An Atlantic puffin on Machias Seal Island. (ED ROBINSON PHOTO)
If there was a contest for the title of “cutest Maine bird,” the winner would probably be the Atlantic puffin. There are lots of other feathered contenders, but people seem to fall in love at first sight with the chubby, colorful little puffins. Standing just 8 inches tall and weighing 1 pound, this bird inspires oohs and aahs with its brilliant orange bill and a comical, waddling walk.
Maine nearly lost its breeding population of puffins because of habitat destruction, predation and declining fish stocks. By the 1970s there were fewer than 100 breeding pairs left on a couple of remote islands. Thanks to Project Puffin, launched in 1973 by the National Audubon Society with help from Maine Audubon, our Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and many volunteers, restoration efforts have increased the puffin population along Maine’s coast to several thousand birds. Now there are multiple opportunities for you to see these wonderful birds in their natural habitat, along with other oceangoing birds of equal beauty.
If you are looking for something to do this summer or autumn outside the ordinary, book a boat trip out of a scenic location like Winter Harbor, Bar Harbor, New Harbor or Boothbay Harbor. There are commercial boat cruises of all sorts during our months of good weather, offering the chance to spot seabirds, whales and dolphins and visit historic spots like Monhegan Island.
Look for those trips that include opportunities to spot puffins near breeding islands, like Eastern Egg Rock or Matinicus Rock. Conservation groups like Maine Audubon also offer offshore trips for bird watchers. Take your camera and good binoculars so you can fully appreciate the sights on offer.
We were fortunate on June 2 to join the first group this season on Machias Seal Island via a cruise out of the Down East harbor at Cutler. Capt. Patterson runs Bold Coast Charters, with permission to land 15 people daily between early June and mid-August. This is the only island in Maine where non-scientists are allowed during breeding season — most seabird breeding islands, including those in Harpswell, are closed to visitors between mid-March and the end of August.
The weather was sunny and warm, with a light breeze, offering ideal conditions to observe and photograph thousands of puffins, razorbills, gulls and a stunning northern gannet. As we stood huddled in our small wooden blind, we thrilled to the sight of puffins within a few feet, with other birds zipping overhead or landing on the roof. In our two hours on the tiny island, I took over 2,500 photos, a feast of beautiful images to warm any nature lover’s heart.
If you would like to learn more about Atlantic puffins and dozens of other wild inhabitants of Maine, look for my new book, “Nature Notes from Maine Vol. II: Puffins, Black Bears, Raccoons & More,” available in September. All profits from the book benefit the conservation and public education efforts of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.
Ed Robinson, of Orr’s Island, retired from the biotechnology industry. His primary interests are writing, photography and speaking about the natural world.