Monday, May 3, 2010

Adventures in Photography: Puffins

Downeast Maine is famous for beautiful coastlines and its colorful, quirky residents. Perhaps the most colorful of all Downeasters is the puffin. This curious little bird stands approximately 10-12 inches tall and has a wing span of 20-24 inches. With its black and white body and bright orange beak, many people mistake it for a penguin. Their beautiful beaks almost look as if someone may have painted clown make up on their faces. This comical appearance has earned them the nickname “the clowns of the sea”.

Atlantic puffins breed on small islands and coastal cliffs where they can build nests in small burrows. The northern Gulf of Maine provides a perfect habitat for them. One of the best ways to observe puffins up close is to visit Machias Seal Island.

Machias Seal Island is approximately 10 miles off the coast of Maine and it is protected by both the U.S. and Canadian governments. In order to land there you need a permit. This can be arranged through a couple of different tour companies. I traveled with Norton of Jonesport. They run a lobster boat to the island on a regular basis during the summer. John Galluzzo of the Massachusetts Audubon Society also arranges a summer time tour to the island for a modest fee.

Once on the island, the lighthouse keeper guided our group to some blinds that were located in the middle of the puffin nests. Four of us occupied a small wooden box for the next two hours. While the conditions were cramped, we could not complain about the view. There were hundreds of puffins surrounding us. Some were as close as two feet away! My hardest decision was which lens to use. Did I want to photograph a bird with my wide angle lens, my medium telephoto lens or my long lens? Well, I used them all.

After getting many fantastic portrait shots, I started trying to create more unique images. I spent a lot of time capturing puffins returning from fishing trips with their mouths filled with sand eels. Puffins have a small yellow pouch on the corner of their mouths. This pouch holds small prey in a Velcro like grip. Some puffins have been recorded with over fifty fish stuffed in this pouch at once!

My favorite shot of the trip came when I noticed that some of the puffins were taking a break from the busy cycle of fishing by sunning themselves on a nearby rock. I patiently composed the image and waited until all seven puffins were looking in my direction. This took quite a while, but it was worth the effort.

This month’s photo tip: Using blinds can help you get much closer to wildlife. One of the best and easiest blinds to use is your car. Once you spot an animal, safely park your car and roll down the window. Often, animals don’t mind being near cars. This may give you the chance to make some outstanding images. Keep in mind that as soon as you open the car door, the animal will likely leave in a hurry.
Greg Lessard is a professional nature photographer. To view more of his photographs, visit his website at

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