This past summer Deb & I ticked an item off the bucket list by travelling to Machias Seal Island to observe and photograph some of the 5,000 pairs of Atlantic Puffins that return to the island every summer to nest. While on the island we also had the privilege of seeing Arctic Terns, Common Murres and Razorbills.
Machias Seal Island is a small island located in the Lower Bay of Fundy about 12 miles south west of Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick and 10 miles south east of Cutler Maine. Access to the island during nesting season is restricted to fifteen people at a time who are allowed on the island for a two hour period, most of which is spent in one of four blinds to which you are escorted by the lighthouse keeper who is the only resident of the island. There has been a Canadian lighthouse keeper on the island almost continually since the first lighthouse was built in 1832.
Only two charter companies have permission to deliver people to Machias Seal Island. Bold Coast Charter Company departs from Cutler Maine and Sea Watch Tours, with whom Deb & I went with, operates from Seal Cove on Grand Manan Island in the Canadian province of New Brunswick.
Grand Manan Island by itself is a destination location for anyone wishing to experience maritime life and cuisine at its finest. Deb & I stayed for a couple of nights at The Inn at Whale Cove Cottages and it was the perfect spot.
Arriving at the Sea Watch Tours dock in Seal Cove we met Captain Peter Wilcox, who owns Sea Watch Tours, and his First Mate Durlan Ingersoll.
Our boat, The Day’s Catch, is a lobster fishing boat that Captain Wilcox converts for taking bird watchers and photographers to Machias Seal Island during the Puffin nesting season in July. As there are only minimal landing facilities on Machias Seal Island, the Day’s Catch tows a small tender, The Little Catch, which shuttles people from the big boat to the rocky shore of the island. Below are our rides for the day, the Day’s Catch and the Little Catch.
Due to rough seas and primitive docking facilities successful landing on the island occurs about 60% of the time so although it was very foggy we were thrilled to be able to set foot on the island. Here is Deb with the Little Catch in tow behind her.
The Day’s Catch, although spending most of its time fishing for lobster, became the perfect boat for the ninety minute trip to Machias Seal Island from Grand Manan, with plenty of room for the 15 passengers on board as seen by these next two images taken with the Fuji X-E2 and 8mm Samyang fisheye lens.
If you have never used a fisheye lens I would highly recommend getting one. They have surprising versatility and the unique perspective they provide often results in compelling images.
After the fifteen excited birders and photographers were successfully shuttled from The Day’s Catch to the shore we were escorted by the lighthouse keeper to a staging area where the practices and procedures were explained to us. This video follows our brief walk to the lighthouse and you will see and hear some birds flying overhead.
If you looked closely at the video you will have noticed the birds are not Puffins but surprisingly were Arctic Terns. These birds from the north had successfully nested in the lighthouse keepers vegetable garden….the first time Arctic Terns had done so in quite a while. Here is a young Arctic Tern and one of its parents sleeping in the garden. A rare sight.
It was a pleasure to capture two adults in an overhead aerial display. They are beautiful birds, not often observed at such close range. Always have your camera at the ready!
The next video shows one of the four blinds on the island and gives you an idea of how many Puffins are in the area and also how vocal they are. Notice the very small size of the ports in the blinds, barely large enough for a big lens to peek through, but necessarily small so our human forms would not be visible to the Puffins and provide the opportunity for them to become acclimated to us. Care was taken to only open the camera ports on one side of the blind at a time to prevent creation of sight lines enabling the Puffins to see through the blinds which could result in them flying into the blinds as opposed to perching on the roof as seen in the video!
Great care is taken by those governing the island to ensure that human impact on the Puffins is kept to an absolute minimum, which is good practice at all times when interacting with animals in the wild.
It’s not my normal practice to shoot from a blind, so it was difficult to know what gear to select for that critical hour during which I didn’t want to waste any time with the wrong lens combinations. After much thought it was decided to take three bodies; a Canon 5D MkIII with a 500mm lens for portraits (plus a 1.4 x TC for an effective 700mm if needed), a Canon 1Dx with the new 100-400mm zoom lens for capturing Puffins in flight and a Fuji X-E2 with a 55-200mm Fujinon zoom that Deb used for stills and video. The blind was too small for a tripod so we opted to bring a monopod however it proved impractical when shooting through such a small opening in the blind. This means that we spent the hour standing in the blind hand holding some pretty heavy equipment although it wasn’t that bad as the time raced by while we concentrated on getting that ‘perfect’ image (which has yet to happen after decades of trying). We utilized the first twenty minutes taking portraits and perched shots and the remaining time was devoted to my favourite photography niche, capturing birds in flight.
Puffins are sometime referred to as the parrots of the sea because of their appearance and affable character. They have a rather mischievous look even when they are resting which I think is captured in this first image.
Photographing black and white birds is technically challenging as it is difficult to find an exposure that retains detail in both the black and white feathers. Typically if you expose for detail in the blacks you overexpose the whites and if you expose for the whites you underexpose the blacks, both of which result in unacceptable results. Getting acceptable exposures in strong sunny lighting conditions is virtually impossible. So although we experienced a foggy overcast day, the subdued lighting created by the fog was a blessing for photographing the Puffins.
These next three images demonstrate the importance of thinking about back grounds and other elements in the image beyond the subject. Preference is subjective, but you must be intentional in acquiring a variety of backgrounds allowing you to enjoy the privilege of choosing that preference!
A mid-toned back ground.
