I remember watching the dust, backlit by cloud-covered sun, drifting horizontally unaffected by gravity. A million tiny specks trapped within the walls of rough-cut lumber somehow rubbed smooth by years of air pushing back against them. My footfalls fell flat, an echoless knock with my knuckles against the door frame. A knock for it was black dark inside. I breathed in the smell of soil crushed between palms and turned my back to the darkness, facing the sky and the old weathered shack by the sea. I stood in the threshold of a root cellar in Elliston, NL and planned my trek down the trail where I was to see Atlantic Puffins up close for the first time.
Elliston happens to be the root cellar capital of the world. This is a paradox in one way because Newfoundland is a giant rock (actually nicknamed "The Rock"). Overall, the ground is hard to farm and harder to dig into. But for the same reasons, root vegetables grow well here. Cabbages and carrots thrive in the brisk, abbreviated growing season. Newfoundlanders depended on them for survival before the time of supermarkets; and folks living in outport towns away from St. John's still do. Of course, refrigerators and other modern inventions have taken the dire need of the root cellar away but many of them (one in the neighbouring town of Maberly constructed in 1839) are still in use today. An excellent place to store one's food and home-brewed beer. It is also worth noting that in this part of Newfoundland, John Murphy's cellar is where babies come from. Or that's what parents used to tell their children.
Now, think back to the first time you saw a puffin. I mean any puffin. A cartoon? A wildlife documentary? My bet is that you saw an Atlantic Puffin. The "little brother of the north," if you translate his name. It is the only puffin that lives in the Atlantic Ocean. In my memory, long before I studied the puffin family, I thought the Atlantic Puffin was both breathtaking and very fake-looking. Like a stuffed toy. Let me refresh your memory.
Here are the things you need to know about Atlantic Puffins:
- Are one of four puffin species
- Weigh about one pound, full-grown
- Eat mostly fish but during some parts of the year eat crustaceans, polychaetes and squid
- Excavate their earthen burrows by digging
- Lay one egg per year
- Live in colonies of varying size
- Lose that colourful bill plate and grow it back every year
- Are considered a vulnerable species, especially in European populations
North Bird Island is home to hundreds of nesting pairs of Atlantic Puffins. In the photos above, the ground can be seen to house many grassy burrow entrances. I took these photos in September when chicks had already fledged their nests in the night and made straight for the ocean. But one can get an appreciation for just how many birds make up this colony on a tiny rock.
Watching puffins waddle about and interact with each other is among my top birding experiences. The deep history of human life and decades of puffins along this stretch of coast made it easy to lie on my belly and watch the birds, feel the staying power of the rock beneath me.
For more on the puffins of Newfoundland, I highly recommend watching this documentary that a friend and fellow ornithologist, Michelle Fitzsimmons, appears in: