Keywords: Birds, Marine birds, Monitoring, Forage fish, Species of concern

Tufted puffins have become an increasingly rare sight in the Pacific Northwest. Biologist and writer Eric Wagner recently visited Puget Sound's Smith Island, home to one of the region's last surviving colonies of these colorful seabirds. 

Scott Pearson and Peter Hodum are naturally early risers, so when I haul myself from my sleeping bag around 5:45 a.m., I can hear them boiling water already over the camp stove. I can have no complaints. To see the tufted puffins of Smith Island, we have to be up before sunrise.

Pearson, Hodum, and I have spent the night on Smith’s neighbor, Protection Island, a national wildlife refuge just off the northern coast of the Olympic Peninsula. Once the coffee is ready — Hodum takes tea — we head down to the island’s small marina, where Pearson’s research boat, the R/V Puffin, is tied up. Pearson, a senior researcher with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, starts the twin engines and we putter out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Tufted puffins have become an increasingly rare sight in these parts, not just in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, but around the Pacific Northwest as a whole.

Once in the strait we turn north. The day is promising clear skies and the water is calm and smooth; the Puffin all but flies over it. On the horizon are the larger profiles of the San Juans; but there is the small, squat shape of another piece of land in front of them. About fourteen miles from Protection, Smith Island sits in the middle of the strait’s eastern portion near Admiralty Inlet, and four miles from Whidbey Island. It is officially part of the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge, but in its relative isolation seems like its own little world. It is small, perhaps 40 feet tall at most and a few acres in area, sloping down to a spit that joins it to Minor Island nearby. When the tide is low enough the spit sits mostly exposed. Taken together, then, Smith Island and Minor Island can sort of resemble a dinoflagellate, with Smith as the bulbous body and Minor as the spindly tail.

View from the water of a small treeless island covered in green vegetation with bluffs on the left that slope downward to the right.

Smith Island is home to one of the last puffin colonies in Puget Sound, and the last one in interior waters where the birds breed in a significant number. Photo: Scott Pearson/WDFW

Forty minutes later we are circling Smith. Pearson carefully pilots the Puffin through the extensive kelp beds that surround the island’s western face; the beds are part of a 36,000-acre marine reserve overseen by the Washington Department of Natural Resources. When we are close to the island, he drops anchor, and we all get out our binoculars and turn to the bluffs and see what there is to see. He and Hodum, a professor at the University of Puget Sound, have been watching these puffins for more than a decade.

Birds of all sorts fret the island: hundreds of gulls and dozens of cormorants from a couple of species, and some unknown but large and noisy number of pigeon guillemots. And there, flying over the boat, is a tufted puffin. It is black and heavy-bodied, flapping its short narrow wings quickly to stay aloft. It kind of glances down at us as it whips past, showing its white face, its bright orange bill, and the yellowish tufts that stream behind its head and give it its common name. A couple of other puffins trail after it. The trio circles over the kelp bed and turns back to the island.

“None of them had anything, right?” Pearson asks. He has his camera with the big lens at the ready so he can take pictures of any puffins carrying fish.

“Nope,” Hodum says.

Tufted puffins have become an increasingly rare sight in these parts, not just in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, but around the Pacific Northwest as a whole. Although they used to have colonies dispersed throughout the San Juan Islands, the one at Smith Island is the last in the interior waters where they breed in anything approaching a significant number. (The other “colony,” at much-larger Protection Island, may have one or two or even perhaps three pairs left.) That said, an effort to get the species listed as federally threatened or endangered along the Pacific coast of the contiguous states failed; federal managers determined that there are enough puffins in Alaska to offset regional losses down south. That may be true, but at Smith Island, one thinks with some regret of that too-discussed billboard from Seattle in the early 1970s, adapted for an imperiled seabird: Will the last tufted puffin leaving PUGET SOUND – Turn out the lights?

Close up image of tufted puffin with its beak open.

Tufted puffins have large jaws and special adaptations called denticles (a type of serrated tooth) on their bills that allow them to carry multiple fish at once. Photo: Dan Roby, Oregon Coast Aquarium (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Another puffin flies over the boat. This one’s aspect differs from the others, its bill’s gestalt somehow fuller.

