Tears of the Clown

What can conservationists do to help the tufted puffin — a seabird that spends as little time within sight of humans as it can?

THE STINK SLID into our noses as the boat drifted up the inlet. It was subtle, woven among the pleasanter scents of salt and spray we had been enjoying on the ride out from La Push on a bright afternoon in late August of 2019. Subtle, but still undeniable.

“Whoa, what’s that?” Joe Gaydos said, wrinkling his nose.

“Yeah, I think we got another one,” Scott Pearson said from the boat’s wheel. By another one he meant another dead gray whale, most likely in the cove next to the beach where we were planning to camp on the south side of Destruction Island, off the coast of Washington. There had been one there earlier this summer, a juvenile, but it had already rotted away.

“When camping you always want to be as close to a dead whale as possible,” Gaydos said and grinned. Tall, with close-cropped white hair and an easy manner to complement his soft southern drawl, Gaydos is a man of many hats: wildlife veterinarian, biologist, and the science director of the SeaDoc Society, an environmental organization based in northwestern Washington but affiliated with the University of California, Davis. Next to him was Pearson, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Also onboard and making faces at the odor were Peter Hodum, a biologist at the University of Puget Sound; Tom Good, a biologist from NOAA; Ignacio Vilchis, a biologist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research; and Chad Norris, Pearson’s jack-of-all trades assistant who knew a lot about boats and seabirds and how to bring the two together.

Hodum, Pearson, and Good had been coming to Destruction Island for more than a decade, not just to watch the puffins, but also to monitor the thousands of rhinoceros auklets that burrowed all over the hillsides. Photo by Udo S / Flickr.

The group planned to spend three days on Destruction so they could catch up to five tufted puffins, on which Gaydos would attach small satellite tags. It was no small endeavor, either in terms of the logistics or the implications. Puffins are hard to reach. They nest exclusively on offshore seastacks or islands, laying one egg in a burrow dug out of the soil. Their breeding season was almost done, and the chicks, called pufflings, were preparing to leave. Once they did, the adults would leave, too, off to raft in the Pacific for the winter. Where exactly they go isn’t known, and the hope was that tagging some would shed a little light on a murky but significant portion of their lives — light that could help convince wildlife managers that these puffins are worth keeping around.

THE TUFTED PUFFIN is a squat but striking member of the auk family that can grow up to 16 inches long and weigh more than two pounds. It wears a sleek black cloak throughout the year, but when breeding its face turns so white it looks painted. Its large bill, too, becomes a brilliant orange, and it sprouts creamy tufts above its eyes. Thanks to these ornaments it is sometimes called the sea parrot, or the clown of the sea.

Tufted puffins range across the northern Pacific, with colonies from California up to Alaska, and across the Bering Strait to Russia and a single island in Japan. But in North America, and especially in its more southerly colonies, their numbers have declined at an alarming rate. In Washington, their population has fallen by almost 90 percent. For this reason, in 2014 the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list the puffin under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Six years later, the USFWS reached a decision. Woeful though the plight of the Pacific Northwest puffins may be, the federal biologists’ rationale went, the bulk of the United States’ population is in Alaska, and the colonies up there are robust. As such, listing was not warranted.

For puffin advocates in the Pacific Northwest, the USFWS’s verdict came as a disappointment. “We can’t let these birds disappear,” one such advocate told the Gazette in Cannon Beach, Oregon, site of that state’s largest colony. The question they were left with was what exactly they can do to help a seabird that spends as little time within sight of them as it can. Absent the might of the most powerful legal instrument available to conservationists, what hope did the bird have?

A NEW WHALE was indeed rotting in the cove next to the beach, its body bloated, its flayed flesh an angry red. Finding a good spot for a tent became an exercise in reading the prevailing winds and then staying out of their way.

Most of the puffins on Destruction Island occupy a grassy slope on a the northwestern side of the island. Photo by Eric Wagner.

The birds are chubby and awkward in the air, as aukletss generally are. When they came to land, they splayed their orange feet, hitting the ground and tumbling forward on their bellies. Photo by Peter Hodum.

The research team attempted to catch birds in mist nets as they returned to their burrows. Photo by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith.

Once everyone had set up their tents, we left for the puffin colony. Destruction Island is not large, but the walk was a slow one. We had to pick our way through the cobbly intertidal, stepping on or over rocks both slick with algae and sharp with barnacles — a harsh combination should one misplace a sandaled foot. Even so, these were welcome risks, not least because they afforded a reprieve from eau de baleine morte.

