers, but let’s face it: puffins are pretty darn cute. Currently there are over 200 puffins on the island, and many of them are incubating eggs! A female only lays a single egg inside a burrow. Sometimes puffins use crevices created by large, pink-granite rocks along the shore, and other times they dig burrows in the soil along the vegetation line. They use their bills to loosen the soil and their feet to kick it out. These burrows can be three feet deep! On Petit Manan, puffins also inhabit artificial burrows that we’ve created using wooden or plastic boxes with tunnel-like entrances made from tubing. They often use the same burrow year after year.
For the most part, we leave the puffins to their business of hanging out on the rocks, feeding on fish offshore, and incubating their eggs. But we do spend time observing them from afar to read their metal identification bands.
With this information we can ascertain whether the same puffins are returning from year to year, what their success rates have been (in terms of laying eggs and fledging young), and whether they are using the same burrows. Many of the rock burrows are marked with numbers in green and yellow paint so that we can identify specific locations.
We also periodically investigate the burrows to determine how many eggs have been laid. This can be a bit of a challenge since some of the burrows are very small and deep.
For the most difficult crevices, we use a nifty piece of equipment that we informally call “the snake.” A small, lighted camera with a long, bendable neck can be inserted into the burrows that we can’t access, and we can look at the image on a screen.
But the hardships of investigating burrows (e.g. sandwiching your body into a rocky, guano-covered crevice to peer into a burrow, all-the-while being dive-bombed by angry Common Terns) are all worthwhile when we get the pleasure of spying on an incubating adult!
Keep checking back for updates, because if you think adult puffins are adorable… wait until you see what their chicks look like!