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Tufted Puffins are Getting a Boost in the Pacific Northwest

Audubon and partners are launching new efforts to save this declining seabird.

This fall as the Tufted Puffins migrated west to their winter feeding grounds on open water, a focused conservation effort took flight on land. In partnership with Friends of Haystack Rock, Audubon is reaching out to interested groups in the Pacific Northwest to launch a more coordinated conservation strategy for the Tufted Puffins along the coasts of Oregon, Washington, and California. 

In September, I joined National Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute as the Senior Coordinator for Tufted Puffins. For the past 20 years, I have worked with both national and global environmental nonprofit organizations. As someone who calls Oregon home, I am excited to use my experience to focus on the conservation of a species in the region where I live. Leveraging efforts throughout the region, I will work closely with stakeholders to facilitate on-the-ground management actions, execute communication and engagement campaigns, and support impactful research, among other activities in support of Tufted Puffin population restoration. 

Tufted Puffins breed along the Pacific Rim from northern California to Alaska in North America, and Japan and Russia in Asia. Named for the pale-yellow feather tufts that appear on the sides of their heads during breeding season, Tufted Puffins spend almost the entire year at sea, only coming to land to nest on offshore islands. They lay one egg per breeding pair and raise their chick, called a puffling, before making their way back to open water. A seabird in the auk family, their antics and appearance have earned them the nickname, clown of the sea.” But don’t be fooled by their circus-like waddlethese birds can dive up to 200 feet, fly up to 55 miles per hour, and catch and carry up to 20 fish crosswise in their specialized beak. However, despite its impressive athleticism, scientists and community groups are concerned about the decline in Tufted Puffin numbers along the shores of Washington, Oregon, and California. 


Tufted Puffin. Photo: Tom Ingram

Over the last century, the Tufted Puffin’s population in the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem--the meandering current flowing south from Vancouver Island to Baja, California--has experienced a significant decline. In the 1900s, breeding grounds from northern California up through British Columbia hosted tens of thousands of birds; a 2019 species assessment by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that there are less than 2,000. Climate change, availability of prey, pollution, and invasive plant and animal species are believed to be some of the factors in the catastrophic decline. The seabird is listed as endangered in Washington, sensitive in Oregon, and a species of special concern in California. 

While researchers, managers, and advocates work towards addressing the dramatic population trends, bird enthusiasts can still travel to the coast to catch a glimpse of this iconic seabird. These days, one of the easiest places in Washington to see a Tufted Puffin is at Cape Flattery, the most northwest point in the Lower 48 and managed by the Makah Tribe. There is a permit fee to visit, but on a clear day in late spring and summer, a short walk along a paved trail rewards you with stunning views and the possibility of spotting a puffin floating on the water, flying with a bill of small fish to feed its puffling, or standing guard near its nesting burrow’s entrance 

Tufted Puffin. Photo: Karl Stoltzfus

If you find yourself closer to Oregon, another popular place to view Tufted Puffins is on Haystack Rock, part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, located in Cannon Beach. At low tides, the rock is connected to the mainland, earning it the distinction as the largest onshore population of Tufted Puffin in the continental United States. During breeding season, you can often find volunteers with scopes set up on the beach to help you spot a Tufted Puffin, as well as other seabirds. Portland Audubon annually hosts a popular “Welcome Back Puffins” field trip on the Oregon Coast, and registration for their April  2024 trip just opened. 

As I settle into my new role, one of my initial priorities has been to meet with key stakeholders supportive of Tufted Puffin conservation. So far, this has included Audubon Washington, Audubon California, Portland Audubon, American Bird Conservancy, Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, and various state and federal agencies, to name a few.  On a recent afternoon, I sat down with two board members from Friends of Haystack Rock, John Underwood and Derek Coulter. We talked about the Tufted Puffin, their beloved personalities, and the strong desire to ensure they remain here for future generations to enjoy. I asked about the importance of this conservation work, and John shared his thoughts: "It is abundantly clear and very well documented that the Tufted Puffins in the California Current have nearly reached the point of no return.’ We, as ’keepers of the Tufted Puffins, must consolidate and coordinate our efforts to save this iconic species." And that coordination of efforts is exactly where I hope to help!  

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