Puffins Faring Well…For Now

Atlantic puffin
Atlantic Puffin. Photo by Rene Laubach.
Last week, after 37 years of coming to the Maine coast, I had the distinct privilege of seeing the Atlantic puffin, beautiful sea birds that are appropriately named Parrots of the Sea for their colorful markings.

With a group of 10, we traveled 45 nautical miles off the coast of Maine to Machias Seal Island, a designated bird sanctuary and home to the largest colony of Atlantic puffin that U.S. travelers can easily view off the Maine coast. Cutler, Maine (population 507), the launch point for our trip to Machias Seal Island, is over 230 miles north of Portland.

They are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so restrictions regarding contact with the puffins are tight to ensure their population continues to grow. Only 30 people/day are allowed to dock on the island (weather permitting), with trips to the island running between the months of May-August.

Our guests traveled from across the country to witness a bird that is rare in the U.S., and which takes considerable effort to see close up in the wild.

Hanging in a Delicate Balance

Today, Atlantic puffin off the Maine Downeast coast are hanging in a delicate balance. While major recovery efforts have brought back native populations to higher numbers (from about 100 in 1973 to over 1,000 today), they are living on the front lines of a changing climate. If we don’t reign in our climate-harming behaviors, these beautiful puffins face a troubling future.

Razorbill penguin and Atlantic puffin
Razorbill and an Atlantic puffin. Photo by Rene Laubach.
What did we learn on our 2-day trip? That today, puffins are doing well. That last year, it wasn’t a good year for puffins, when warm ocean temperatures caused a shortage of small fish that the birds needed to feed their young—causing unprecedented numbers of fleglings to starve.

We learned that puffins only live in cold waters, explaining why the majority of birds along the Atlantic seaboard only migrate to and nest in the northern tip of coastal Maine in the Bay of Fundy. And we learned that a warming climate can affect the nesting and feeding needs of puffins:

  1. Nesting is harmed by extreme storms and the rising seas, which are expected to worsen as the global temperature of our earth continues to rise.
  2. Puffins depend on small fish that live in cold oceans, so when ocean temperatures rise, other, larger fish move in that puffin fledglings are not able to eat.

Visitors on boat to Machias Seal Island
Visitors on a boat headed for Machias Seal Island. Photo by Felice Stadler (NWF staff).
During our two day journey, we met not only other travelers who were equally drawn to this rural jewel to see the Atlantic puffin up close, but all the locals that depend on visitors to support their critically important outdoor tourism industry: from the boat operator in Cutler who holds the only U.S. permit to take people to Machias Seal Island on his converted lobster boat; to the long-time lobsterman/former state legislator who now helps run charters to view puffins and whales out of Milbridge, Maine, to the staff at Helen’s, the anchor for our trip that happens to be nationally known for its blueberry pie.

Puffins are Worthy of Protection

Atlantic puffins are being watched closely, as they are our canary in the North Atlantic. Ecological changes are creating ripple effects that likely will make it impossible for wildlife species like the puffin to readily adapt to a warming climate.

The Atlantic puffin is a national treasure that’s worthy of protection. I hope you will join me and tens of thousands of other wildlife advocates in efforts to turn the tide on climate change. Let us hope we never witness the day when the only glimpse one is able to catch of the Atlantic Puffin in Maine is on a t-shirt.

Take ActionTake action for puffins at risk from climate change. Speak out against attacks to the Environmental Protection Agency’s historic proposed limits on carbon pollution!


Please also consider making a donation supporting NWF’s work to protect the Atlantic puffin and other wildlife species threatened by climate change.