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"Sea Parrots" on
Machias Seal Island
by Alana Ranney
Atlantic Puffins
Machias Seal Island (MSI) has the largest Atlantic Puffin colony off the coast of Maine with approximately 3000 puffins.  Puffins are not endangered but are considered rare in Maine.  There are an estimated 12 to 15 million Atlantic puffins in the world.   They are abundant in Newfoundland, Iceland, and Britain.   They are found exclusively in the North Atlantic Ocean.   The Atlantic puffin is a migratory seabird that returns every summer to its nesting site.  Their sole purpose to come to the island is for nesting.

The puffins are Auks or members of the Alcidae Family of birds (alcids).  The Atlantic Puffin, formerly the Common Puffin, are also known as Sea Parrots, Sea Pigeons, clown of the ocean, bottle-nose, coulterneb, Labrador auk, large-billed puffin, pope, tammy norie.

Machias Seal Island is located in the Gulf of Maine approximately 10 miles Southeast from Cutler, Maine.  The island is about 15 acres in size and consists mostly of rock but does have a small grassy area.  There are no trees and no boat landing exists.  There is a lighthouse on the island and 3 other structures. 

United States and Canada both claim the island, although Canada has maintained a lighthouse on the island since 1832.  There are two light keepers on the island at a time for 28-day stints.  As they finish two more keepers replace them and rotate this schedule yearly. 

During the summer there are boat tours offered daily to the island.  Depending on weather conditions, you may be able to go ashore.  Once on the MSI you are asked to stay together to minimize the stress to the birds.  Moving together as a unit, you are asked to hold a stick or tripod above your head to prevent the terns from diving at you. 

After passing the helicopter landing area you will reach the headquarters where you are welcome to stay and talk with the light keepers and view the birds from there.  Small groups of 8 to 10 will then be escorted to the small blinds located in a few locations on the island.  There are about 10 blinds on the island and one outhouse.  Four or five people will fit inside each blind with standing room only.  The blinds are about five feet wide by ten feet long and seven feet tall; this makes for very tight quarters.  After being inside for about a minute or so the birds will start to come closer.  They know you are in there but if you are quite and still they will approach very close to the blinds with in a few feet!  You are assured to get an up close and personal look at these very cute birds.  After looking at them for a time to me they looked like a sad clown.

The Atlantic puffin is about 12 1/2 inches in length, which is about the size of a pigeon.  The life span of the puffin is between 25 and 30 years.  Breeding adults are identified by their brightly colored bill which takes 5 years to develop.  This showes the puffin is mature and ready to begin breeding.  Male and female are hard to separate, as there is only a small difference in size.  The puffin makes a unique sound; it literally sounds like a muffled chainsaw but is very loud and extremely surprising.  Don't ask "where is that chainsaw coming from?" Who is running that?" Like I did! 

Puffins nest in colonies from April through August.  They usually use the same burrow and keep the same mate every season.  Puffins dig their burrows using their bills and feet to move the earth that is located in the rocky cavities on MSI. Most burrows are 2 to 3 feet in length this is so predators cannot easily reach the egg or chick.  In the rear of the burrow is a soft nest of feathers and grass where they incubate the egg.  The female puffin will lay her one egg in the burrow sometime in May.  The male and female share the responsibility of incubating the egg and rearing the chick.  Incubation takes approximately 39-43 days and both the adults feed and care for the chick for approximately 45 days.  Usually feeding the chick fish several times each day. 

When the puffling is large enough to fledge (leave) the nest the parents just stop feeding the chick.  The chick will come out of the nest when it is hungry and start fending for itself.  The puffin chick will then leave the colony and journey to the ocean alone. Where the chick will remain in the open ocean until it is around 2-3 years old.  Then it will return to the same colony where it was hatched.  And it may even nest near the burrow where it was hatched.  Scientists are unsure how a puffin will find its way to the same point and are still learning how birds migrate.

Other seabirds nest on the island as well, razorbills, (Alca torda) artic terns, common terns, and only until recently murres.  The Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) is the dominant-nesting tern at Machias Seal Island, but there are also a few Common Terns (Sterna hirundo) sharing the island. The terns are very territorial and constantly diving and swooping to protect their breeding grounds. The terns are at the same time protecting the breeding puffin colony from disturbances by attacking intruders and keeping predators away.

The puffin's greatest natural predator is the Great Black-backed gull.  The Great Black-backed Gull will circle above the island and pick out a lone puffin and catch it from behind by dive bombing the unsuspecting puffin. It can catch adult puffins in mid-air.  Mammals, such as fox and rats are very destructive because the puffins could not escape them.  If introduced on the island the puffins may no longer be able to use the island for breeding.

After breeding season is over puffins tend to disperse widely during this time and spend the rest of their time in the open ocean only returning to land when it is time to breed again. 

Puffins are wonderfully adapted to spend months at sea where there is an abundance of food.  Their feathers are waterproof.  Their diets consist of fish that they will dive up to 150 feet to catch, and stay underwater for up to a minute but usually about 20 to 30 seconds.  They can dive from the air or the surface of the water.  They can hold many fish in their beaks but the average catch is about 10.  The puffin is an excellent swimmer, using its wings to 'fly' underwater while using its feet to control direction.  Adult puffins mostly eat small fish, such as sand eels, herring, hake and capelin and the ability to drink salt water.  During the winter puffins may also eat crustaceans, but their preferred food is fish.

Early settlers hunted Maine puffins for food and feathers. The colonies were harvested and could not support that level of hunting.  By 1900 the puffins were gone from the Gulf of Maine except for 2 isolated colonies one of which was Machias Seal Island and Matinicus Rock.

In 1973, Stephen Kress started a program to help re-establish a puffin colony on Eastern Egg Rock Island, which is off the mid-coast of Maine. The National Audubon Society and the Canadian Wildlife Service sponsored this program. Puffin chicks were moved from a large colony in Newfoundland and raise on Eastern Egg Rock. This was done so the puffins would think Egg Rock was their home and the puffins would eventually return there to raise their own chicks. From 1973 to 1981 a total of 954 downy chicks were transplanted into artificial burrows on Egg Rock. This was a successful project and a similar project was completed at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge where 950 puffin chicks were transplanted between 1984  1989.  Puffins re-colonized Seal Island in 1992.  MSI remains a natural colony.
MSI Light
Terns Overhead
Getting There
Atlantic Puffin
Nesting Areas
Landing on the Island
Getting There
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Be ready or they will atack you!