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Adorable Tufted Puffins: One Visitor's Welcome Return to Oregon Coast, Washington Coast

Published 04/11/2020 at 6:04 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Adorable Tufted Puffins: One Visitor's Welcome Return to Oregon Coast, Washington Coast

(Cannon Beach, Oregon) – Every April, an adorable black, white and orange creature returns to the north Oregon coast landmark of Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, as well as other spots along the south coast and the Washington coast. On April 1, as the town was (and is at the moment) under quarantine and locked away to visitors, the Friends of Haystack Rock Facebook page posted its great anticipation for the return of the funky lil’ tufted puffin. Two days later, both that group and the Haystack Rock Awareness Program gleefully announced their first sightings of the pelagic bird. (Above: photo courtesy Ram Papish).

The tufted puffin is perhaps the most revered of bird beasties on the Oregon coast and Washington coast, and all around the world its sleek but quirky visage adorns all kinds of knickknacks and clothing. During the rest of the year they live out at sea, diving deep for their grub and staying well hidden from human eyes. But each spring they return to some rocky areas just barely offshore in California, Oregon and Washington to burrow into thin layers of soil and create their nests as they begin the breeding process. It’s done ever-so-slightly in front of human eyes.

In Oregon, they’re found at Cannon Beach’s Haystack Rock, Bandon’s Face Rock and Oceanside’s Three Arch Rocks. There are some 20 colonies here. Along the Washington coast, current information is not readily available but some documentation points towards areas around Westport and Cape Flattery. While you can’t go near these places at the moment due to coronavirus and statewide shelter-in-place orders in all three west coast states, you'll have a visual treat awaiting once this over. They breed and raise their young through August, leaving by September, making for many more of them to observe when these restrictions are finally lifted in May or June (hopefully speaking, that is).

Cannon Beach’s Haystack Rock is the closest spot that humans can observe them, with just about everywhere else much farther away. This is a good thing, as humans easily disturb the tufted puffins with their presence, and Oregon Department of Fish Wildlife (ODFW) notes that if a human steps on our near one of their burrowed nests the tufted puffin may not even return to that area for a whole year or longer. Some of the near-shore rocks at Bandon also host quite a few, and that part of the south coast has had more issues with people treading on nests.

The bird is not considered rare, according to ODFW and Haystack Rock Awareness Program’s (HRAP) Kari Henningsgaard, but their numbers are on a serious decline. Some figures have their numbers down more than three quarters of what they were in the ‘80s, from around 5,000 in Oregon down to below a thousand.

Shawn Stephensen is a biologist with US Fish and Wildlife out of its office in Newport, who talked to Oregon Coast Beach Connection (OCBC) last year.

“They’re not really so rare, but their numbers have declined over the last few years,” Stephensen said. “Historically, along the Oregon coast we’ve had 5,000 but we’re down to a few hundred. They’re also found in California, Washington and Canada along the coasts. In Alaska, there’s a huge population: thousands of colonies of tufted and horned puffins in Alaska. We only get tufted puffins along the Oregon coast, although occasionally a horned puffin washes onshore from somewhere out on the ocean.”

Photo above courtesy Tiffany Boothe, Seaside Aquarium

Exact reasons for the decline are unknown, but they seem to include many possibilities, according to the University of Washington. These include predation by eagles and red foxes, ingesting plastic from humans, loss of food sources, oil spills (Washington and Alaska), getting caught in fishing nets and disturbance by humans. The current quarantine may help them a little bit.

In normal times, HRAP has hosts out on the beach below Haystack Rock helping you spot the beloved bird, often using telescopic gear. You’ll certainly need high-powered optics to spot them at Oceanside. It’s doubtful the practice of sharing such equipment through HRAP will continue this year even when the beaches open back up because of sanitary concerns, however.

Either way, the mere idea of tufted puffins being in this area is hard to grasp for people and often comes as a serious surprise. There’s even a kind of disbelief; a resistance to the idea.

“That’s the reaction that we get all the time, just about every time,” Henningsgaard told OCBC in 2019. “They find out there are puffins here and then there is shock and awe. And then sometimes they think they’re not actually there.”

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Photo above courtesy Ram Papish

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