An amaz­ing visit with At­lantic Puffins

Tiny East Coast is­land home to more than 5,500 breed­ing pairs

The Hamilton Spectator - - TRAVEL - KEVIN BIS­SETT

The face of 10-year-old Taya Ro­bil­lard beams with ex­cite­ment when asked to de­scribe the thou­sands of colour­ful At­lantic puffins that pop­u­late the bar­ren land­scape of Machias Seal Is­land — lo­cated in dis­puted waters off the coasts of New Brunswick and Maine.

“They were all very cute and they were ev­ery­where,” she said with glee.

There are more than 5,500 breed­ing pairs of the com­i­cal birds on the tiny is­land, ac­ces­si­ble by only one tour op­er­a­tor in New Brunswick and one in Maine.

Taya, her sis­ter Josie, 7, and par­ents Eric and Holly Ro­bil­lard of Cape Cod, Mass., had just emerged from wooden blinds constructed to al­low tourists to get a close-up look at the var­i­ous breeds of birds that in­habit the sanc­tu­ary.

“To see so many puffins right here, two or three feet away. It’s so cool. They’re so beau­ti­ful,” said Eric.

He and his wife are both marine bi­ol­o­gists who be­lieve it’s im­por­tant for their chil­dren to visit such places.

“It’s more than I ever ex­pected,” Holly said. “It was re­ally amaz­ing to see so many puffins and other birds in the same spot.”

Get­ting to the is­land is a bit of a chal­lenge. First, you need to take a 90-minute ferry ride from Black’s Har­bour, N.B., to Grand Manan Is­land. There are a num­ber of ho­tels, bed-and-break­fasts and camp­grounds for lodg­ing on Grand Manan.

Early the next morn­ing, you’ll drive to Seal Cove to meet Peter Wil­cox, who runs Sea Watch Tours and is the cap­tain of the ves­sel “Day’s Catch.” He and mate Durlan Inger­soll will be your guides for the next 5 ½ hours, start­ing with the 90minute trip from Grand Manan to Machias Seal Is­land. They will es­cort you ashore and en­sure you un­der­stand the strict reg­u­la­tions in place to pro­tect the birds.

“It’s a priv­i­lege to land here and that priv­i­lege can be re­voked by the Canadian Wildlife Ser­vice,” Inger­soll said.

“Most peo­ple re­spect the rules and have a bet­ter re­spect for them when they’re done.”

Aside from puffins, the is­land is also a breed­ing ground for ra­zor­bills, com­mon mur­res, Arc­tic terns, com­mon terns and more.

Wil­cox is al­lowed to take 15 peo­ple ashore, per day, six days a week.

“This is my 32nd year,” Wil­cox said, adding that he never tires of vis­it­ing the is­land.

“It’s very unique when you think that you can sail for 15 miles and all of a sud­den you come across 30,000 birds on an is­land about a kilo­me­tre long and 300 me­tres wide. I’ve heard it re­ferred to as the ‘Lit­tle Gala­pa­gos,’” he said.

Once on the is­land, you’re led in small groups to wooden blinds near the shore. These box­like huts have flat roofs and small open­ings to see out and use your cam­era or video cam­era with­out dis­rupt­ing the birds.

The puffins, with their black backs, white bel­lies and or­ange webbed feet, wad­dle up­right much like a penguin.

“They have this great, brightly coloured bill, a bit like a par­rot’s beak, that is very spec­tac­u­lar,” said Tony Di­a­mond, a re­cently re­tired re­search pro­fes­sor in wildlife ecol­ogy at the Univer­sity of New Brunswick.

He said the puffins get all their food at sea, and only land on re­mote is­lands to breed.

The puffins come right up to the blinds and of­ten land with a “thud” on the roof, and as they walk around it sounds like a group of chil­dren wear­ing swim flip­pers.

You have about an hour in­side the blinds to take pictures and ob­serve the va­ri­ety of birds. You can hear the waves crash­ing on­shore, the flap­ping of wings, and a sound the birds make that is much like the groan­ing of a heavy door with hinges in need of be­ing oiled.

“Just be­ing so close to na­ture is un­real. It was to­tally awe­some,” said Linda Adams of Southamp­ton, N.S.

Betty Brown of Riverview, N.B., said she isn’t an avid bird en­thu­si­ast, but fell in love with the puffins.

“They’re the cutest lit­tle birds you can ever imag­ine,” she said. Brown said her main rea­son for mak­ing the trip was be­cause she had read that the is­land is in dis­puted waters.

Both Canada and the United States lay claim to an area known lo­cally as the “grey zone,” which in­cludes lu­cra­tive stocks of fish and lob­ster.

Wil­cox, Inger­soll and Di­a­mond all main­tain the is­land is Canadian. They point to the Canadian flags fly­ing on the is­land and the fact Canada op­er­ates and staffs the light­house there.

Luck­ily the puffins are obliv­i­ous to the dis­pute, and visi­tors are quick to sim­ply agree it is a very spe­cial place.

At­lantic puffins on Machias Seal Is­land. The is­land is lo­cated in the lower Bay of Fundy, ap­prox­i­mately 15 kilo­me­tres west of Grand Manan Is­land.

Seals bask near Machias Seal Is­land.

PHOTOS BY AN­DREW VAUGHAN, THE CANADIAN PRESS

Visi­tors head to a blind view the birds on Machias Seal Is­land. The tiny is­land is home to the At­lantic puf­fin as well as Ra­zor­bill auk and Com­mon and Arc­tic terns.

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