The secret travelling life of the Atlantic puffin – New Brunswick

Using sunrises and sunsets, researchers may finally have a better picture of where Atlantic puffins spend most of their lives. 

The brightly billed birds are often studied in their summer breeding season, but where they go for the rest of the year has been a mystery.

It now appears that many Bay of Fundy puffins don’t venture all that far.

“The non-breeding season is two-thirds or three-quarters of the life of a puffin and we had no idea what went on in those years,” said Tony Diamond, an ornithologist at the University of New Brunswick, and one of the authors of a research paper exploring the issue.

“Until the technology came along that we could track them.” 

Tony Diamond, an ornithologist researcher with the University of New Brunswick, releases a puffin as part of his study on Machias Seal Island in the Bay of Fundy. ( Atlantic Laboratory for Avian Research/UNB)

That technology came in the form of tiny light sensors that were banded to the legs of 270 puffins from 25 different populations across the North Atlantic. The study included puffins from Canada, Norway, Ireland, Iceland, the United Kingdom and the U.S. 

Every couple of minutes, the sensors record the amount of daylight the puffins experience. Once the data is collected, the scientists are able to use it to map out where each bird has been in the world, based on the length of the day. 

Closer to home 

It turns out that puffins in the Bay of Fundy travel shorter distances during the winter months compared to their European counterparts. It’s a habit that appears to serve them well.

“They go to a couple of surprising places,” Diamond said. “One is they go to the St. Lawrence Estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”  

Less energy put into travelling translates to better breeding, according to Diamond. He said it appears the birds that travel the least have greater breeding success in comparison to the larger European puffin populations.

Machias Seal Island is a vital breeding ground for Atlantic puffins on this side of the Atlantic. The birds have been studied on the small island for decades. ( Atlantic Laboratory for Avian Research/UNB)

“Most of the birds spend most of their time in the Gulf of Maine,” Diamond said. “But then you get these excursions to other places. We have two birds that actually go up to southern Labrador immediately after breeding.” 

Some birds travelled over 1,700 kilometres away from…

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