Hodum, Pearson, and Good had been coming to Destruction Island for more than a decade, not just to watch the puffins, but also to monitor the thousands of rhinoceros auklets that burrowed all over the hillsides. They knew the place well. Gaydos, on the other hand, had never been out before. He marveled as he walked, taking in the tall white lighthouse, long ago decommissioned, that towered over Destruction’s westward face; gazing upon the steep sandstone bluffs that made the island seem taller than its hundred feet; squinting up at the skeins of gulls drifting overhead. “It’s so beautiful,” he said. “You guys are lucky.”

Most of the puffins occupy a grassy slope on a rocky finger that reaches from the northwestern side of Destruction several hundred feet into the sea. The slope curves to form a sort of amphitheater, with perhaps 10 active burrows arrayed across it. Only pufflings were in them, their parents loafing just offshore. (Loafing is the term used for when a seabird floats in a restful way for hours.) We counted the adults as they bobbed in and out of view — 10, 15, maybe 20 birds. They leave the colony in the morning, feed their chicks small fish for a few hours, and then spend much of the day in this state of marine repose until they return to their burrows for the evening.

The greater existential threats to puffins are the changing oceanic conditions and large-scale declines in marine productivity.

Pearson had brought a pair of mist nets, each about 40 feet long. He, Hodum, and Good stepped carefully across the slope, arranging the net poles in a way they hoped would best ensure puffin capture, before collapsing the nets so they wouldn’t catch anything at night when no one was around to free them. After they were done we headed back to camp, pausing to watch the first puffins fly back to land. The birds were chubby and awkward in the air, as auks generally are. When they came to land, they splayed their orange feet, hitting the ground and tumbling forward on their bellies. But then they stood and shook themselves off. Gazing into the middle distance, the wind ruffling both the grass around them and the tufts on their heads, they cut comically serious figures. Or maybe it was seriously comic. A dash dignified, whatever else you could say about them.

A SUITE OF FACTORS has driven the puffin’s decline throughout its southern range. In June 1991, for instance, the Tenyo Maru, a Japanese fishing vessel, spilled over 400,000 gallons of fuel oil when it sank off Washington’s Cape Flattery. Thousands of seabirds died, including an estimated 9 percent of the state’s tufted puffins. Puffins are also caught, along with other creatures, as bycatch in regional fisheries, although how many suffer that fate is unknown.

The greater existential threats, however, are the changing oceanic conditions and large-scale declines in marine productivity. As the waters of the northeast Pacific trend warmer, the food web is changing, transforming. Species decrease in number or their ranges shift. Warm-water organisms move north from the south. Individual fish become skinnier and less nutritious. Puffins, as a result, are finding fewer sardines, anchovies, or herring, and thus have a harder time rearing their pufflings.

The problem for conservationists is that there are different ways to interpret their decline down here. One is at this more local scale — the scale of the colony, the scale of the now-empty rock, the scale of a state with less-puffined shores. This view is indeed dreary, marked as it is by steady downward trends and models predicting that Washington, Oregon, and California will lose the puffin altogether in the not-too-distant future. The other interpretation, which the USFWS applied — and is in fact legally obliged to use — is to consider the puffin’s wider geographies. According to this view, while local declines are unfortunate, they are not unendurable so long as plenty of puffins remain in Alaska.When this happens — when a species cedes the more extreme parts of its range but throngs still occupy core habitats — ecologists call it a “range contraction.” It is not an uncommon phenomenon, nor necessarily unnatural. But to dismiss it is unwise, for it can portend bigger problems for a species, especially in places where its populations are still considered healthy.

Washington, Oregon, and California will lose the puffin altogether in the not-too-distant future.

Petitioners had tried to circumvent the USFWS’s logic by asking the agency to consider the southern puffins as a distinct population segment — the approach, hinging on genetic differentiation, used to list several salmon runs on the West Coast as well as the southern resident killer whales of the Salish Sea under the ESA. The USFWS rejected this appeal, in part because there was no evidence the southern puffins are genetically distinct from those in Alaska.

