Waiting for the Puffins

Cooper Island, Alaska, July 12, 2010 — As Black Guillemots finished up their egg laying — the last of the nests got eggs this weekend — I had the pleasure of having two visitors from the BBC’s Natural History Unit. Anyone with an interest in nature has seen some or all of the BBC’s excellent “Planet Earth” series, which does indeed live up to its catchphrase “Earth as you’ve never seen it”. The BBC is now wrapping up filming for a series entitled “Frozen Planet” with the catchphrase “Earth as you’ll never see it again”. They have been filming frozen habitats and their occupants for a number of years and the series will debut in Britain in late 2011.

The story playing out on Cooper Island that caught the attention of Elizabeth White, a BBC producer/director, was the northward expansion of the subarctic Horned Puffins to an arctic seabird colony occupied by Black Guillemots. Puffins first bred on Cooper Island and in northern Alaska in 1986, using the same boxes and other wooden debris used by Black Guillemots. The formation of a small colony of Horned Puffins on Cooper Island over the last 24 years is almost certainly due to the decrease in ice in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas over the last few decades and the concurrent decrease in annual snow cover allowing increasing access to nest sites. While the puffin range expansion was almost predictable as the warming temperatures moved the boundary between subarctic and arctic ecosystems northward, what was unexpected was that puffins would turn out to be such villains as they competed for nest cavities with the guillemots. The large multi-colored bill of puffins makes them a favorite with the general public, who tend to think of them as the “charismatic clowns of the sea”. They are recognizable and precious enough to even be exploited by commercial interests, with a breakfast cereal named after them. Most people would be surprised to know puffins can completely wipe out productivity of a guillemot subcolony by displacing eggs or killing (but not eating) nestlings. Last year they accounted for almost half of the mortality of guillemot nestlings. Read post of 2009 season.

BBC crew on Cooper Island

Elizabeth White, BBC producer/director (right), David Wright, director of photography and I sit in a hollow dug out by a polar bear.

Apparently the BBC thought the unexpected behavior of puffins on Cooper Island would be a good demonstration of the type of interactions that can occur when species occupying shifting ecosystems collide. For those more interested in bizarre nature stories than concerns with the population level effects of invasive species, the story has tabloid appeal: “When good puffins go bad — how climate change has turned a beloved seabird into a nest-destroying thug!”

The BBC arrived on the island on June 28th, when puffins typically begin to displace eggs as they begin breeding or prospecting cavities.

Liz White arrived with David Wright, the director of photography for this shoot. David works out of Maine and Georgia through his company, LunaSea Films, but is a British citizen. I was immediately put at ease when it became clear they both had extensive experience in the Arctic. While recognizing that the Cooper Island camp will never get four stars on Trip Advisor, I was heartened by their appreciation of the Cooper Island cabin and other amenities.

Amazingly, for the first time in decades, Horned Puffins failed to appear in late June or early July. The six-day stay on the island that Liz and David had anticipated stretched out to 11 days as we waited for the puffins to start their breeding or typical nest disturbance activities. We did have one pair of puffins come in for a day and act very much like they would soon get down to breeding. One member of the pair carried a feather in its bill for hours — indicating it had courtship or nesting on its mind — but ultimately no puffins visited nest sites while the BBC was on the island. This year’s paucity of puffins and their lack of interest in breeding, given their annual breeding over the last decade, cannot be easily explained. While it was a late year for snowmelt, there was a large amount of open water near Point Barrow in early June which should have facilitated their arrival. It will be interesting to see if and when puffins do arrive and how they behave when they do.

Black Guillemots are ready for their close up.

Black Guillemots are ready for their close up.

The wait for the puffins did provide Liz and David a chance to video the guillemots (which are neither as aggressive or camera shy as the Horned Puffins) [photo of them in front of camera] and also to explore the four-mile length of Cooper Island. I greatly enjoyed having two experienced and well-traveled nature observers share their reactions to the birds, habitats and weather on the island. Perhaps most importantly to me, Liz and David greatly appreciated the appearance and behaviors of the guillemots and the unique attributes of the Cooper Island colony. Black Guillemots do lack the bizarre bill of the puffins (and it will be some time before boxes with pictures of guillemots grace American breakfast tables). But to this biased observer, they are visually elegant — as well as being an excellent monitor of change on a melting frozen planet.

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