A light back ground provided by the sky is fairly easily obtained by lowering the camera position and shooting in an upward trajectory. This changing angle of incidence also subtly affects the perspective of the bird as can be seen in these images.
The dark back ground. Care needs to be taken such that good differentiation exists between the bird (the black sections of the Puffin) and the dark back ground.
Although Puffins are quite independent while at sea, they are very social during the nesting season, clowning around with each other and creating a cacophony of sound that just can’t be described. It is difficult to capture the feel of the Puffin community with photographic stills but I trust these next few images provide a glimpse of Puffin life on Machias Seal Island.
In the image below, if you look carefully along the lower edge of the upper mandible you will notice a number of spear like bristles towards the base of the beak. These serve as small spikes that the Puffin uses to hold fish sideways in its beak and transport them back to the nest to feed the hungry young chick. The Puffin is able to catch fish sequentially, lock each one into place and continue fishing until the beak is full. This amazing design also allows the Puffin to fish at great distances away from the nest if necessary. Although the record number of fish observed in a single Puffin’s beak is 62, they typically average about ten.
Puffins often playfully spar with their beaks creating a percussive clacking sound.
As with people, each group appears to have a contrarian!
The Puffins seem quite inquisitive towards each other, perhaps because other than during nesting season they are primarily solitary birds. They are highly interactive making them a pleasure to watch.
Capturing birds in flight is a passion of many bird photographers and most of our time in the blind was spent attempting to get that special shot of a Puffin in flight. In-flight bird photography is technically difficult as it involves panning the camera to follow the target as flies through your field of view. It is also a challenge for the auto focusing system of the camera to keep tracking the bird and keeping it clearly in focus. Attempting to capture good in flight images while shooting through the small window in the blind complicated things significantly, however when you deal with the challenges presented and get a few decent images, it is always worth the effort.
This first image is more to show the bird’s environment than the bird itself. It is always good to begin with a few ‘environmental’ images of every species you photograph as it helps provide a better context for understanding of the animal’s world. During breeding season Puffins build their nests on the ground deep in the crevasses between the boulders that rim the island. If you look closely you will see this incoming Puffin’s mate poking her head above the rock that is protecting their nest and its precious contents (Puffins typically lay one egg and thus raise one new bird each year).
The little wings and rather rotund bodies suggest Puffins would be awkward in the air, but the opposite is the case as they are very quick straight line flyers reaching speeds of up to 55 mph with a wing beat frequency of 400 per minute.
Puffins are not large birds at about ten inches in length and weighing around a pound. The only time they are together is during nesting season. During the rest of the year they are typically solitary birds on the ocean, not meeting up with their mate until they arrive at same nest they left the year earlier.
When photographing birds in flight it is desirable to record captures with various wing positions creating uniquely different images that also allows one to study the primary feather characteristics thoroughly. The ventral under side of the wing is generally lighter in colour.
While the dorsal or top side is typically darker. It is thought that the white underside and dark top side of the Puffin provides protection from predation by making the Puffin hard to visualize from below by water dwelling predators and equally hard to see by raptors from above.
The bright orange feet of the Puffin are tucked neatly under the tail feathers during flight however they are exposed as the Puffin prepares to land at its nesting site. Located towards the end of the bird and with their large size they are ideally suited for swimming. Puffins are very agile swimmers and have been recorded at great deaths below the surface.
Normally Puffins consume the Sand Eels and Herring they enjoy as they catch them. The exception to this pattern occurs every summer when they are feeding the new addition to their family. For a period of six weeks or more after the chicks hatch and before they fledge, the parents take turns heading out to sea and returning with a beak full of fish. This small window of time also affords the photographer the opportunity to catch a Puffin in flight returning to the nest with a fresh supply of fish for the young Puffin chick. This was the reason we planned our summer road trip when we did….to hopefully be provided the opportunity to capture this classic image of a Puffin with its catch.
Seeing these images on the camera LCD was a thrill and well worth the time and effort required to get to Machias Seal Island.
Given the uniqueness of the Puffin’s appearance it is impossible not to take some tight portraits. There well deserve their nicknames of ‘ocean clown’ or ‘parrot of the sea’.
Even though we planned well and were good stewards of our time in the blind, the hour passed very quickly and it was soon time to be escorted back to the docking area where Captain Peter was waiting to shuttle us back to the Day’s Catch for the return trip to Grand Manan. The video that follows provides a glimpse of just how foggy it was. The gentleman in the green T-shirt is Ralph Eldridge, one of the lighthouse keepers who lives on the island for one month at a time. He is also a superb photographer and Puffin expert. You can see his impressive photography via this link to his website.
It was a foggy trip home but the Day’s Catch was filled with fourteen people excited to share their Puffin stories with each other and looking forward to see what they had captured on their CF & SD cards.
After spending one more night at the Inn at Whale Cove Cottages we boarded the ferry for the return trip to Blacks Harbour, continuing on to Prince Edward Island and then the little town of Percé on the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula, famous for Percé Rock and Bonaventure Island – home to the second largest Northern Gannet colony in the world and our next bird photography adventure. If you haven’t already subscribed to our mailing list, please take time now to do so and we will let you know when the Gannet blog is posted.
If you are interested, more images of Puffins can be seen in the Puffins, Murres & Razorbill Gallery.
Thanks for taking time to check out this post which I trust has piqued your interest in these wonderful little birds…. hopefully enough for you to plan a trip to Grand Manan and Machias Seal Islands for your next summer holiday.