Atlantic Puffins of Machias Seal Island

At long last…my trip to Maine for the Atlantic Puffins.  Atlantic Puffins are a member of the seabird family, along with the Razorbill and Common Murre.  These guys, spend autumn and winter in the open ocean of the cold northern sea, only returning to land in early spring to breed.  Fledged chicks make their way to sea at night.  They swim away from shore and do not return to land for several years when they will first breed.

I was supposed to go two years ago but ultimately had to back out making this trip even sweeter.  The Atlantic Puffin and other sea birds inhabit Machias Seal Island, located 9 nautical miles off the coast of Cutler Maine which was the equivalent to a 40-45 minute boat ride from Cutler harbor to the island.  I HIGHLY suggest going with Bold Coast Charters.

The “Barbara Frost” at harbor as Captain Andy prepares the boat for the day. The skiff used to offload to the island is off to the left of the boat.

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Captain Andy giving welcoming us to the beginning of our exciting trip. This boat is used to load everyone (2 groups) from harbor to boat.

Once you get out to the island you hop into a small skiff from the main boat, in two separate groups. Time allowed on the island varies.  I think mostly because of sea conditions.

Machias Seal Island. The concrete ramp on the left hand side serves as the dock for the skiff you have to take.

A couple days we were on the island for well over an hour. The last day not so much because of detereating sea conditions.

I had booked three consecutive trips out to Machias Island for the Puffins.  The reason why I booked three days is incase conditions did not warrant an island landing which can and does happen.   I booked at the beginning of the year. When you book, I strongly recommend you do so for at least two days.  Both for weather reasons as well as tidal reason, both can make it unsafe to land.  Luckily I was able to land all three days, the last day was the shortest visit due to growing swells out in the ocean which made it rough for the skiff at the “dock”.  Two days I had blue skies and sun and another day we were heavily socked in with fog, which is not uncommon for that area.  Captain Andy said they manufacturer this stuff.

Some “light” fog as we were leaving the one day….lol. The island is in this photo somewhere.

Exposures on the Puffins were not as bad as I had thought they would be.  We got to the island early enough in the morning but as the morning wore on you could see the light becoming harsh so I dealt with that as best I could.  The blinds were very cramped and small.  One of the days I had three other people in the blind with me and that was rough.  The last day was by far the best.  Only two other people and the couple were bird watchers so I basically had the blind windows all to myself.  As far as what I brought.  I asked different people and got different answers.  I ultimately used both my bodies (1dx and 5dmkIII) and two lenses. My 70-200mm f/2.8 with 1.4x and my 500mm f/4.  My 500 I used some, the last day I never took my 500mm out of the bag.  Don’t bother bringing a tripod or monopod as there is no room in the blinds.  You can rest your lens on the window opening anyways.  Some windows are smaller than other allowing/restricting bigger lenses.  Good footwear with is a must in my opinion. I wore my hiking shoes.

I stayed in each of those two blinds during my 3 day trip. Look at all the birds!!

Ok, enough of all the technical stuff….I remember my first impression of these Puffins thinking that they would be larger in size then what they were.  They are really the size of footballs basically with the Razorbill and Common Murre being much larger in size.  Below is a video I took with my iPhone as I laid it down in the window as I shot with my camera.

The one shot that I did not get an opportunity of is a Puffin coming in with a mouth full of fish.In fact I did not even get a chance to see one with that action let alone photograph it.  Other photographers said they saw it though.  I after a short while I didn’t want to waste the precious time I had in there only looking for that shot so figured if it happened it happened.

Razorbill with fish in its mouth on a very foggy day.

Along with the Atlantic Puffins that inhabit the island you will have a good chance of photographing two other seabird species, Razorbill and Common Murre.

Atlantic Puffin

Razorbill

Common Murre

A really interesting shot I got was with a pair of Razorbills displaying some touching of bills which is a courtship behavior. It is said that a mating pair will court several times during breeding periods to strengthen their bond between the two. Once a female chooses a male, the two will stay together for life. It was really heartwarming witnessing this behavior first hand.

Razorbill courting

I really wanted to get some good portrait shots of these guys as well.  Something that I figured I would have a high chance of accomplishing due to how close the Puffins and Razorbills came in.  More so, I really wanted some good Puffin portraits to show off all the beautiful colors on their heads during breeding season.  But I also did have a two close encounters with Razorbills as well.

Razorbill portrait

Atlantic Puffin portrait

I was pleased with what I came away with and the opportunity that I had with them as I had been looking forward to this for a few years now.  It was so worth the visit to the island to see these guys though.  You can literally get within arm’s reach of them inside the blinds.  Close enough to take photos of them with your smartphone.  If you are an avid bird lover this is a trip that you have to take to experience at least once in your lifetime.

Captain Andy, his first mate, and his wife run a GREAT operation out of Cutler.  Highly recommend that if you are looking for your first Puffin experience to seek them out.

Harbor Seals and another species of Seal we saw on the way back one of the afternoons.

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3 Responses to Atlantic Puffins of Machias Seal Island

  1. Great post Josh. Glad you finally made it. It’s still on my bucket list. Thanks for the detailed info re the boat and the equipment. That helps a lot. It sounds like a great photo op and birding experience. What week were you there?
    Kirby

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mary Ann says:

    Love your shots, both the puffins and the razorbills. Great info, too. Looks like a wonderful trip. And now for the burning question: Was it stinky?

    Liked by 1 person

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