Puzzling about puffins

Tufted puffin landing on the water
Puffin landing: a tufted puffin joins a floating group on the ocean near Kodiak Island. Credit: Erin Strand/USFWS.

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.

A gray and brown chick with downy neck in an earth burrow.
Auk-wardly adorable: a puffin chick in the transition from puffling to fledgling, at a burrow on Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Brianna Bode/USFWS.
A dark gray and brown fledgling on the water
Hi! I’m a newly fledged tufted puffin leaving my burrow and exploring the ocean near Kodiak Island for the first time. Credit: Robin Corcoran/USFWS.

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.

A tufted puffin peering out from a burrow
A tufted puffin in a burrow on Bogoslof Island, photographed during a seabird monitoring study. Credit: Brie Drummond/USFWS.
hundreds of puffins in the air offshore of a green island
Puffins swirl off the coast of Aiktak Island in Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. On land, a group of puffins is usually called a colony. In the air, you might call them a “whirl” of puffins. At sea, they might be a “raft.” Other collective names include: a “circus,” a “burrow,” a “puffinry,“ or an “improbability” of puffins. Photo courtesy Ian Shive.

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…

Dark gray and black puffin with an orange beak
A molting tufted puffin on the ocean. As fall approaches, tufted puffins go through a costume change, losing their white eye mask and yellow plumes. Their colorful orange beak and feet fade to a muted version of summer colors. Credit: Robin Corcoran/USFWS.

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?

Tufted puffin flying just offshore of a coastal town
Tufted puffin flying off the coast of Kodiak Island in the summer. Any guesses where it might go once it leaves the Kodiak coast for the winter? Credit: Robin Corcoran/USFWS.

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.

Woman holding a downy tufted puffin chick with a band on its leg
A volunteer at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in 2021 holds a newly banded puffling. In 2022, the refuge will again band pufflings and also deploy geolocators on about 25 adults from colony sites around Kodiak. Photo: USFWS.

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).

Green island with high sea cliffs
Aiktak Island, at the western edge of the Gulf of Alaska/eastern edge of the Aleutian Islands, hosts several seabird colonies, including a colony of over 100,000 tufted puffins. The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge maintains a long-term seabird monitoring remote camp here, staffed by biotechnicians during the summer. Courtesy of Ian Shive.
Map of Alaska over a map of the contiguous US in yellow, with blue location markers for Aiktak and Kodiak Islands.
Graphic representation of the general scale of Alaska imposed over a map of the contiguous 48 states, with the research study locations on Aiktak and Kodiak Islands.

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.

Gloved hands hold up a tufted puffin with a band and transmitter on its legs.
An adult tufted puffin with a newly attached band and transmitter on its ankles. Credit: Robin Corcoran/USFWS.

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!

A tufted puffin in a burrow takes a close look at the wildlife camera lens. Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

More Information

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.

Read more about our research that includes puffins:
Tracking an Alaskan Icon
Seabird Science on an Alaska-sized Scale
Science by Sea for Alaska’s Wildlife Refuges

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.

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