I figured now would be a good time to talk about how I “rescued” a baby puffin last summer. Especially since I’m headed to Iceland in two weeks (OMG), where I’ll probably be eating puffins. Just so, you know, you don’t think I’m a total monster or anything.
Witless Bay, just outside of St. John’s, is home to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Hundreds of thousands of seabirds come to nest, including Leach’s storm-petrels, kittiwakes, and goofy little puffins. Puffins are Newfoundland’s provincial bird, and so we cherish these flailing little critters like our own children. The reserve has the largest Atlantic puffin colony in North America, with over 260k pairs nesting here in late spring and summer. They dig burrows to lay their eggs inside, often returning to their same nest annually, AND they mate for life.
I mean, come on. Puffins are the model citizens.
However, the colony is a little too close to civilization. Each year, a number of dead baby puffins turn up roadside in Witless Bay, and for years nobody really knew what to do about it. When a puffin chick leaves its burrow for the first time, its instinct is to follow the light of the moon to begin its southern migration. But the lights of civilization – headlights, streetlights, and house lights – all serve to confuse the poor babies. They end up getting killed by traffic or wild animals, or thrown entirely off course.
Along comes Juergen Schau, a German film producer who spends his summer in the area. He started the Puffin Patrol, a wildlife rescue organization that’s been around for seven years but only recently started gaining fame. I met him last year at his Puffin Patrol Headquarters…otherwise known as his garage. Schau had done his research, and discovered that other countries (like Iceland) were having the same problem. And they were going to do something about it.
Teams of volunteers were organized to patrol the town every evening. Anyone could volunteer, even children. It turned into a community affair – even Needs convenience started handing out free coffee to patrollers.
On my night out with Schau, I was suited up in a reflective vest, gloves, a butterfly net, and a lobster pot. Unfortunately, my timing was off. We had had an incredibly warm summer and most of the babies had already migrated. We drove around in his puffin-mobile, scouting out potential zones for straying puffins. If we found a bird, someone would focus a light on it while the other person scooped up the chick and placed it in a net.
It’s a bit stressful for the chicks, but apparently tickling their heads helps. The babies are then stored in Schau’s garage, by the woodstove, and released the next morning.
We didn’t find any. No puffins are better than dead puffins, and The Patrol had already rescued over 500 puffins that summer.
Two days later, however, a voicemail showed up on my phone from Schau saying they had found one last puffin. Schau offered me the honour of letting the little guy go.
His name was Blueberry. He was a sweetheart – mostly covered in black feathers but with all the gangly features of a bird that skims the top of the water like a mosquito. We brought Blueberry down to the ocean, and Schau removed Blueberry from his temporary home with care.
Little Blueberry was placed in my gloved hands. My job was to squat and toss him into the air, forcing him to fly rather than flop around at water’s edge. Big responsibility.
I crouched, and heaved a pathetic lady toss. The poor guy didn’t end up much further from my feet, but he landed in water. Schau told me it’d be okay, and that Blueberry would begin grooming his feathers and then diving. Blueberry did exactly that. We watched him free himself and head out to sea, as we cheered from shore. The season’s last puffin.
I’m hoping it won’t be the same little guy I’m devouring in Reykjavik next month.