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An Unexplained Flurry of Puffins on Cape Cod


On the morning of January 7, after a few days of moderate, mostly northerly winds, Sue Finnegan and Alex Burdo pulled into the parking lot at First Encounter Beach in Eastham to find some seabirds on the move. Watching from the car to avoid the biting cold, they soon realized that among the Razorbills and Dovekies were some pudgy, dusky-faced birds, some showing a flash of orange and yellow in their much larger bills – these were Atlantic Puffins, a prize find for seabird watchers. The occasional individual puffin passes our peninsula, mainly after a Nor’easter, and often there at First Encounter. But this was an unexpected, unexplained explosion of puffins – 61 in all, a new high count for Cape Cod.


Under the right conditions, it’s not unusual to encounter an impressive flight of seabirds at First Encounter. Following a strong Nor’easter that, hopefully, loaded up Cape Cod Bay with disoriented Gulf of Maine seabirds, birders know to head there once the winds swing around to the northwest. Then, birds pinned to shore by the strong winds are easy pickings as they attempt to wing their way back to the open ocean. Depending on the month, you might see big numbers of gannets, kittiwakes, Razorbills, Dovekies, jaegers, and other sought-after seabirds, often quite close to shore or even overhead. But counts of more than one puffin are rare, and a lot of time passes between sightings. Many, many flights of thousands of their close cousins – Razorbills, murres, and Dovekies, has been recorded here without a single puffin in the mix.


Atlantic Puffins breed on rocky islands in places like Iceland, Scotland, and the Canadian Maritimes, and of course in those well-known, heavily touristed colonies in Maine. A bird once hunted to local extinction for its eggs, feathers, and drumsticks now helps drive a multi-million-dollar tourist industry thanks to a puffin-obsessed public. And also thanks to chickens – those poor birds are really taking one for the team to keep all those wild birds off of dinner plates, when you think about it. Anyway, on these islands they lay a single egg, stuff the burrow-bound baby full of bait fish with their bright beaks, then the whole family heads out to sea for the winter. Exactly where they go is still a bit of a mystery, though it’s not close to shore, and some apparently cross the Atlantic altogether.


A single puffin was seen on Stellwagen Bank last month, and a couple of singletons were noted passing Race Point over the last month. But I don’t think anyone would have predicted this flurry of puffins a couple weeks back – there was no big storm, no hint they, or really any seabirds, might be on the move. It just goes to show that it’s always worth a check of that beach parking lot or whatever your favorite birding spot might be.


If you are wondering if these Eastham puffins might still be around, like some in a local Facebook group were hoping, I’m afraid they are long gone. Puffins seen from land here on the Cape are always on the move – if someone spots one, it won’t be there ten minutes later, never mind ten days. And you won’t ever see one in most of our area – I don’t know of any records between Westport and Chatham or south of Cape Ann. So your best bet is still a boat trip out of Bar Harbor in summer, and the birds are way better looking then anyway. Plus, if we don’t keep that Downeast puffin watching economy going, people night start eating them again, and I don’t mean that cereal. If the chickens get their way, that is.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.