This lack of evidence was the motivation for Gaydos and Pearson’s current endeavor. The general assumption is that puffins from all over the northeastern Pacific, including Alaska, mix haphazardly together during the winter. But, Gaydos and Pearson wondered, what if they don’t? Maybe the southern birds stick to their own patch of the sea, and the northern birds theirs. Maybe this, in turn, determines where they go to breed, and shapes how they respond evolutionarily to the differences of their separate worlds. Maybe these subtle differences amplify over the eons. If so, then the distinct-population argument strengthens, and the Pacific Northwest puffins become something to save after all.

EARLY THE NEXT MORNING — or later that first night, depending on how one interprets time — I was crouched in the bow of a rigid-hilled inflatable boat, or RHIB. It was 3 a.m., and Norris was piloting around Destruction; behind me, Vilchis sat. He and I both held spotlights. I swept mine over the water, my eyes as keen as they could be at that hour to whatever hint of puffin the beam might pick up.

We were trying on-water captures to augment the puffins we hoped to catch in the mist nets later. (“More is always better,” Pearson had said.) Ideally, Vilchis or I would spot a loafing puffin and trap it in the beam, like a deer in the headlights. There it would sit until Norris could drive the RHIB over to it, and we would scoop the bird from the water in a net and ferry it to shore, where Gaydos would affix the tag.

We had been out for 20 minutes or so and seen naught but rhinoceros auklets. Then, 50 yards to the right, I saw a larger black bird with a white face floating close to the rocky shore. “Puffin!” I yelled. “Three o’clock!” I jumped up —“Careful!” Norris barked — and illuminated the bird in my beam. Norris angled the RHIB towards it, but as he turned my beam strayed. The puffin took this opportunity to dive, disappearing in a flutter of water.

“Shoot,” Vilchis said, bringing his beam over to the vacated spot. “Well, now we watch to see where it comes up.”

We puttered around for one minute, two minutes, five, ten. Vilchis and I swept our lights far and wide, but we never saw the puffin again. We motored over to the other side of the island to try our luck closer to the puffin colony, but we couldn’t find any puffins there, either.

Norris drove from one side of the island to the other — back and forth, back and forth — for a couple of more hours, until the sun rose and it was too bright to sneak up on anything. So we called it a morning and went back to camp.

We didn’t catch any puffins in the mist nets in the morning, afternoon, or evening sessions. This, even though more than once they ensnared themselves, only to shake and shimmy and wriggle free of the net’s hold.

CONSERVATION BIOLOGY may be an applied science, which implies a practical bent, but conservation as an act is aspirational at its heart, even idealistic. Some organism is at risk of going extinct if things continue unchanged. Only by stopping or curtailing certain human behaviors, be it logging or fishing or draining an aquifer or pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for 200 years — the list could go on — do the odds of that organism’s survival improve even a little.

Ecological dynamics, on the other hand, can hardly be called idealistic. They tend instead to deal in binary outcomes: dead or alive, growing or shrinking, here or not here. But ecology can have its aspirational moments, too. Not to imply intent, but as an entity, a species is ambitious. It seeks to occupy as much space as it can, given its physiological requirements and the resources available.

You see this with the tufted puffin. It needs a safe place to nest and enough fish to eat. California, Oregon, and Washington represent the edge of territory and water that can minimally satisfy those needs. In this, these spaces are, for a puffin, aspirational. Yes, most of North America’s tufted puffins are in Alaska, where there are plenty of islands and rocks to burrow in, and lots of fish to eat. But for some time, a good number of puffins could stay in the south and make a home on the rugged sea stacks, sandstone cliffs, and windswept islands along the coastline abutting the California Current.

Often, that is how science works: bird by bird by bird.

Not for much longer though. But perhaps there is still a little room left for aspirational thinking.

Although it didn’t receive federal protection, the species has protected status in these three states. As Gaydos said, “There’s a kind of beauty in state listings.” For one thing, although a state may not have the full financial resources of the federal government or be in charge of as much land and water, as a polity it can act in congress with other states to make targeted interventions where a species needs help.

For the tufted puffins, Gaydos saw three pressure points: food availability, introduced species that affect nesting areas, and at-sea stressors, like derelict fishing gear or gillnet entanglements. These pressure points may seem like small potatoes compared to something as amorphous and all-encompassing as climate change, but for Gaydos that is not an excuse to do nothing. “It’s sort of like fighting cancer,” he said. “Even when you’re getting treatment, you still need to eat, to get exercise, to get your walks in.”

All three states have been targeting these pressure points as best they can, stepping up population monitoring efforts, and making plans to create marine reserves that protect important food sources or address fishing-related threats. Gaydos and Pearson’s tagging would offer more bits of knowledge so a fuller picture of puffin life could emerge, its needs year-round more clearly defined.

