Cabot Discovery

Tiny tracking devices reveal surprising journey at sea

Tiny tracking devices reveal surprising journey at sea.

For all of us who have wondered where puffins go in the winter, at last we have our first answer, and it is surprising. Results of the first ever winter tracking of individual puffins from North America are just in, thanks to researchers at Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, also known as Project Puffin.

Given their short wings and chunky bodies, one might guess that puffins wouldn’t travel far from their land-based nesting colonies. The surprising discovery that Maine puffins do travel far from those islands was revealed when National Audubon Society researchers attached tracking devices to the leg bands of eight puffins in 2009 at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, a 65-acre treeless island located 21 miles off the coast of Rockland, Maine. The lives of puffins are fairly well known when they are nesting on land, but surprisingly little is known about their whereabouts and habits after they leave their nesting islands. Puffins, who can live 30 or more years, return each year to the island where they previously nested. They usually appear in early spring and each pair lays their single egg in a deep rock crevice. After an incubation period of about six weeks, the egg hatches and parents tend the chick for the next six weeks. The chicks head off to sea in July, and their parents typically follow within the next few weeks, spending the next eight months of the year living an oceanic life. Although puffins are occasionally seen at sea in the winter, nothing was known about the specific movements of individual Maine birds, until now.

The first Maine puffin ever tracked spent October through December in the outer Gulf of Maine, moving northward along the continental shelf of Nova Scotia on his way to the Gulf of St. Lawrence where he spent most of January, before heading south to the far offshore waters of the Mid-Atlantic States, nearly to Bermuda. The tiny, capsule-shaped tracking devices measure light intensity and time of day to estimate day length and plot the puffins’ locations (+/- 115 miles). Unlike satellite transmitters that are attached to larger animals, these geolocators store information until the animal is re-captured and the device is removed to retrieve the data. Although several of the tagged puffins returned to Seal Island in 2010, and again in 2011, the wary birds eluded capture until June 23, 2011 when one of the puffins (named “Cabot” after a human seafaring explorer) landed on top of a puffin trap. Waiting in a nearby observation blind, 19-year old Ben Donnelly, an Ithaca College student, quickly responded, pulling a string release that dropped the puffin with its prize into a box where he and island supervisor Sarah Gutowsky removed the precious tracking tool. Days later, a second puffin carrying a geolocator was also captured.

Both birds were later found to have roughly similar haunts at sea, though Cabot’s travels were more extensive--especially his venture north into the Labrador Sea. As seabird habitats are increasingly threatened by climate change, fisheries, off-shore drilling and wind farms, it is becoming increasingly important to discover migratory patterns to better safeguard the birds at both their nesting and winter homes. Additional studies are necessary to confirm these results and to look for further patterns.

While soaring seabirds such as albatross and shearwaters are known to fly much further than puffins, Cabot’s flight is all the more amazing for the energy expended. Puffins typically fly by rapid flapping, in which they reach speeds of up to 50 mph, beating their wings 300-400 beats per minute.

Researchers Scott Hall and Steve Kress presented the long-awaited information to the seabird scientific community on February 8th, 2012 at the 39th annual meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group in Turtle Bay, Hawaii.

Year 1 (June 2009 to May 2010)

Puffin Cabot was tagged with a geolocator on August 2nd 2009. He departed Seal Island in mid-August, heading northeast. He spent October through December in the outer Gulf of Maine, moving northward along the continental shelf of Nova Scotia on his way to the Gulf of St. Lawrence where he spent most of January, before heading south to the far offshore waters of the Mid-Atlantic States, nearly to Bermuda. He stayed in this region from February to April, before returning to Seal Island in May, 2010.

Year 2 (May 2010 to July 2011)

After spending most of the summer at Seal Island, Cabot departed Seal Island in late July, repeating his travels northeast along the ocean coast of Nova Scotia, past Sable Island and on to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In this second year, he kept moving north, eventually to the deep waters of the northern Labrador Sea. As in year one, Cabot then moved south to the offshore Mid-Atlantic waters, a distance of 2,800 miles. By May, he had returned to Seal Island, where he was captured on June 23, 2011. His eight month journey covered a remarkable round trip distance of about 4,800 miles.

Puffins had been absent from Seal and other Maine islands due to excessive hunting for meat and feathers in the late 19th century. They were restored to the island over an eight year period by hand-rearing and releasing chicks brought from Newfoundland. Now, more than 500 pairs nest on Seal Island.

June 23, 2011, Seal Island – Ben Donnelly’s Journal Entry

"Woke up to the sound of rain on my tent. Spent most of the morning inside. Went out after lunch and read puffin band numbers with scope from my blind. Saw two GEO puffins (with geolocators), so called Sarah and set up the box trap. It was a good idea because soon after, I caught one of the GEO puffins! I had to do a double take and almost fell climbing down from my blind. I rushed over to cover the trap to make sure the puffin didn’t get out. Sarah took the ‘locater’ off while we weighed and measured the puffin in the blind. After which we took some pictures with the puffin. The puffin bite is pretty good—he got me with the tip of the bill." - Ben Donnelly

Read more about Cabot's remarkable travels in the NYTimes and in the Boston Globe.

Learn about birds and take action