Puffin Patrol on Witless Bay
A German couple with a vacation home in Witless Bay, Newfoundland have called to life an initiative to save puffins, the famous seabirds of Canada’s Atlantic coast, from stranding on the coastal streets due to light pollution. Maybe it’s the bright lights and the big city. After all, that’s a lure for youngsters everywhere. For juvenile puffins, though, the lure of the bright lights of the small town of Witless Bay on Avalon Peninsula can be fatal.
Every year, hundreds of young puffins, confused by the town’s lights during their first solo flights, come ashore at Witless Bay from nesting dens on nearby Gull Island. Winding up in Witless Bay or nearby towns is a rookie mistake - only newly-fledged pufflings fresh from their burrows end up dazzled by the lights.
In total, 260,000 pairs of the birds nest on Gull Island, as well as two other nearby islands in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, feeding their young on nearby spawning capelin. The small, colourfully-beaked seabirds are an integral part of the tourism economy: Whale and puffin boat tours circle the islands, and the area is dotted with imagery of Puffins on road signs and the like. There’s even an annual Puffin festival at the end of July.
A Danger to the Birds
But lost pufflings regularly ended up as road kill. In 2006, a German couple with a vacation home in Witless Bay, Jürgen and Elfie Schau, started doing something about it. Jürgen, a film executive from Berlin, had seen the remains of pufflings on town roads. “He saw this squished stuff on the road, and he started enquiring about it with the locals, and they said, ‘well, they’re puffins.’ He started rescuing them himself, grabbed a couple of neighbourhood families to help, and they started catching and releasing them on their own,” says Suzanne Dooley, co-executive director with the Newfoundland and Labrador Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). The society teamed up with Schau in 2011 to manage what’s now the Puffin Patrol: “To this day, we’ve used their garage as puffin headquarters, where we house the birds in the evenings, they’ve been kind enough to do that, and he provides, he comes down in the mornings and describes the process. He’s a really great presence, along with his wife.”
“It makes me so proud because it started as a small private thing … myself and four children from my neighbourhood and now, it is a well-established organization,” Schau told the CBC after CPAWS got involved. Of the more than 2,000 birds that have been captured, banded and released in Witless Bay and nearby towns like Tors Cove, Bay Bulls and Mobile, not one has returned. “We’ve never found a banded puffin come ashore. The reason is because the juvenile puffins, this is their first time leaving the burrow, they are fledging for the first time, and they use the moon and stars to navigate,” Dooley says. The 45- to 60-day-old birds are not really looking for land — they’re looking for open water. “The adult puffins, they know better.”
On clear nights, the young puffins use moonlight and the stars to orient themselves. In fog or mist, though, they’re more susceptible to being distracted by bright lights on the shore. And on the rocky eastern coast of the Avalon, known as the Southern Shore, onshore winds often mean fog. Caleb Ryan, an environmental ecology student, is one of two CPAWS staff working nights this summer to prepare volunteers and help with their catch. How many pufflings does he expect to see? “It’s when the weather is kind of mauzy (muggy, damp according to the Newfoundland English Dictionary http://www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary/#2862) that you get the birds — if it’s a really clear night, you may not get as many birds. But it really varies. It depends on the year, it depends on how many hatch, it depends on all kinds of stuff.”
The Puffin Patrol are volunteers who set out to recover the grounded pufflings. Last year, there were over 1,000 volunteers: Ryan says, “we get a lot of people, so it’s great for the community, because it brings in tourists, we get people from St. John’s and we get locals as well.” The volunteers walk the town’s streets from 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., seven days a week, from early August to September, “when the birds stop coming,” Ryan says.
The fledgling puffins that are caught are brought back to the patrol headquarters — 2017 is the first year it won’t be the Schau’s garage — where they are banded, weighed and details about their condition are noted. “We give our data to Environment Canada and to anyone that wants it,” Ryan says. “And on top of that, we map the location of all the birds, where the people found them, so you can find where the problem spots are, and what’s attracting all the birds.” The birds are also swabbed for avian influenza.
They are released the next morning. By then, a puffling can be a bit of a celebrity.
“Labour Day weekend last year (2016), we had only one bird, I think,” Dooley says. “I walked down on the beach and said ‘There’s one bird to be released,’ and there were 35 people standing here waiting for me to come with that one bird.” The numbers vary: the highest numbers were in 2014, when 414 puffins were banded. Finding the stranded birds is only half of the effort: as both Ryan and Dooley put it, they’d rather prevent the accidental arrivals entirely.
An alternative to light pollution
“Hopefully, there’s been such an uptake in the community of the mitigation measures we’ve tried to implement in the last three to four years, that the birds are being less attracted,” Dooley says. “In a perfect world, we would have no birds.”
That also means educating residents about the types of lighting that won’t attract the birds. “We’re actually going knocking on people’s doors in high-interest areas, we call them hotspots, and we’re saying ‘here’s an alternative for your lights.’” Dooley says. Amber light bulbs and LEDs don’t attract as many birds: lights that are pointed downwards also help. There’s already a guide for puffin-helpful lighting: soon, there will be one with suggestions on puffin-friendly new home construction.
“We’re giving these birds the best chance we can,” Dooley says. As for Schau, he’s still involved. “He’s the puffin man,” Ryan says.
Dooley, who grew up in Witless Bay, says Schau was in the right place to put a new perspective on an old problem; “People just didn’t quite know what to do with them, or didn’t really see it. He just came in and said “gosh, these are squished birds.”
And a puffin rescue was born.