Florida summers make me long for cooler places. One of my many favorite places in the U.S. to visit is Maine. Some years back, my good friend Sue and I went there to see something you’ll never see in Florida: Puffins.
Sue flew in from Texas and I flew in from Florida. We rented a car and started exploring and birding in the northern part of the state. We hired famous bird guide Bob Duschesne for several great days of birding. Bob Duschesne still leads birding trips in Maine. Maybe he’ll plan one for seniors.
Sue and I stayed in a rather remote area, in an old Coast Guard site called West Quoddy Station, in the northernmost coastal region of Maine. It was quite isolated and nothing was around this area. Not realizing exactly how isolated it was, we arrived that first night with no food. Believe me, we were up at the crack of dawn driving to the nearest little town for breakfast and a visit to the town’s grocery store.
If you visit Maine, a trip to Macchias Seal Island right off the coast is a must. It’s located between the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy. The Bay of Fundy is a crazy place. You don’t want to be standing on shore when the tide rushes in, or in a boat when the tide rushes out.
Macchias is the only island you can actually access, and only on a good day. If it’s foggy or the water is choppy, the boat won’t be able to get you to the island. We were extremely lucky to have a perfectly beautiful day. Only one boating company goes to Macchias from the U.S., and another from Canada. There has been an ongoing disagreement for many years as to who actually owns Macchias Seal Island.
The rock landing is a bit slippery, so one must be sure-footed. We had reservations months in advance, which is an absolute necessity. The puffins come to breed on the island from about May to August, and during that period is when the boat trips are planned. Then the puffins return to the sea until next year.
Puffins are stunning birds, almost like penguins. There was a period in Maine history that the Atlantic puffins were almost wiped out. People were killing them for their feathers and eating their eggs. The Puffin Project was established in 1973 to help these birds re-establish in Maine.
We were herded quickly into the blinds on the island as to not disturb the puffins, razorbills and common murres. We were extremely excited as this was a primary reason to visit northern Maine and especially Macchias Seal Island.
The experience did not disappoint. Puffins came right up to the blind, mere inches away from us. If we’d wanted to, we could have reached out and grabbed one. We were ecstatic.
We settled in with our cameras and our eyes glued to this wonderful sighting of hundreds of puffins so close by. The puffin stands about 8 inches tall and is about 12 inches long. The male is a bit larger than the female. There is no other noticeable difference.
They are striking birds. They have glossy black feathers on the crown which extend to the collar and down the back. The underparts are white. The bright orange legs and beaks make a dynamic contrast. They have noticeable round light gray cheek patches.
The female puffin digs a hole (or finds a leftover one) and lays only one egg. The couple is monogamous and they share parental duties. The male will be the protector of the egg, and the female will incubate and feed the chick. We watched these handsome birds return from the ocean with four or five tiny sand eels jammed into their beaks — a neat trick that allows them to collect enough food for the fast-growing baby and themselves.
It was too soon that we had to leave our observation spots and prepare to return to the boat. However, it was a thrilling experience — one of which we will never forget. Florida is wonderful, but there are some things you’ll never see unless you go out in to the world. Puffins are just one of many birds on that list.
Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.