Preserving the puffin

Except for in the Aleutian Islands, the tufted puffin population is declining worldwide, wildlife biologist Shawn Stephensen said. 

During a World of Haystack lecture March 13, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist Shawn Stephensen discussed the ongoing study of tufted puffins at Haystack Rock and other coastal sites and what researchers hope to accomplish for the declining species in the future.

“They’re in trouble and we’re concerned about that at Fish and Wildlife Service,” Stephensen said.

Studying the locally iconic tufted puffins and other seabirds is part of the federal government’s management of the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which consists of six National Wildlife Refuges, three marine and three estuarine, along the Oregon Coast from Tillamook Head south to the California-Oregon border. The Oregon Islands — which includes Haystack Rock — is one of the refuges in the complex, along with Three Arch Rocks in Tillamook County.

Haystack Rock is currently home to the largest concentration of breeding tufted puffins in Oregon, but could eventually be surpassed by Three Arch Rocks, Stephensen said.

Except for in the Aleutian Islands, the tufted puffin population is declining worldwide.

The department has historically conducted several studies of the puffin, including the species’ breeding and feeding habits. In 2008, they conducted a burrow-nesting project for the whole Oregon coast that took most of the summer.

The study revealed the number of puffin nesting area had declined significantly since the survey was done in 1988. Stephensen said he suspects there are multiple factors contributing to the decline of the species, but they do know habitat loss is not the cause.

Locally, the department relies on help from volunteer Tim Halloran to monitor the birds’ activity at Haystack Rock, which is home to numerous burrows on the northeast face and a couple on the western side, from mid-May to mid-September. They try to determine the number of occupied burrows, which gives them a good estimate of the breeding population.

The local population was recorded as 612 in 1988 and about 127 in 2018, based on 68 to 71 active burrows. Although Stephensen said he was not overly confident in the methodology used to determine the population in 1988, they are certain there has been a population decline in the past 30 years.

Recently, however, he added, “the colony at Haystack Rock has fluctuated a little bit but is mainly consistent.”

The data they collect also includes identification of the puffins’ prey and breeding phenology, including prospecting, egg-laying, incubating, hatching and fledging.

To study tufted puffins in a more intimate and detail-rich way, the department wants to put minuscule transmitters on a few birds to track their movement. They also want to take blood and fecal samples to analyze the birds’ diet and determine whether the Haystack Rock colony is genetically unique from other tufted puffins. The Friends of Haystack Rock provided $15,000 to assist with the project, which also would help researchers figure out where the birds migrate to during the winter.

“It’s an incredible process to go through to get a species listed,” Stephensen said, adding the process is worthwhile. When a species is listed, he said, they receive “special attention and money is funneled to conduct studies,” which can help with the species’ recovery.


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