puffins

Behind the Image(s): Atlantic Puffins

My father-in-law owns a very old house by the sea on an island called Grand Manan, which I have had the privilege of visiting three times. Grand Manan is a two-hour ferry ride, over cold restless waters, from mainland New Brunswick, Canada. The house, which is at least 150 years old, is situated at Seal Cove on the southeast side of the main island. It’s a small community. Tired old fishermen’s houses, salmon smoking sheds, a seasonal bed and breakfast, and one sparsely stocked convenience store are all that corner of the island has to offer. You don’t go to Grand Manan for the food scene, or nightlife, or architectural grandeur. None of that exists. What the island does have is an abundance of beautiful shoreline and wildlife viewing opportunities.

This is one of those “must visit” (I despise that overused term in travel writing, but bare with me…) places for birders, which makes it a great place for photographers. The ever famous and adorable Atlantic Puffin nests in the region. Grand Manan, itself, hosts a small seasonal population on the south side of the island, but if you really want to go where the action is and see these critters up close, you have to take a chartered boat a couple hours south of Grand Manan to Machias Seal Island. A puffin colony hundreds strong nests on the rocky shores of Machias each summer. Due to predation, habitat loss, and climate change, the Machias Seal Island colony is dwindling. Fortunately, I was there just at the right time to observe hundreds of mating pairs of puffins as well as a few other sea bird species.

Machias Seal Island Puffin Sanctuary

The trip began by booking a tour from one of the very few providers allowed to visit Machias Seal Island from Grand Manan. Nothing was guaranteed, not seeing puffins, or the weather to allow us to go out on the choppy north Atlantic waters. My wife and I hopped on the boat with a dozen others at 7am. We received instructions from the burly captain and first mate on how to behave while on the island and some useful information about a few other species of wildlife we may encounter en route.

This was my first ever trip specifically for the purpose of photographing wildlife. I owned a decent telephoto zoom and my first decent DSLR. I was beyond excited.

Atlantic Puffin, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

Atlantic Puffin, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

After a long and bumpy ride of being wind-blasted on an open vessel, we arrived near the rocky shore of Machias Seal Island. We took a much smaller dory the rest of the way. A short walk on a slippery dock brought us to another large and intimidating islander (with a very large camera lens), who further briefed us on how to conduct ourselves in a way that would not disturb or endanger the animals. Aside from a lighthouse, the island was bare except for a few wooden blinds and boardwalks. The island is small and desolate, with little vegetation and a terrain covered in large boulders. Much to my delight, despite the desolation of the land, it was covered in puffins. Hundreds of them!

We were split into small groups and ushered quickly to our blinds. Though the journey took a couple hours, we were only given 45 minutes of puffin watching. By this time it was mid day and swelteringly hot inside the blinds – which were small – barely big enough for the four of us in it. The windows were only about 6 inches square, just big enough to shoot through (we are not allowed to stick anything, including lenses, outside of the windows). I’m not sure how shooting with larger lenses could work here; I could barely turn around with my compact 70-300mm zoom handheld.

Atlantic Puffins, Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

Atlantic Puffins, Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

The late morning light was harsh and poor quality, but there were birds everywhere I looked, so I didn’t fret about it. I fired away, filling up cards with hundreds of shots. I shot wide, medium, and close up portraits. I’d never been in a situation where I wanted fewer animals in the frame before. The chaos of thousands of birds (both puffins and rare razorbill auks) made getting tight simple shots difficult. I started focusing on the puffins nearer to the blind where numbers were fewer. I looked for interaction between mating pairs, who hid their nests under boulders and out of sight. Birds were flying out to sea and back with fish, but I was never able to get the classic “beak full of fish shot.” The limited maneuverability in the blind made panning in-flight shots difficult. I kept shooting portraits. 300mm wasn’t necessary at such close range, even though puffins are very small. Most of the images from this trip were shot between 100 and 200mm for portraits. The birds don’t mind the blinds, and as long as windows are only open on one side at a time, they don’t seem to notice the people in them.

Atlantic Puffin Taking Flight, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

Atlantic Puffin Taking Flight, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

It was an amazing experience I think every photographer should have. Puffins on the North American side of the Atlantic are growing fewer in number by the year. It was a privilege to get to spend time photographing so many of them at once. We were lucky that year. The following summer we tried to book another tour, but were told there were so few birds on the island that it wasn’t worth the trip.

Puffins spend most of the year solitarily on the open sea, which makes them difficult to study. They congregate, reuniting with their mates, each summer for a few short weeks on rocky cliffs and small islands like Machias. Little is known about their life on the open Atlantic. Biologists are trying to find ways to increase puffin numbers, but the troubles these comical little birds face are many. I would recommend seeing them in the wild as soon as you can as sustainable ecotourism helps support conservation efforts.

Photographing Puffins on Machias Seal Island

A pair of Atlantic Puffins on Machias Seal Island. Puffins mate for life and return to the same place each year to breed and raise young. 

A pair of Atlantic Puffins on Machias Seal Island. Puffins mate for life and return to the same place each year to breed and raise young. 

One of my favorite photographic experiences to date was when I had the privilege of visiting Machias Seal Island, home to the largest colony of Atlantic Puffins in the Gulf of Maine. An estimated 5,500 pairs of these comical looking birds return to Machias from sea each summer to mate and raise young. Unfortunately, due to climate change and other factors, their numbers are dwindling. Iceland actually has the strongest population of Atlantic Puffins, and I've been fortunate enough to see some there, too. However, if you want to see these increasingly rare and beautiful birds in North America, Machias Seal Island is the place to do it. 