But first they had to catch one.

I WOULDN’T SAY WE WERE DESPAIRING, but by day three, an Even the best-laid plans… fatalism was starting to settle over everyone. “There’s a reason no one really knows this stuff yet,” Pearson had said after all the failed attempts. “Catching puffins is tough.” In a fit of inspiration, he had decided to cut one of the mist nets into pieces. He threaded those pieces over hoops he had fashioned out of spare wire, making a smaller, portable net. He planned to place the nets in individual burrow entrances to catch the birds when they returned to them.

The researchers attach a satellite tag between the wings of the single puffin they caught during their trip to Destruction Island, hoping to glean information about its winter whereabouts. Photo by Eric Wagner.

We all stood on the beach watching… Could one puffin provide enough data by itself to inform a management decision? Photo by Peter Davis / USFWS.

Now, on the last morning, we were back at the rocky fingers, hunched behind the sandstone battlements opposite the colony in its grassy amphitheater. Pearson had set one of his nets in the burrow where puffins had been most active and retreated behind the hill, out of sight. Below, we waited.

The puffins were in the midst of their morning ritual, called circle flights. This is when adults, rather than going directly to their burrow, fly in quick, labored loops or figure-eights between island and sea before finally landing with a bill full of fish for their puffling. We had our eye on one circling bird, certain it lived in the target burrow. It went around and around, all but alighting once or twice, until at last it plopped into the dirt. Without a backward glance it disappeared inside the burrow. Then it tumbled out again, flailing, ensnared in the net.

Pearson was over the hill in a flash, quick to grab the bird before it could injure itself. He placed it in a bag, and we all made our way to the beach, where Gaydos had set up a makeshift workstation atop a driftwood log. Pearson weighed and measured the puffin — a male — and collected blood and fecal samples. Then he covered the puffin’s head and positioned himself and the bird so Gaydos could attach the satellite tag right between his wings. “You want to be careful around the head,” Pearson said. “Puffins are strong.” That clown bill — so colorful, so absurd — is wreathed in muscle, and Pearson related a tale of a field tech who had lost feeling in her fingertip for life after a puffin chomped on her.

There was a general sense of unease, as if we all were suddenly aware of just how much we were asking of this bird.

Gaydos put on a pair of reading glasses and went to work suturing the small satellite tag to the puffin with biodegradable thread. “Just three little pinpricks,” he said. Exposed to seawater, the sutures would dissolve after a time and the tag would fall off, but not before it transmitted the puffin’s position, sketching lines across formerly featureless spaces of the Pacific.

Throughout the procedure the puffin was eerily quiet. Other than a couple of huffs and a grunt, he made no sound at all. But even a puffin’s patience can wear thin after a time, and as Gaydos was finishing up the bird started to jerk and wriggle.

“He wants to go home!” Gaydos said. “Let’s get him out of here.”

With the tag affixed, Pearson carried the puffin down to the water’s edge. “Okay, fella,” he said. “Off you go.” He opened his hands and the puffin thrashed out. He flopped over the water and kelp, flapping, trying to fly, but he couldn’t generate sufficient lift, so after 10 or 20 yards he gave up and dove. He popped up a few yards later and paddled to the side of one of the rocky fingers, where he wedged himself in a little grotto.

We all stood on the beach watching. No one said anything. There was a general sense of unease, as if we all were suddenly aware of just how much we were asking of this bird. All our hopes rested upon him. Were they too much? Could one puffin provide enough data by itself to inform a management decision? Almost certainly not. But he was the one we had caught, and he would have to do until we could come back out next year and try to catch another one. Often, Gaydos said, that is how science works: bird by bird by bird.

The puffin looked like he would hide in the grotto for the rest of time, so some of us made motions to leave. But Gaydos stopped us. “I want to watch at least until he’s out of this cove,” he said. After a few minutes the puffin emerged from the grotto and swam towards the sea. He seemed to have calmed down, insofar as we could assess his mental state. His posture was erect as he held his head so he could keep one eye on us and the other on ocean in front of him. Soon he reached the fringes of the island. On he went past the rocks, past the rafts of sea otters, becoming smaller and smaller, until he was just a dot among the skeins of gulls on the open water, and then we could barely see him at all, so we all headed back to camp to pack up our stuff.

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