Rhinoceros Puffins

20130625-DSCN0657 Is a seabird? Check. Is relatively small and dives for food? Check. Does not have a brilliantly colored bill like a puffin? Nope. Must be an auklet.

This is what I think happened when Rhinoceros Auklets were named. But really and truly, they are puffins. They radiated about 5 million years ago and are closely related to auklets. My research provides further evidence of this in that they have similar voices. But they are individuals in their own right.

Little is known about Rhinoceros Auklets. We have studied them on land during their breeding season.

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But we're not entirely sure where they go for the rest of the year. We know they go far out to sea. And to watch them on land is to verify that they're built for living on the water. I've never witnessed a more clumsy bird (then again, I've never seen albatrosses in person).

I spent 3 months virtually alone on Protection Island, WA with these birds (and the guillemots). I weighed and measured the rhino chicks every other day and recorded them every night. When they fledged their burrows, it was actually a bit sad for me. I had become their loud, obnoxious people-parent and they had grown so used to me that they would crawl into my red weigh bag every time I dipped them from their nests.

I saw some of the fledglings the next morning in the marina. They usually stick around for a single day before they head all the way out to sea--or wherever they go. So as I observed the guillemots from the boat every morning, I watched the fledgling rhinos and said goodbye to them as I fondly recalled them as tiny puffy babies.

Again, I have many photos of them as pufflings. But I cannot show you just yet because they're tied up in a manuscript I will soon submit for publishing. Patience, my friends.

What I can do is show you some fledgling rhinos.

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Do you see the tiny rhinoceros "horn" on the tops of their bills? Both males and females have those.

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I hope you enjoyed the photos of one of my favorite birds. I am a little biased. When you spend 3 months on an island with no one to talk to but the birds, you become very attached and pretty weird.

Come back next Sunday for my final post on Protection Island, WA.

Tufted Puffins on Protection Island

20130620-DSCN0431 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.

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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.

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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.

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Come back tomorrow for another post on this double-feature weekend!