Newfoundland Travel Blog - Atlantic Puffin

Updated: Aug 6

The return of Atlantic Puffins to their nesting cliffs along Newfoundland's coastline is one of the things that I look forward to every spring I always book a boat tour to see them from offshore at their nesting grounds at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Naturally, I wanted to learn more about these charming little sea birds. Here is some of what I learned #witlessbay #puffin #atlanticpuffin #newfoundland #birding #seabird

Atlantic puffin standing next to its nest at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland, Canada
Atlantic puffin standing next to its nest at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland, Canada

The Atlantic Puffin, the official bird of Newfoundland, is a member of the Auk family and a relative of the extinct Great Auk. The Atlantic Puffin was previously known as the Common Puffin. Its nicknames are the "clown of the sea" and the "sea parrot". The Atlantic Puffin is the only puffin of the puffin family that lives in the Atlantic Ocean. Its two cousins, the horned puffin and the tufted puffin, are Pacific Ocean birds. As curious as we are about the puffin, the puffin appears to be about us. This makes for great photo opportunities when it is standing still. It is more challenging to photograph when in flight as it is a very fast moving bird and can flap its wings up to 400 times per minute and travel at speeds of up to 55 mph!

#auk #atlanticpuffin #seaparrot #seabird

Atlantic Puffins have a small stature, measuring less than one foot long and weighing only about one pound. For size comparison, the puffin on the left is carrying a feather of a small sea bird in its bill. #atlanticpuffin #puffinsize

Atlantic puffin, its wings spread, skimming the surface of the ocean at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, NL
Atlantic puffin, its wings spread, skimming the surface of the ocean at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, NL

Their wingspan is about 20 inches. Puffins have a very distinctive appearance with a large, yellow and orange bill with a blue-gray base. These bills acquire more grooves and grow larger as they age. Their faces are white to gray with a thick black band from the forehead back. Their backs are black and their bellies white in color; feathers are waterproof. Their legs and feet are orange. Like the bill, they increase in size with aging. Did you know that, after mating season, the puffins legs will fade to a more yellow hue and they will shed their brightly colored beaks in favour of dull beaks to make them less visible to predators? #puffinpredator #puffinappearance

Atlantic puffin flying overhead and carrying a small fish back to its nesting burrow at Gull Island, Newfoundland
Atlantic puffin flying overhead and carrying a small fish back to its nesting burrow at Gull Island, Newfoundland

The Atlantic Puffin has a dietary preference for small fish. As they excel at flying and are quite agile swimmers, they are proficient fishers. The pointed ridges inside their beak and on their tongue allow them to carry up to ten fish at a time. As other birds try to steal its meal, puffins must work tirelessly to return a meal to its family. #puffindiet #whatdopuffineat

Common Murre and Atlantic Puffin at the nesting burrows of Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland, Canada
Common Murre and Atlantic Puffin at the nesting burrows of Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland, Canada

Atlantic Puffins spend most of their far offshore at sea but return to their nesting burrows in the spring season to build or repair their burrows and to mate. They typically return to the same nesting ground and burrow every year, nesting in offshore islands to reduce risk of predator attack. #puffin #puffinnest #puffinburrow #puffincolony


Over 95% of the population of North America's Atlantic Puffins are found in Newfoundland waters, the majority of these, by far, at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve where you can view approximately 500,000 Atlantic Puffin. Atlantic Puffin are cold water birds that live in water temperatures between the range of 0-20 degrees Celsius. Gull Island, the largest of the four islands at the ecological reserve, is accessible only offshore by boat. The other three islands at the reserve include Green, Pee Pee, and Great Island. With the exception of the researchers housed on the island, land access to people is denied. Tour boats enable the puffins to be viewed in close range. Many puffin, and other sea birds, fly directly overhead and swim in the water directly next to the boat. For those who want to see Atlantic Puffin onshore, there are about 300 nesting pairs that can be seen from a lookout point in Elliston, Newfoundland. Sometimes, these curious puffin come to people watch so it's a great place for a photo opportunity. #witlessbay #witlessbayecologicalreserve #puffin #puffincolony

Common Murre and Atlantic Puffin at the nesting burrows of Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland, Canada
Common Murre and Atlantic Puffin at the nesting burrows of Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland, Canada

I am most familiar with the puffin colonies at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve where large colonies of Atlantic puffins nest close together. With crowded conditions, you might imagine that they need an effective way to communicate between each other. Posturing is a common means of communication between them. Puffins walking swiftly and holding their heads low signify that they are passive and not seeking to fend off another puffin. When a puffin faces another with wings and beak parted, it is engaged in a defensive posturing. In the event that the puffins become combative, they will use their wings, feet, and bills in wrestling behavior. This usually attracts other puffins to watch (much as in schoolyard brawls). #witlessbay #witlessbayecologicalreserve #arepuffinsocial

