Puzzling about puffins
Most of the tufted puffins in North American breed in Alaska during the summer… but where in the wide sea do they go during the winter?
At the end of August along the Alaskan coast, fuzzy gray pufflings fledge from their earth burrows into sleek, dark seabirds. They follow their parents to the sea to make their way in the marine world, the start of a migration away from land for the next several months.
About 96% of the tufted puffins in North America come to shore in Alaska in the summer to nest and raise chicks. They breed at several national wildlife refuges in the state, including Alaska Maritime, Kodiak, Izembek, Alaska Peninsula/Becharof, and Togiak refuges.
But where do they go once they leave land?
Tufted puffins in Alaska winter offshore in the North Pacific Ocean. Their historical wintering range includes an almost 4.5 million square mile area of water. Looking for a puffin in the winter can be like trying to find a breadcrumb on a beach…
We know very little about tufted puffins during the time of their annual cycle spent at sea away from breeding colonies. Do they use the same large marine ecosystem areas near their colonies, or do they go to a different system and mingle with other tufted puffins from different colonies? Do they depend on ocean currents? Do they disperse, or do they tend to migrate to the same locations as a group?
In 2021 and 2022, Alaska Maritime and Kodiak National Wildlife Refuges began new research studies to find a few of these puzzle pieces. We hope to learn more about where and how tufted puffins live when they are not at their summer breeding locations in coastal areas of Alaska.
What: we want to identify the wintering locations of tufted puffins breeding at colonies in the Kodiak Archipelago (in the center of the Gulf of Alaska) and at the large colony on Aiktak Island (at the western edge of the Gulf ecosystem/eastern edge of the Aleutian system).
How: using archival, light-level sensing geolocator devices (i.e., Global Location Sensing [gls] tags) to track movements of adults. Gls tags record and store ambient light data and determine location from estimated day length and local time of midday. A successful Prince William Sound Science Center study used these devices on tufted puffins at Middleton Island in 2018.
Biological technicians Dan Rapp and Sarah Youngren deployed tags at Aiktak in the summer of 2021 and will deploy another set with the help of Nadia Swanson in 2022. Oregon State graduate student, Katie Stoner, will also deploy tags at Kodiak with the help of ANSEP intern, Ashe Christensen, in the summer of 2022.
Biologists retrieve the tags the following year to access the information, and will then begin to spatially map winter puffin locations.
Why: these concurrent tracking efforts will shed light on whether puffins from geographically distant breeding colonies intermix in the the winter sea. The tracking data will help us learn more about which locations and oceanic variables (e.g., distance from shore, sea floor depth, oceanographic currents, upwelling zones) might be important to wintering tufted puffins.
With this spatial information, we can keep an eye on stressors in the marine environment that may impact puffins in the Gulf of Alaska, the eastern Aleutian Islands, and broader North Pacific Ocean, now or in the future.
What new signals will these seabirds send us from their ocean home? Stay tuned to find out more over the next few years!
In 2014, the tufted puffin was petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), due to dramatic declines observed in the southern portion of its range (i.e., at colonies in the contiguous U.S. and Japan). In 2020, the species was found not warranted for listing (85 FR 78029), but concern remains regarding status of the species in some parts of its range.
The National Wildlife Refuge Program, Migratory Bird Program, and the Ecological Services Program in Alaska are working with partners to monitor and learn more about tufted puffins.
Geolocator study ABSTRACT excerpt: The breeding populations of tufted puffins at large colonies in the Aleutians, including Aiktak Island, appear to be increasing. Meanwhile, apparent declines at tufted puffin breeding colonies in the Gulf of Alaska Large Marine Ecosystem (LME) were identified as a potential concern in the 2020 species status assessment for the tufted puffin (USFWS 2020).
The reasons for the declines are not known, and we lack understanding of important aspects of the tufted puffin annual cycle. In particular, distribution and exposure of wintering tufted puffins to stressors is poorly understood (USFWS 2020). This lack of knowledge limits our ability to accurately identify and assess threats affecting tufted puffin population size and trends, both range-wide and within this LME.
Thanks to Megan Boldenow, Nora Rojek, and Erin Strand for assistance with this article. Compiled by Lisa Hupp, Communications Specialist for the Refuge Program in Alaska.
In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.