“That one has a bill load!” Hodum says. And it does: we can see several thin silvery bodies jammed together, dangling from the bird’s bill.

“Great!” Pearson says.

Tufted puffins, like other fish-eating auks, have special adaptations that let them carry many fish in their bills at once. Small fleshy protuberances called denticles stick up from their tongues, allowing them to slot individual prey items into a sort of oral filing cabinet, fish by fish. Their bills, big and stiff as they look, are also surprisingly flexible, so they can pursue fish even as they tuck some away for later.

A tufted puffin flying with several fish in its beak, bluff wall in the background

Photographs like this one of a puffin with a bill full of fish help scientists understand what the birds feed to their pufflings. Photo: Scott Pearson/WDFW

In this case, later means for the puffling, as puffin chicks are called. This particular puffin’s puffling — each pair only has one per year — is stashed in a burrow near the grassy fringe atop Smith Island’s bluffs. Pearson’s and Hodum’s aims today are thus twofold: to map all the active puffin burrows they can reasonably identify, and thus get a sense of the breeding population’s size this year; and to take photographs of the birds’ bill loads, with an eye to understanding as much as possible what the puffins are bringing back to their pufflings. What the Salish Sea is giving them, in other words.

The puffin circles a couple of times, getting closer to the island, braking sharply, seeming like it’s going to land… and then skimming the bluff’s surface and turning away, losing altitude while picking up speed as it flaps back out for another circuit.

“Good… good…” Pearson says. He has his camera up and is tracking the puffin as it swings away and then starts its approach. The puffin flies within 25 yards; Pearson clicks away at it. “At least one of these should be in focus,” he mutters.

The puffin drops low and swoops up to the bluff fringe, alighting on a kind of dirt apron and scuttling into one of the large holes.

“Got it?” Hodum asks.

“Yeah,” Pearson says, who has not taken his eyes off the spot. “It’s the big opening to the right of that small crack. Kind of a between the pipe and that big rock.”

“Right,” Hodum says. Inside Puffin’s small cabin, he gets out a sheaf of printouts from last year, which show sections of the Smith Island bluffs. He pages through until he finds a photo of the section where the puffin landed and vanished into its burrow with its fish. Pearson comes in, and the two of them look between the island and its simulacrum until they have agreed on the exact dark hole of burrow opening among a bevy of holes and other remarkably similar-looking landmarks. Hodum writes the date and time of the prey delivery above the burrow on the printout. This, the first known active burrow of the year.

Pearson goes back outside with his camera. By now, a few more puffins are circling — two with fish in their bills, the others without — and we can see a couple of others standing on the bluff outside of what may or may not be their active burrows. Do those burrows contain pufflings? Certainty comes only from food: if a puffin ducks in with a billfull of fish, then it has a chick; if not, it may just be prospecting, or a failed breeder.

So the morning goes. Between the puffins carrying fish, the photographs of their fish, and the ground-truthing whenever one of them deigns to enter a burrow, the time passes surprisingly quickly, spurred along by counts every fifteen minutes of the number of puffins on the colony, in the air, or sitting on the water. Before I know it, it is 11:30. The sun is high and the puffins, having finished their morning bout of provisioning, fly out to the waters just beyond the kelp bed to loaf in the waves for the rest of the day, until it is time to feed their pufflings again in the evening.

Pearson and Hodum haul up the anchor, get ready to head back to Protection Island. All told, they documented feedings at seventeen burrows. They are encouraged; the number of active burrows seems to be holding steady for the past couple of years. Tomorrow they will return for another few hours to see if they missed any other burrows. Then they will return next year, too, and the year after that — coming to count the puffins of Smith Island for as long as there are puffins here to count.

About the author: Eric Wagner writes about science and the environment from his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and daughter. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, The Atlantic and High Country News, among other places. He is the author of "Penguins in the Desert" and co-author of "Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish." His most recent book is "After the Blast: The Ecological recovery of Mount St. Helens," published earlier this year by University of Washington Press. He holds a PhD in Biology from the University of Washington.

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