Location:

Machias Seal Island is a small and rocky dot on the map located in the Gulf of Maine (10 miles from Maine and 12 miles from New Brunswick, Canada). It is claimed by both the United States and Canada and is accessible only by licensed guides from either Machias, ME or Grand Manan - a much larger island off the coast of New Brunswick. I travelled to the puffin colony from Grand Manan, which in itself hosts many photographic and recreational opportunities. 

Best Time of Year to See Puffins:

Puffins spend most of the year out on the open sea feeding. They return to land only during the breeding season. The season starts as early as April and ends typically by August when the young are ready to take to sea on their own. Pairs mate for life, returning to the same colony each breeding season to make burrows and rear chicks. Peak season on Machias Seal island is usually July when literally thousands of puffins (and other neat sea birds like Razorbill Auks) pepper the rocky shores. This is also high tourists season in the region, so it's important to book your tour in advance. Depending on the numbers of puffins and the conditions at sea, your tour may be tentative. When I was on Machias Seal Island, I was overwhelmed at the numbers. I had never seen so many of one species in one place in my life. All I had to do is point the lens and fire away! 

Many Puffins are tagged for research purposes in order to help protect this dwindling species.

Many Puffins are tagged for research purposes in order to help protect this dwindling species.

How to Get to Machias:

There are a couple tour operators offering transport to Machias Seal Island from both Maine and New Brunswick. On the Maine side, the tours only seem to offer boat rides (with a few exceptions) around some of the other smaller puffin colonies, and you can't land and experience the wildlife up close. That's not good enough for me. I used Sea Watch Tours, a company based on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy. I've actually used them twice, once for puffins and once for whales. Both experiences were enjoyable, and they know how to find the wildlife (if you don't see whales, your tour is free). The captain and his first mate are experienced and knowledgeable; they will tell you up front if there are low numbers of puffins on Machias and let you know in advance if the sea is too choppy to go out. 

The tours depart from Seal Cove in early morning for the long and often bumpy ride to Machias Seal Island. Along the way you may spot whales and will definitely see other sea birds (and the occasional puffin) skimming the water for fish. There are also smaller islands along the way where seals bask in the sun in large numbers (called rookeries). The crew of Sea Watch Tours will often stop for a bit so you can get a closer look at the seals. They also offer hot cocoa at the end of the trip.

Experiencing the Puffin Colony:

Upon arrival at the puffin colony, you have to get off the 45 foot boat and into a small skiff a few folks at a time to complete the journey to land. This requires a little physical ability, as it would be easy to fall into the ocean. The crew takes the proper precautions. Once landed, you are swiftly herded along a wooden boardwalk to a picnic table under the lighthouse where a very large and burly gentleman tells you what to do and, most importantly, what not to do. This guy demands authority and is very serious about protecting his island of little birds from stress and harm. There are lots of rules, but it's all pretty straight forward. You are given a time limit that is usually generous; you must stay on the boardwalk; you must not stuff a puffin into your bag to carry home...among other reasonable requests (you do not want to anger the very big man). Then you're ushered to the colony where you are divided up 2-4 to a small wooden blind. The blinds are designed with small sliding windows on two opposite sides. To prevent the birds from flying into the blinds or through them, only one side of windows can be open at once. There isn't much room for big photo equipment, especially if there are four of you stuffed into the blind. It does get hot, but the activities of the comical and colorful little puffins soon make you forget all that. They come and go, interact, bring food back from the sea, and provide loads of photographic opportunity.

Puffins and Razorbills share the rocky shores of Machias Seal Island.

Puffins and Razorbills share the rocky shores of Machias Seal Island.

Tips for Photographing Puffins:

Once inside the blind you'll notice how little room you have to shoot. The windows are a bit low for my height, and if I'd had any lenses larger than a 300mm, I wouldn't have been able to use them. You are strictly forbidden to stick anything out of the windows of the blinds. The birds quickly forget that you entered the blind, so sticking a big lens through the window might freak them out. You don't need a huge super telephoto on Machias Seal Island. The birds come so close to the blinds that I even took shots with a wide-zoom! Most of my shots were made between 100-300mm. So a 70-200mm or 70-300mm will work perfectly. Don't bother with anything bigger and heavier than a 300mm f4; you can't set up a tripod in the blind anyway, so all your shots will be handheld. Light isn't an issue. It's likely to be mid-morning or mid-day and either foggy or overcast, so you can shoot at low ISOs and any aperture you like. Your shutter-speed will be plenty fast enough. To capture puffins in flight, use a shutter-speed on 1000/sec or above to freeze the action. 

Puffin Taking Flight

Puffin Taking Flight

I'm always surprised at how many shots I can fire off during successful wildlife shoots. I took around 2,000 shots in one hour on Machias. Make sure you have your batteries charged and lots of cleared memory cards. I shot in burst mode to capture as much of the action as possible. Unfortunately, I never managed to get the shot of a puffin parent bringing a beak full of fish to its burrow - I never even saw it happen, but I did get many good shots.

Atlantic Puffin on the rocky shore on Machias Seal Island.

Atlantic Puffin on the rocky shore on Machias Seal Island.

Go. Do. See.

As I mentioned earlier, Atlantic Puffins are experiencing some major obstacles to their survival. A hundred years ago, they were nearly wiped out in North America; they then made a comeback thanks to conservation efforts, but now populations are in decline again. Climate change is affecting their food supply, and chicks aren't getting the nutrition they need, especially in the northern colonies. 2016 was an especially tough year on Machias, where nearly all of the young died from predation or malnutrition. Tourism to Machias Seal Island and other puffin colonies is ironically a good thing. It not only helps support local economies, it helps educate people on these threatened birds and the troubles they face. Thanks for reading and happy travels!

( To see more of my images of Grand Manan and Atlantic Puffins, visit www.jonreaves.com. )

All images (c) 2017 Jon Reaves Photography. All rights reserved.