It was my second or third day on Protection Island. Dr. Jim Hayward of Andrews University took me out in his boat with a few other castaways to have a look at the northwest side of the island. There were eagle nests on one stretch and as the cliffs became steeper, westward, crevices and burrows erupted with tiny black flashes of wings. At one time, many more Tufted Puffins lived on the island. Now, there are only a handful of breeding pairs. They nest right next to their cousins, Rhinoceros Auklets. The rhinos, as you know, are my main study species and were my principal cause for inhabiting the island.
This was my very first look at a Tufted Puffin.
Notice the two feather tufts that run down the back of the head. Those are both the namesake of the puffin and an attractive accoutrement for the breeding season. During winter, the tufts fall off and black feathers fill in the white spots on the face. The puffins also shed the enormous red bill plates and leave the birds looking almost unrecognizable from their summer costumes.
Tufted Puffins were once a common bird all the way down the California shoreline but are now being seen less and less (even decreasing in numbers as far north as Protection Island, my field site). This is due to a host of introduced predators: rats, foxes, mink, feral cats and dogs, and livestock like goats, sheep and rabbits. Of course, the most direct threat to Tufted Puffins is human disturbance. This is partly why Protection Island went from being a vacation destination to a refuge where tourism and fishing are not allowed on the island at all. The Dungeness crab fishery is very present around the island but vessels must stay at least 200 yards away to respect the buffer zone that the birds utilize, especially during the breeding season.
It is a beautiful and important island worth protecting.
Come back tomorrow for another post on this double-feature weekend!