Puffin inspecting a potential mate on the rocky shoreline of Gull Island, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, NL
Puffin inspecting a potential mate on the rocky shoreline of Gull Island, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, NL

Males and females look identical with the exception of the male being slightly larger than the female. During their time at sea, mating couples may not be in each other's company but upon their return to nesting burrows in late April, the pair reunite (usually at the same burrow), greeting each other with deep grunts and rubbing of bills (something known as "billing"). Those who have not yet reached sexual maturity remain at sea where it will continue to fish and mature. #puffin #dopuffinspairforlife #puffinpair

Puffins at the nesting burrows of Gull Island, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland
Puffins at the nesting burrows of Gull Island, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland

The nest is prepared by both the male and female. Puffins dig their burrows using their bills and feet. As they dig, they toss upturned dirt behind them. The burrow is usually formed in a S-shape, measures about 2-3 feet, and extends at the back into two rooms. This design helps reduce the risk of predator attack and enables the puffin to keep the nest area clean while allowing for toilet facilities in the adjoining room. It is important that the chick doesn't become too soiled because soiling may interfere with its feather waterproofing and its survival. #puffinnest #puffinburrow

Only one egg is laid per couple per year and incubated over a period of about 45 days. Both partners watch the nest and, in succession, one leaves to fish and return with the meal to feed the family. Pufflings, as the little puffins are called, are ready to fly after 40-80 days of hatching and, by September, the young are ready for flight and their journey to sea. #puffinegg #puffling #puffinburrow

This great black-backed gull is gliding over the coast of Bay Roberts, Newfoundland
The Great Black-backed gull is largest predator of adult Atlantic Puffins.

The main predator of the adult Atlantic Puffin is the greater black backed gull. Although Herring gulls will not kill an Atlantic Puffin, they will kill and consume the young chicks. Before us humans cast a negative view of these coastal seabirds, we should realize that is us, by our overfishing, use of atmospheric chemicals, oil spills, and behaviors leading to global warming that has one of the heaviest mortality risks to the Atlantic Puffin and other species of wildlife. In Iceland, and perhaps some other parts of the world, Atlantic Puffin are still hunted in season! #puffinpredator #puffin #puffinmortality

The adults will leave the nest several days before the young, perhaps to lure predators such as the greater black backed gull, the puffin's primary predator, to leave the nesting grounds. The flip side of this, however, is that the young puffins will have to travel to sea on their own. #puffinfledgling #puffin

The young puffins leave their nest to join the colony at night. This reduces the risk of predator attack and also allows them to use the night sky as a navigational guide. Unfortunately, these young birds sometimes become disoriented by the city lights and land in nearby communities. The chances of puffins surviving on land are extremely slim and their best chance of survival is their return to the ocean. #puffling #puffinrescue #cpaws

There are rescue groups, such as the "Puffin Patrol" in Witless Bay, Newfoundland, that, work with volunteers to search for land-lost pufflings and arrange for their release back to sea the following morning. This video was taken by me during our puffin rescue in 2019. #puffinpatrol, #witlessbay

Thousands of colonies of puffin and other seabirds return annually to nest on the cliffs at Gull Island, Witless Bay.
Thousands of colonies of puffin and other seabirds return annually to nest on the cliffs at Gull Island, Witless Bay.

In addition to the Atlantic Puffin, Gull Island receives many species of sea birds annually including the Common Murre, Herring Gull, Greater Black Backed Gull, Black Legged Kittiwake, Northern Gannet, Razorbill, and a small number of Northern Fulmar and Thick Billed Murre. Leach's storm petrels also nest in large numbers at Gull Island bur are unlikely to be spotted as they tend to only be active at night when at the nesting grounds. #gullisland #witlessbay #witlessbayecologicalreserve #seabird #seabirdnest

A trip to Newfoundland's east coast just wouldn't be complete without a visit to see the puffins. I visit every year and, each time, am as captivated as if it was my first visit. I'm sure you will agree that your Newfoundland travel itinerary will be made all the more complete when you include plans to see these amazing sea birds. Please follow my Newfoundland Travel Blog to see my work on some other popular tourist attractions in eastern Newfoundland. I'd be delighted to hear from you so why not contact me today? #seabird, #newfoundland, #thingstodoinnewfoundland, #travelitinerary


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