Each year between April and September, roughly a half million Atlantic puffins descend on Witless Bay in Newfoundland to nest. It is the largest colony in the western Atlantic and it truly takes the breath away.
This odd looking bird (some would call it adorable) is marked by its black crown and back, white underbelly and cheeks, the bold red markings on its beak, and its orange webbed feet. It is often called the “clown of the sea” for its bright colors and clumsy gait. But this is no clown: The Atlantic puffin is as graceful a swimmer as it is a flier, using its wings to propel itself through water and deftly catch small fish.
Remarkably, the Atlantic puffin spends autumn and winter (October through March, roughly) in the open waters of the northern seas. It comes to Witless Bay to breed, burrowing into the cliffs of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, a quartet of small islands off the main island of Newfoundland. It lays a single white egg and, once the chick hatches, feeds it babies whole fish. It only takes six weeks for the chick to mature enough to set out on its own. Once it does, it flies the coop in the most dramatic fashion: In the dark of night, the fledgling swims out to sea and does not return to land for several years, following its instinct as it survives in a harsh marine environment.
Though the Atlantic puffin is a highly social bird during breeding season, taking over Witless Bay with a half million of its closest friends, it lives a solitary existence while at sea. Though it hasn’t been studied extensively in its open-water habitat, it seems to spend more time bobbing on the surface of the ocean than flying in the air. This helps to explain its plumage: Its black back makes it difficult for predator birds to spot it from the air, and its white belly can be easily mistaken by underwater predators for a bright sun spot or clouds in the sky. Once a year during winter, it becomes more vulnerable as it sheds its feathers to make way for new ones. This leaves it stranded on the water for up to two months.
Back on land during breeding season, the bird is monogamous. But their loyalty is to the burrow rather than their mate, as each male and female habitually return to the same nest year after year. Once they are settled in and their egg is laid, incubation duty is shared between partners. Incubation lasts about 45 days.
The Witless Bay Ecological Reserve plays a key role in the survival of the Atlantic puffin and in preserving the natural cycle of which they are a part. Witnessing some 500,000 of these incredible creatures at once makes for quite a spectacle, which our small group does during our new Newfoundland & Labrador trip. We hope you’ll join us to see one of nature’s greatest gatherings of sea birds!