Puffin-Watching in Maine

One puffin sits on a rock as several others touch down nearby.
Puffins touch down at Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The chickadee is the Maine state bird, and the bald eagle is our national emblem, but probably the best-loved bird along the Maine coast is the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica), a member of the auk (Alcidae) family. Photographs show an imposing-looking creature with a quizzical mien; amazingly, this larger-than-life seabird is only about 12 inches long. Black-backed and white-chested, the puffin has bright orange legs, “clown-makeup” eyes, and a distinctive, rather outlandish red-and-yellow beak. Its diet is fish and shellfish.

Almost nonexistent in this part of the world as recently as the 1970s, the puffin (or “sea parrot”) has recovered dramatically thanks to the unstinting efforts of Cornell University ornithologist Stephen Kress and his Project Puffin. Starting with an orphan colony of two on remote Matinicus Rock, Kress painstakingly transferred nearly a thousand puffin chicks (also known fondly as “pufflings”) from Newfoundland and used artificial nests and decoys to entice the birds to adapt to and reproduce on Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay.

In 1981, thanks to the assistance and persistence of hundreds of interns and volunteers, and despite the predations of great blackbacked gulls, puffins finally were fledged on Eastern Egg, and the rest, as they say, is history. Within 20 years, more than three dozen puffin couples were nesting on Eastern Egg Rock, and still more had established nests on other islands in the area. Kress’s methods have received international attention, and his proven techniques have been used to reintroduce bird populations in remote parts of the globe. In 2001, Down East magazine singled out Kress to receive its prestigious annual Environmental Award.

How and Where to See Puffins

Puffin-watching, like whale-watching, involves heading offshore, so be prepared with warm clothing, rubber-soled shoes, a hat, sunscreen, binoculars, and, if you’re motion sensitive, appropriate medication.

Maine Audubon naturalists accompany tours aboard Hardy Boat Cruises, out of New Harbor, and Cap’n Fish’s, out of Boothbay Harbor, and excursion boats depart from Bar Harbor and Milridge. The best daily up-close-and-personal opportunities for puffin-watching along the Down East Coast—specifically, on Machias Seal Island—is with Bold Coast Charters (207/259-4484), which departs from Cutler May-August and costs about $100 pp. Weather permitting, you’ll be allowed to disembark on the 20-acre island.

If you can’t get afloat to see puffins, the next best thing is a visit to the Project Puffin Visitor Center (311 Main St., Rockland, 877/478-3346), where you can view exhibits, a film, and live video feeds of nesting puffins.

Adopt-a-Puffin Program

Stephen Kress’s Project Puffin has devised a clever way to enlist supporters via the Adopt-a-Puffin program. For a $100 donation, you’ll receive a certificate of adoption, vital statistics on your adoptee, annual updates, and a color photo.

Related Travel Guide