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Horned and Tufted Puffins in Alaska


Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin

Two species of puffins live in Alaskan waters. The horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata) and the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) belong to the family Alcidae, which also includes guillemots, murres, murrelets, auklets, and auks.

There is no sexual dimorphism between male and female puffins; both sexes are the same color and size. They have stout bodies, short wings, and orange, webbed feet which are located far back on their bodies. From a distance in the spring and summer, the most obvious difference between the two species is that horned puffins have white breasts, while tufted puffins have black breasts and bodies. A horned puffin has a black back and neck and is white on the sides of the head and the breast. Its bright-yellow, oversized beak has a red tip. Its common name is derived from the small, fleshy, dark horn above each eye that is present in the spring and summer. Horned puffins resemble Atlantic (or common) puffins, to which they are closely related, but horned puffins are larger than Atlantic puffins, have slightly different-colored beaks, and have horns, which are lacking in Atlantic puffins. In addition to its black body, a tufted puffin has a white face and a red and yellow bill. Its common name is derived from the long tufts of yellow feathers that curl back from behind the eye on each side of the head. Both adult horned and tufted puffins are about 14 inches (36 cm) long, but tufted puffins are heavier, weighing 1.7 lbs. (771 g), while horned puffins weigh approximately 1.4 lbs. (635 g).

Horned Puffin
Horned Puffin

At the end of the summer, after adults leave their nests, their plumage fades. The white face patches become smoky-brown in front and silver-gray in back, and the body of the horned puffin fades to blackish-gray above and brownish-gray below, while the body of the tufted puffin fades to a dusky gray. The bills of both species fade and the outer plate sheds, leaving them with a much smaller, duller bill. Their feet fade to a fleshy color, and horned puffins shed their horns, while tufted puffins shed their tufts. In the winter, when puffins are on their wintering grounds offshore in the North Pacific, they undergo a complete molt and are flightless for a period.

Puffins are well-suited to life in the ocean. Their feathers are waterproof, and their short, stiff wings are built more for swimming than for flying. They have strong bones to help them withstand the increased pressure of underwater dives; they can store oxygen in their body tissues, and they use anaerobic respiration to allow them to make long dives.

Tufted puffins nest on the coast and offshore islands from lower California to Alaska and from Japan to the shores of northeastern Asia. In Alaska, tufted puffins nest from Southeast Alaska to the Chukchi Sea coast. Horned puffins range from British Columbia to Alaska and southwest to the Sea of Okhotsk and the Kuril Islands. Their range in Alaska is similar to that of tufted puffins, but horned puffins are more abundant than tufted puffins in the northern part of their ranges.

Puffins are not easy to count because they nest in rock crevices or burrows where they can’t be seen. Also, a few puffin pairs often nest on rookeries dominated by other species, so an observer would have to watch each bird rookery for a long time to know if there were any puffins on the rookery. Population statistics are rough estimates and should not be considered exact counts. The world estimate for horned puffins is 1,088,500 individuals with greater than 85% nesting in North America. It is estimated that there are 608 breeding colonies in Alaska with a population of 921,000 individuals. The world population estimate for tufted puffins is 2,970,000 individuals with greater than 80% nesting in North America. It is estimated that there are 693 breeding colonies for tufted puffins in Alaska with a population of 2,280,000 individuals.

In next week’s post, I will describe puffin mating and nesting behaviors as well as detail  more about their biology.  As our days here on Kodiak steadily shorten, and we brace for what seems like one winter storm after the next, I enjoy writing about and looking at photos of puffins because they, more than any other bird, make me think of warm summer days.

I hope you are staying warm out there.  If you want something to read, sign up for my Free Mystery Newsletter and read about true crime in Alaska.  This month I am profiling another serial killer who recently roamed the streets of Anchorage.


Kodiak Birds

Pine Grosbeak
Pine Grosbeak

More than 240 species of birds have been identified in the Kodiak Island Archipelago. Kodiak is not on a major flyway, but many species migrate to Kodiak in either the summer or winter, and many other species are year-round residents. Common species include golden-crowned sparrows, Wilson’s warblers, fox sparrows, black-capped chickadees, hermit thrushes, and winter wrens.

Varied Thrush
Varied Thrush

Due to its mild maritime climate in the winter, wide variety of habitats, and plentiful food supply, the Kodiak Archipelago is a winter home to more species and numbers of birds than anywhere else in Alaska. Over a million sea ducks and other aquatic migratory birds flock to Kodiak in the winter. Sea ducks commonly seen in the archipelago in the fall and winter include harlequins, surf scoters, buffleheads, Barrow’s Goldeneye, oldsquaws, and mergansers.

In the spring, Arctic terns arrive from as far away as Antarctica, and bank swallows return from South America. Horned and tufted puffins fly from their winter home on the deep North Pacific Ocean to the rocky cliffs of the archipelago where they nest.

Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin

Without question, the bald eagle is Kodiak’s most noticeable bird, and with 600 nesting pairs on the archipelago, biologists believe the nesting real estate is saturated, and many adult eagles here may never mate. In the winter, hundreds of eagles congregate near the town of Kodiak where they feed on cannery effluent and scraps of fish from boats when the fishermen offload their catch. Many of these eagles seen near town in the winter are seasonal migrants from the mainland.

