‘Small Axe’

The tufted puffin is a familiar bird on the Russian and U.S. Pacific coasts. In Russia it is known as ‘toporok’ meaning “small axe.”

Mature, breeding adult Tufted Puffin
(royalty free Unsplash)

Not only is this a nod to the shape of the bill but also to one of the main breeding sites, Kamen Toporkov (“Tufted Puffin Rock”) which is an islet offshore Bering Island.

Local Finds

We don’t have to go to Russia to see them as they are also found in our backyards (so to speak). This recognizable seabird nests on Oregon headland such as Cape Mears, Cape Lookout, Cape Foulweather, Yaquina Head, and further north at Three Arch Rocks.

Recognizing

The large triangular red-orange bill is definitely unique and is most visible on breeding adults during the summer reproductive season. The birds also develop a distinct white face with long cream-colored facial plumes and red feet.

The colorful breeding plumage and bill plates molt-off in the winter as the bird moves offshore to feed. The bird appears predominantly black similar to immature or non-breeding puffins. The body length is approximately 15-inches.

Nesting

Puffins, murres, and auklets are oceanic birds that live predominantly in the water. They only come to land to nest. Puffins gather on in dense breeding colonies often on treeless islands far out in the ocean.

They prefer offshore treeless islands and steep cliffs offer protection from mammal predators and may choose islands that are not in sight of land.

The ideal nesting site would be close to food, have relatively soft soil and grass to dig and build nesting burrows, and have a high enough elevation and steep drop offs that help the bird take flight.  

Puffin in burrow (royalty free from Unsplash)

Breeding Range and Habitat

The Puffin breeding range extends from British Columbia throughout the southeastern Alaska, Aleutian Islands, Kuri Island, and Japan. Puffins will also breed on Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula which has some of the worlds largest brown and rainbow trout.  

Nesting can occur as far south as the northern Channel Islands, off southern California (sightings have not occurred since 1997.

Flight and Forage

The wings are relatively short (a span of about 25-inches) and adapted for diving and swimming. These birds cannot gliding but can fly long and fast using strong breast muscles and a strenuous wing-beat cadence.

Wings are used to ‘fly’ through the water, tail spread to steer, streamlined body with feet back make the puffin a formable underwater hunter. The puffin often forages by surface diving and rapid swimming through schools of small fish and marine invertebrates.

The large axe-like bill can catch large quantities of food at one time. The bills also facilitate transporting food back to chicks.

Diet

Diet will vary greatly by age, location, and availability. Colony nestlings are more dependent on invertebrates. Adult birds also depend on invertebrates such a squid and krill. Puffins also feed, to some extent, on ocean floor species.   

Predators

Tufted puffin avian predators include Snowy owl, Bald eagles, and Peregrine falcons; gulls and ravens will scavenge eggs. Artic foxes prefer puffins over other birds.

A mass puffin die-off, attributed to climate change, occurred on St. Paul Island, Alaska between October 2016 and January 2017.

In the past, the Aleut and Ainu people hunted the Tufted Puffin for food and feathers. They used the skins to make parkas, and the feathers in ornamental work. Harvesting of tufted puffins is illegal or discouraged today.

Mature breeding adult, showing white belly feathers (royalty free from Unsplash)

REFERENCES:
–Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Murres, Auklets and Puffins (https://myodfw.com/wildlife-viewing/species/murres-auklets-and-puffins)
–All About Birds, Puffins (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tufted_Puffin/id)
–Wikipedia, Tufted Puffins (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tufted_puffin)
–Audubon Field Guide (https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/tufted-puffin)

There are three different types of cormorants on the Oregon coast. Brandt’s Cormorants reside year around and are easily recognizable during breeding season by its unique throat patch.

Photo Courtesy of ODFW

How it got is name

German zoologist Johann Friedrich von Brandt identified and named the species in 1838 while working at the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, Russia. His species description was based on a specimen taken by Russians exploring the Pacific Coast at the time.

Territory for the cormorant extends from Alaska south through Mexico along the Baha peninsula. Year around residency is predominately in the U.S. along marine coastlines and estuaries near the ocean.

Favorite haunts include Washington, Oregon, and California which offer rich food sources associated with California water currents. Populations redistribute along the coast then the effect of this current diminish as this resource dissipates.

Recognizing them

In the breeding season males display an intensely blue gulag pouch. They attract mates by pointing their bill skyward and prominantly displaying their pouch.

They also have wispy white plumes along the side of their head and on their back, which show well against the solid black of the rest of their plumage. In bright light, their feathers have a green iridescence. During all seasons Brandt’s Cormorants have buff-colored feathers that outline the gular region. The other two Oregon species do not.

All Cormorants are fish-eating water birds and have four toes joined by webbing.

Where to find them

Always near the water, cormorants rarely fly over land. Nest building activities are one of the few reasons they ever come to shore.

