Signs of Fall 9: Puffins and Ponies

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MS Vandeem (Photo by D. Sillman)

In June, 2016 Deborah and I went on a St. Lawrence River cruise. We left from Montreal, traveled slowly down the river and out into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. We then went into the North Atlantic and turned south along the Canadian and then U.S. eastern coasts. One of the aspects of this trip that excited me the most was the possibility of seeing large numbers of seabirds. However, as I wrote in a blog after we returned home, we saw almost none at all (Signs of Summer 4, June 23, 2016). The weather on the cruise was, to put it mildly, not very good. It was cold, rainy and blustery. Considering where we were traveling, we probably should have anticipated the cold and gloom, but all of that is 20-20 hindsight, of course.

On the cruise there were a number of extra excursions out into the surrounding countryside. One of these was an all day trip in some small, open boats to go up into a pristine shoreline outside of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island with the stated goal of seeing puffins. It was a tough decision: on the one hand the sight of a puffin would be incredibly rewarding, but on the other hand it was cold and rainy and the seas were running very rough. There was also the extra $150.00 or so (per person) cost and a story from one of our new acquaintances on the cruise about going on this side-trip on a previous cruise and being terribly seasick. Also, they were in a boat whose guide forgot to pack the box lunches or water bottles. Now if you were seasick enough, I suppose lunch wouldn’t matter, but the excursion didn’t sound like much fun. So, we decided to tour Charlottetown instead, had a peaceful walk around the town and a wonderful lunch of clams and mussels (and local beers) at a harbor-side café.

Later that night on board the ship, we got into the elevator with a woman who was soaking wet and covered with mud. In between her shivering she reported that she had gone on the birding excursion. They hadn’t seen many birds, but eventually, thanks to the persistence of their guide (who had remembered to take the sandwiches and water with them!) they saw a single puffin swimming a few yards offshore from a rocky beach. They had spent eight hours in the open boat looking for it!

I asked her if it had all been worth it, and she said “yes, of course.” She then went to her stateroom for a hot shower and then, hopefully, something equally warming from one of the ship’s bars.

Photo by R. Bartz, Wikimedia Commons

In Halifax I bought a small statue of a puffin, and I have right here next to my computer. Puffins are the iconic birds of the North Atlantic, but recent surveys of their populations indicate that their numbers have dropped sharply over the past few decades. Puffins are still abundant (there are over eleven million adult Atlantic puffins scattered over their extensive European and Canadian North Atlantic range), but they are not nearly as many of them as there were twenty years ago. The rocky coast of Iceland shelters 60% of the world’s Atlantic puffins during nesting, and these numbers have dropped from seven million to just over five million birds during the Twenty-first Century.

Puffins are very long-lived birds. Life spans of forty years or more are quite common. Puffins spend most of the year as solitary individuals far away from land. They float on the ocean surface and eat fish. Their coloration helps to keep them safe out at sea: their white bellies make them nearly invisible to predators coming from below and their black backs camouflage them on the dark sea surface from potential aerial predators. They come onto land in the spring to lay their eggs in burrows that they often usurp from rabbits. They reproduce, though, quite slowly (they reach reproductive maturity at age four or five and lay only one egg per year), have a very long incubation interval (39 to 45 days) and an equally long nestling phase (another 34 to 50 days). During these three months of on-land existence the adult puffins can have a great deal of difficulty finding sufficient food for their nestlings.

Photo by S. Deger, Wikimedia Commons

Puffins are not strong fliers. They have very short wings that are more adapted for swimming than flying. Nesting puffins, though, often have to fly 60 miles or more in order to find suitable food supplies. This excessive energy outlay by the parents greatly stresses them! The puffin nestlings eat small fish and, locally, rely almost exclusively on sand eels that their parents bring to their burrows. Both fish and sand eel populations have greatly declined over the past two decades. This decline is attributed to the steady warming of the North Atlantic due to the combined effects of the warming phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation and human-induced global warming. Increasingly, researchers are finding puffin nestlings dead in their burrows apparently the victims of starvation.

Photo by J. Sweet, Wikimedia Commons

Down on the warmer beaches of the mid-Atlantic coast of North America are the barrier islands with their  populations of feral ponies. These ponies are thought to have come to these islands via shipwrecks in the 1500’s. The pony herds are able to survive even the most severe hurricanes by orienting themselves rump-end to the winds or by finding shelter in the higher elevations of the islands’ maritime forests. There is concern, though, that these pony herds will not be able to adapt to the combined climate change effects of rising sea level and increased incidence and severity of Atlantic hurricanes. The freshwater pools of the islands may become increasingly infused with saltwater and cease to be a suitable water supply for the horses.

In a 2008 paper published in Natural Areas Journal, John Taggart of the University of North Carolina Wilmington suggests that the barrier island pony herds be moved to mainland pastures both for humane reasons (the vanishing water supply on the islands) and for ecological reasons (the ponies by grazing on the dune grasses slow down the formation and decrease the stability of the critical sand dunes all across the island systems). These dunes are needed to guard the shoreline against the coming super-hurricanes of our Climate Change Era.

So puffin nestlings are starving and puffin adult are having to fly greater and greater distances to nurture their young. Quite possibly puffins will have to move further and further north to find sustainable and accessible food supplies for their nesting cycles. Barrier island ponies are under stress because of the vanishing supply of freshwater in their sand dune ecosystems, and the impact of the ponies on their islands’ sand dunes may be destabilizing the islands themselves in the face of the increasing number and intensity of destructive hurricanes.

As Heraclitus put it (as quoted by Plato in the Cratylus dialogue):

“Everything flows and nothing stays.
Everything flows and nothing abides.
Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.
Everything flows; nothing remains.
All is flux, nothing is stationary.
All is flux, nothing stays still.
All flows, nothing stays.”

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