Over the next few weeks, I will cover a few of these bird species in more detail, including bald eagles, tufted and horned puffins, Arctic terns, and oystercatchers.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

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Tufted Puffin in Uyak Bay, Kodiak Island

Puffins arrive in Uyak Bay in May, and it is a welcome sign of spring to sight the first one. These colorful, almost comical birds are members of the family alcidae, which includes guillemots, auks, auklets, murres, and murrelets. We have both horned and tufted puffins here. The two species sport different head gear, but the most obvious difference between them is that horned puffins have a white breast and a black back, while tufted puffins have a black breast and back. Both species have large, colorful bills. Horned puffins have a small, fleshy dark “horn” above each eye, while tufted puffins have tufts of long feathers on either side of the head. Both males and females have the same markings. One of the most interesting things about puffins is that they shed the outer layers of their bills in the late summer, and their plumage fades to a dusky gray. In late May, we see colorful parrot-like birds, but by early September, their somber plumage and plain bill make them appear to be a totally different species.

In this part of Alaska, puffins arrive at their breeding colonies in May. It is believed that breeding pairs mate for life or at least for a prolonged period of time.  They strengthen their bonds during a courtship ceremony that take place in the water. The male lifts his bill straight up and opens and closes his mouth and jerks his head, while the female hunches over and pulls her head and neck close to her body. Next, the two birds face each other, waggle their heads and touch bills repeatedly while opening and closing their mouths.

Puffins prefer to nest underground. They have sharp claws on the toes of their feet, and they are able to scratch out a burrow three to four feet deep into a steep hillside. They use the same burrow every year, and they clean and may even lengthen the burrow each year. At rocky sites with very little or no soil, puffins nest on slopes or cliff faces. Females lay a single whitish-colored egg that is incubated for 42–47 days by both parents. The egg hatches in July, and the parents take turns feeding the chick for the next 45 days.

After the first five days, the chick can keep itself warm, allowing both parents to leave the nest to gather food. The adults catch small fish such as herring, capelin, and sand lance to feed themselves and their chick. They have a raspy tongue that holds each fish against a double row of backward-facing spines on the roof of the mouth, and they often carry as many as ten small fish at a time when they return to the nest. As soon as the chick fledges, the adults leave for the winter. They shed their beaks and head to the open ocean, where they spend the winter feeding. Young puffins will remain at sea until they are two years old, and then they return to the nesting colony for the summer. They are sexually mature at age three.

I can’t help but laugh when I watch a puffin fly, because with their chubby, round bodies, they are poorly built for flight, and they are actually much better at swimming than flying. When a puffin takes off to fly, it appears to run on the water, furiously flapping its wings until it gains a few feet of altitude. Then it flies for a short distance and splashes back into the water. Landing on a cliff is a tricky maneuver for a puffin, and crash landings are not uncommon.

Seeing a brightly-colored puffin in May is a sign to me that spring has arrived, and catching a glimpse of that same drab-colored bird in September is a reminder that winter is on its way.

Springtime on Kodiak

Kodiak Bear Sow and Cub

I’m sitting next to the heater and looking out the window at a blizzard, so it seems strange to write a post about spring.  I know, though, that over the next few weeks, spring will unfold in this corner of the world, and springtime on Kodiak is spectacular.  It is, without question, my favorite time of the year.  True, the weather is much nicer in the summer, but nothing can compare to the awakening of nature that spring brings.

All I have to do is look out the front window or walk out into the yard to watch the breath-taking aerobatics of mating bald eagles.  On the beach, I can see raucous, funny black oystercatchers, squawking and strutting to protect their territories.  The black-legged kittiwakes arrived yesterday at their rookery in front of our home, and the Arctic terns should arrive in the next two weeks.  We will soon begin seeing horned and tufted puffins paddling through the water and launching their fat little bodies into the air for their short, awkward flights.  Of course bears will be leaving their dens, and before too long, we hopefully will catch a glimpse of a sow with tiny, newborn cubs.

Fin Whale near Kodiak Island

All of this is fantastic to see, but perhaps the most amazing displays of spring occur in the ocean.  As the sea temperature slowly rises, phytoplankton bloom, providing a food supply for spawning zooplankton. Soon, the ocean is full of these small crustaceans that provide a food, for everything from herring to whales.  Spring is also when adult herring return to the marshy heads of bays to spawn and lay their eggs on eel grass and other plants.  It seems as if overnight we begin seeing masses of zooplankton washed up on our beach and notice huge schools of herring in the bay, and following the herring and zooplankton are fin whales, humpbacks, and other whales, along with seals and sea lions.  Some years we even see Orcas chasing and feeding on the oil-rich herring.  There are days in the spring when the last sounds I hear before I fall asleep at night and the first sounds I hear when I awake in the morning are whales blowing.  Life doesn’t get much better than that.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to go into more detail about springtime on Kodiak Island.  How do eagles court and mate, and when will their chicks hatch?  What do bears do when they first come out of their dens?  When do the Sitka black-tailed deer give birth to their fawns, and when are red fox kits born?  I’ll also let you know about the whales and other wildlife we see and tell you a bit more about Arctic terns and some of the other birds in our neighborhood.  The snow is relentless today, but I’m certain spring is around the corner!

Please let me know if there is any particular Kodiak animal you would like me to cover.