Nests are typically built in colonies on windward slopes of rocky islands, steep cliffs, and sandy beaches. Brandt’s Cormorant tend to live together in large flocks, particularly in California and Oregon.

Nesting territories reflect this high population behavior and are quite tiny. Male Cormorants arrive at the nesting areas before females to claim their space or existing nest. They vigorously defend their nesting area and begin nest construction or refreshing,

The circular nests are typically around 14 inches wide and just over six inches tall. They contain grass, moss, weeds, sticks and driftwood, feathers, and marine algae.

Let’s Go Fishing

Brandt’s Cormorant are strong divers and excellent swimmers. Unlike other cormorant species, they do not spend a lot of time drying their wings. They do like to fish together.

They even forage schools of fish together in groups that includes other seabirds, and sealions. The group appears to work together feeding in concert. As some birds rapidly surface, others are flying to the leading edge of the flock.

Cormorants dive beside or below a school of fish and drive them to the surface. Remarkably Cormorants are able to dive up to 230 feet. During the chase, they grasp prey in their bills, crush it, and swallow it headfirst.

What’s on the menu?

Brandt’s Cormorant will eat at least 93 fish species such as anchovy, perch, herring, seabass, and other animals such as squid.

Population Declines

Even with superior swimming and fishing, the Brandt’s Cormorant populations appear to be in decline. Human activities such as spills and pollution threaten all seabirds and their prey species.

Brandt’s Cormorants may be more sensitive to the impacts than other birds because they only forage in waters where spills often occur or concentrate. Human (and dog) disturbances can cause birds to abandon a colony or leave a population vulnerable to predation.

REFERENCES:
–All About Birds, Brandt’s Cormorant (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Brandts_Cormorant/overview and life history pages)
–Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Pelicans and Cormorants (https://myodfw.com/wildlife-viewing/species/pelicans-and-cormorants)

This plump 13-inch, pigeon-shaped seabird is full of surprises. Let’s start with hanging upside down above the seafloor probing for prey.

Pigeon Guillemot during breeding season (photo courtesy of ODFW)

Is the Guillemot doing this just to impress us? Hardly. This guy is just a really strong swimmer and diver and dives to hunt for fish and invertebrates.

Diving Alone

The Guillemot often dives alone and sometimes in smaller groups. When diving, it prefers depths from 50 to 70 feet. Dives can last over two minutes with short intermissions between dives.

Unlike most other diving birds, this one uses both its feet and wings which beat at a rate of 2.1/s for propulsion. They have been recorded traveling 246 feet horizontally and as much as 150 feet below.

Big Eaters

This bird is known to forage before dawn and after sunset, particularly if they are feeding nestlings.   

The adult Guillemot requires about 20 percent of its weight in food each day (about 90 grams). They eat primarily fish, but will also consume seafloor creatures such as mollusks, crustaceans, crabs, shrimp, and worms.

Even the nestlings are big eaters.  Parents bring the young an average of 16 food loads each day (a load may be just a single fish).

Dressing for Love

During breeding season this bird gets dressed up with striking red feet, legs, and around the mouth (almost like lips). They also sport large white patches that contrast with their black iridescent feathers.

Non-breeding foliage mottled grey and black on top with white on the under areas. Non-breeding juveniles will look the same.

Bonding

These birds not only get dressed up for breeding season but they also know how to turn up the romance. Breeding pairs will play chase “water games” and trill in a romantic duet.

They form long-term breeding bonds that last over years, with a few that occasionally divorce. Kind of makes one wonder how this occurs and if there is an underwater divorce court.

Guillemots are very vocal even outside of the breeding season. They use several whistle-like calls. Some of which include head, wing, and tail waggling displays.

Unmated males will also call for females, pairs will also communicate, during nesting, and birds will scream when predators are near.   

Predators

Guillemots breed on rocky shore areas, islands, and cliffs typically close to shallower water common on the Oregon coast. This habitat provides some protection from predators.

The most common cause of egg loss is through other birds such as crows, gulls, eagles, owls. Raccoons and other mammalian predators can also be a problem.

In the water there have been reports that these birds have been taken by orca and giant Pacific Octopi.

Habitat

Pigeon Guillemots are found from California up through Siberia. They overwinter along the Pacific coast north.

In some areas they are considered indicator species and the populations are monitored. To learn more about this breeding survey in Washington see: Salish Sea Guillemot Network, Pigeon Guillemot Breeding Survey (http://www.pigeonguillemot.org/).

#2 photo free download https://pnommensen.com/

REFERENCES:
–Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (https://myodfw.com/wildlife-viewing/species/murres-auklets-and-puffins)
–California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=1825)
–Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/at-risk/species-recovery/seabirds#resources)
–Ebird.org (https://ebird.org/species/piggui)
–Wikipedia, Pigeon guillemot (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pigeon_guillemot)