Local News Science & Nature

Researchers look to fill gaps in understanding tufted puffins

CANNON BEACH, Ore. — The puffins are early risers, but so is Tim Halloran. 

For the past 12 years, he has spent most summer mornings — and many sunsets — with his binoculars aimed at a tufted puffin colony on Cannon Beach’s Haystack Rock.

Minute by minute, over a series of two hour shifts, Halloran notes where he sees puffins on the rock and if they’re engaged in any interesting behavior – fighting with other seabirds or perhaps approaching another puffin and rapidly knocking bills together, a type of courtship behavior called “billing.” The information Halloran collects informs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates of the colony’s size each year. 

Last summer, the colony count was the lowest it had ever been since Fish and Wildlife began monitoring: only 74 puffins. A concerning number given the marked decline of tufted puffins off the Oregon Coast — and along their entire southern range — in recent years. 

Halloran was prepared for more disappointing news this fall as the puffins’ breeding season ended and the birds began to leave the rock. But after Fish and Wildlife biologists combined Halloran’s numbers with surveys conducted by boat on the back side of Haystack Rock, they estimated the colony’s population at 106 birds.

“So I was very glad that my guess was too conservative,” Halloran said, “and that, in fact, it was a better year than I had feared.”

Shawn Stephensen, a wildlife biologist with Fish and Wildlife, says the number comes with some caveats. The bottom line is that the increase observed this summer is not significant.

“It’s a slight increase,” Stephensen said, “and that’s the best way to put it.”

It’s not a sustainable population, says Angela Benton, board chair for the Friends of Haystack Rock, a stewardship organization that has put resources toward educating people about the puffins and supporting protections for the iconic seabird.

A survey in the late 1980s documented thousands of tufted puffins off the Oregon Coast. By 2008, when Fish and Wildlife conducted another survey, researchers found that number had dropped into the mere hundreds. 

The most recent survey of tufted puffins in Oregon occurred in 2021. While there was some improvement over the 2008 numbers, the estimated breeding population in the state was still low at 553 birds. On Haystack Rock, the seasonal breeding population typically ranges from 43 to 100 birds.

The slight increase recorded this summer comes at a time when a number of efforts are in motion — for the Haystack Rock colony in particular and tufted puffins in general along the California, Oregon and Washington state coasts.

Last year, the Friends of Haystack Rock entered a partnership with the National Audubon Society. This September, the society hired Katherine Luscher as senior coordinator for tufted puffins. In this role, she will work closely with the many stakeholders involved in tufted puffin population restoration — to share resources and information and to help with communication and identify any gaps.

“(Tufted puffins) are an easy-to-love species,” Benton said, “but they’re telling us something about what’s going on in our oceans, and we really need to care. And our biggest concern … is moving forward fast enough to prevent the full collapse of the species on the West Coast.”

The partnership with the National Audubon Society and Luscher’s hiring followed an unsuccessful attempt to petition Fish and Wildlife to list tufted puffins under the federal Endangered Species Act — specifically those that breed in the California Current off California, Oregon and Washington where populations have seen significant decline. Tufted puffins are listed as endangered in Washington and as sensitive in Oregon. They are considered a species of special concern in California.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, considered the whole of the seabirds’ range in their investigation and found that populations in the north remain robust. Stephensen says ongoing genetic sampling has not shown that tufted puffins nesting and breeding in the south are a genetically distinct population.

But the seabirds’ decline in the south remains a concern, Stephensen says. Fish and Wildlife has taken a number of steps to try to improve habitat at breeding sites by removing invasive plants that impact puffin burrows and identifying and removing predators at islands on Oregon’s southern coast.

Recent studies attribute the drop in puffin populations to a variety of factors, including environmental damage caused by oil spills, a rise in natural predators like bald eagles, invasive plant species at nesting sites and shifting ocean conditions, among other things. 

Stephensen says the unknown is important to keep in mind. 

Puffins arrive at colony sites like Haystack Rock in the late spring and stay through summer to breed. But much of their lives are lived out on the ocean where unknown and shifting conditions shape much of what researchers see closer to land. 

“Last year could have been a poor year for the puffins,” Stephensen said. “Maybe there wasn’t enough prey available for them. I don’t know why the numbers were so low… each year is a little bit different and the birds sometimes nest in higher numbers, and sometimes they don’t.”

At Haystack Rock, researchers are trying to fill some of the gaps.

Rachael Orben, an assistant professor and researcher at Oregon State University, has been leading efforts to document what puffins eat by taking high quality photographs of the seabirds as they land at burrows on Haystack Rock.

Elsewhere, researchers might collect this kind of diet data by placing screens at the mouths of burrows. When puffins discover they can’t enter their burrow, they drop the fish and fly off. Scientists can then go and collect the fish. This requires accessing nesting areas, crawling around the colony and taking away food from the birds.

At Haystack Rock, Orben says that’s just not physically possible. 

And: “It’s an invasive method of data collection … you’re disturbing the colony and stealing fish from growing chicks, which is not something that we would really want to do on the Oregon Coast with such a small population.”

Photography allows researchers to keep their distance and still – hopefully — get the data they need. 

On the Oregon Coast, there had previously been very little diet data for puffins beyond some work done in the early ’80s along the state’s southern coast.

“So our efforts at Haystack Rock are really to try to fill some basic natural history gaps for the species in Oregon,” Orben said, “to better understand what food — what prey — are important to them to successfully raise their chicks.”

Tufted puffins navigate a large range and they feed on what is available in different areas. They can load fish up in their bill as they catch them, which sometimes makes it difficult for researchers examining photos later to tease apart exactly what the bird is bringing home for dinner. Which fish head goes with which fish tail?  

The OSU researchers are just beginning to develop a baseline data set. Puffins are long-lived seabirds and longer-term data sets are crucial to understanding connections between diet, the puffins and fluctuations in their environment.

But Orben says even a single year of data collected through the photos has been revealing. 

“With our initial data collection effort, we did learn a lot because what we knew before was pretty much our best guess,” she said.

Orben hopes the diet information OSU collects will eventually help provide important context for protecting tufted puffins, and reveal ways to help conserve and preserve their populations in Oregon.

A photographer will be out on the beach again next summer.