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Visiting the Atlantic Puffin

Most people planning a trip to Newfoundland include a trip to see the Atlantic puffin, the official bird of Newfoundland and a relative of the extinct great auk. These cute little "well-dressed" seabirds appear to be neatly groomed with a sleek black tuxedo-style topcoat and a white underbelly. The Atlantic puffin's colorful orange and yellow striped beak and their waddling walk has earned them their nickname of "clown of the sea" and "sea parrot".

Atlantic puffin, one leg up, stepping onto the ocean surface with its wings extended.
Atlantic puffin landing on the ocean surface directly next to the tour boat at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, NL.

How big are Atlantic Puffins?

People who have never before seen a puffin have the impression that they are much larger than they actually are but, in fact, these little seabirds are less than 12 inches long and weigh only about 1 pound. Both the female and male puffin have a similar appearance with the only exception being that the female is slightly smaller than the male.

Two puffins swimming in the Atlantic next to the tour boat. The first puffin has a feather in its mouth for size comparison.
Two puffins, one with a feather in its mouth, wading near the coast at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in NL.

When is the best time to visit Newfoundland to see puffins and where are they best seen?

During nesting season, mature puffins travel great distances and, in Newfoundland, return to their nesting grounds in late April and stay until late August. Young puffins that have not reached sexual maturity remain at sea and will do so for the first 4-5 years of their lives.

Puffin skimming over the surface of the ocean and holding a small fish in its mouth,
Puffin skimming over the surface of the ocean holding a small fish in its mouth,

An average of 226,000 nesting pairs of puffins can be found at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland where they are found alongside many other nesting seabirds such as the common murre, razorbill, and black legged kittiwake to name a few. Government regulations prohibit public land access to their nesting grounds on Gull Island but, with proper clearance, tour boats are permitted to bring spectators in close proximity to the shoreline where puffins can clearly be seen flying overhead, swimming directly adjacent to the tour boat, and standing along the cliffs.

Colonies of puffin, common murre, & black legged kittiwake in the nesting grounds at Gull Island, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, NL.
Colonies of puffin, common murre, & black legged kittiwake in the nesting grounds at Gull Island, NL.

For those who prefer to see Atlantic Puffin onshore, there are about 300 nesting pairs of puffins in Elliston, Newfoundland, a travel distance of about 3 1/2 hours from St. John's. At times, these curious little puffins enjoy people-watching as much as people enjoy puffin-watching!

Puffins at their nesting burrows at Gull Island, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, NL.
Puffins at their nesting burrows at Gull Island, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, NL.

Where do Atlantic puffins live when they are not nesting?

During non-breeding seasons, approximately 60 % of Atlantic puffin make their homes in the cold oceanic waters near Iceland. While at sea, puffins do not access land but spend their time resting on the ocean surface when not diving for food. These hearty little seabirds have no problem withstanding cold weather conditions.

These two Atlantic puffin are swimming next to the tour boat near the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, NL.
Two Atlantic puffin swimming next to the tour boat near the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, NL.

Atlantic puffin: Gone fishing

The Atlantic puffin is quite a strong swimmer and enjoys a diet consisting mainly of small fish. Puffins use their wings and webbed feet to glide underwater to depths of up to 200 feet for as long as a minute at a time. Within the ridges in their beaks, they can carry ten or more fish at one time.

In the backdrop of a summer blue sky, this Atlantic puffin, wings spread, is soaring overhead and carrying a small fish in its mouth.
Atlantic puffin, wings spread, is soaring overhead and carrying a small fish in its mouth.

How do Atlantic puffins communicate?

Atlantic puffins communicate through vocalizations and body language.

  1. When a puffin couple reunite at their nesting burrows in the spring of the year, they vocalize with deep grunts and "billing" ( rubbing their bills together).

  2. To avoid confrontation when passing through another puffin's nesting zone, a puffin will keep its head down and walk at a rapid pace.

  3. When feeling threatened or preparing for combat, a puffin will fluff its feathers, stomp its feet, and begin grunting. Much like in schoolyard brawls, puffins in combat usually attracts the attention of other puffins.

One Atantic puffin is standing on a grass covered boulder vocalizing to other puffins at the nesting grounds of Gull Island, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, NL.
One Atantic puffin is standing atop a boulder vocalizing to other puffins at the Gull Island nesting grounds.

Do Atlantic puffin look the same outside of breeding season?

Like other avian creatures, to better camouflage and reduce the risks of being seen by predators, the Atlantic puffin will lose many of its flashy colors when breeding season has ended. They shed their brightly colored bills for one of a duller nature -and- their legs and feet fade from a bright orange to a pale yellow hue.

With its beak parted, this Atlantic puffin is soaring overhead in a summer blue sky at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, NL.
With its beak parted, this Atlantic puffin is soaring overhead at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, NL.

What are natural predators of the Atlantic Puffin?

The primary predator of the Atlantic puffin is the Great Black-backed gull. Land predators include foxes, rats and, unfortunately, humans. The life expectancy of an Atlantic puffin is about 20 years of age.

Great black backed gull gliding close to the ocean banks in Bay Roberts, NL.
The Great black-backed gull is the primary predator of the Atlantic puffin.

Atlantic Puffin: A beautiful love story

Puffins reach sexual maturity at age 4-5 and, once they select their partner, they mate for life. Interestingly, the puffin couple may not see each other during the months they spend at sea. Nonetheless, each year at nesting time, they return to their former burrow and greet each other with rubbing of beaks ("billing").

Two puffins standing together on a rock next to tall grass at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in NL.
Puffins mate for life and here one puffin is inspecting another to judge suitability as a mate.

The Atlantic Puffin: Building & Tending the Nest

The Atlantic puffin is a very social seabird and nests in huge colonies on tall coastal cliffs. The couple works cooperatively to build their nest using their large beaks to dig through the soil and their feet to shovel the soil backward. The couple will produce one egg and, together, will incubate it for a period of about 45 days. Partners take turns tending to the nest and going in search of food.

One puffin, wings parted, prepares to take flight from a large boulder at the puffin breeding grounds while the second puffin is looking toward the nest.
During nesting, one parent stays at the nest while the other leaves in search of food.

The Baby Atlantic Puffin

At birth, the baby puffins eyes are open. They have black feet and, with the exception of their white belly, are predominantly black. Unlike many other species of birds, the Atlantic puffin does not regurgitate its food but feeds live fish to their young which are consumed whole. Approximately two weeks before the young puffin is ready to leave the nest, its parent will feed it less. Pufflings, as the little puffins are called, are ready to fly after 40-80 days of hatching. Parents will leave the nest several days before the puffling to attract predators away from the nest and enhance their young's chances of survival.

A rescuer at the Puffin Patrol has captured a baby puffin from land, to be returned to sea by boat tour operators the following day.
Puffling, baby puffin, saved during a puffin patrol rescue mission.

Unfortunately, some pufflings become disoriented by city lights and, instead of flying to sea, fly inland toward the lights. For a number of years, rescue groups, such as the "Puffin Patrol" in Witless Bay, NL, has worked with volunteers to return the young puffins to sea so that they can survive. This video clip was taken during my first puffin rescue in 2019.

Please continue to follow my blog as I showcase more amazing tourist attractions in eastern Newfoundland.

Sandra Murray, owner of Murray House Vacation Home and writer of Newfoundland Travel Blog standing on a bridge overlooking a forest clearing and waterfall.
Sandra Murray, owner of Murray House Vacation Home and writer of Newfoundland Travel Blog

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