Washington experienced something similar two winters ago with the Common Murre, now Tufted Puffins are washing up on St. Paul Island and others located in the Bering Sea either dead or starving. This is worrying, not only for the birds themselves, but also for what this may portend for the normally productive Bering Sea.
“The Bering Sea has been off-the-charts warm,” said Nate Mantua
St. Paul Island
Since mid-October, residents of St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs have found over 200 dead tufted puffins washed ashore on the Bering Sea beach, along with additional dead horned puffins and murres.
The extent of the die-off — 217 dead tufted puffins found as of Nov. 4 — is alarming and appears to be linked to unusual warmth in the region, said University of Washington ecologist Julia Parrish, who has been consulting with St. Paul islanders.
The toll dwarfs past counts of dead tufted puffins found on the beach, she said.
“In 10 years of standard beach surveys, we’ve only found, at most, three tufted puffins. There’s a very big difference there,” said Parrish, who is executive director of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team program — COASST— based at the University of Washington.
Put in context, the numbers are particularly worrisome, she said. What is washing ashore is likely only a small fraction of the total number of puffins dying in the area, at most 10 percent but more likely a much smaller percentage, she said. The Pribilof-breeding population of tufted puffins totals only about 6,000, so a death toll in the thousands represents a large portion of that, she said. Also significant is the presence of puffins as far north as St. Paul so late in year, highly unusual because the birds usually disperse to the south in the season, she said.
The tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata), also known as crested puffin, is a relatively abundant medium-sized pelagic seabird in the auk family (Alcidae) found throughout the North Pacific Ocean. It is one of three species of puffin that make up the genus Fratercula and is easily recognizable by its thick red bill and yellow tufts.
Tufted puffins feed almost exclusively on fish, which they catch by diving from the surface. Adults may also feed on squid or other invertebrates. Feeding areas can be located far offshore from the nesting areas. Puffins can store large quantities of small fish in their bills and carry them to their chicks.