Puffin rescue volunteers busy this season

Published on August 17, 2012

An Ontario couple has made rescuing puffins a part of their Newfoundland heritage.

Alison Singer-Strong and her husband Mike Strong visit Witless Bay every summer to visit Strong’s family.

About three years ago, the couple was driving and saw a strange-looking bird fall over.

“The head was kind of all to the one side and we knew it was injured,” she says.

The next day, they read an article in the newspaper about Puffin Patrol.

“For heaven’s sake, if we had known,” she said.

Puffin Patrol was founded by Juergen Schau, who started rescuing puffins six years ago. Now, the volunteer-run project is organized through the Newfoundland and Lab-rador chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).

Baby puffins typically leave the nest from mid-August to mid-September, but this season started two weeks early.

Suzanne Dooley, from CPAWS NL, attributes the early season with the recent beautiful weather.

This year has been the biggest puffin rescue yet. Dooley estimates they have rescued more than 320 birds so far.

After puffin season ends, petrels leave their burroughs in much the same way. Puffin Patrol will rescue petrels from mid-September to mid-October.

Passersby shouldn’t pick up puffins or petrels willy-nilly; volunteers must be registered with Puffin Patrol.

Earlier this summer, Singer-Strong and her husband were driving near Witless Bay and spotted something in the road again.

“Lo and behold, there’s a baby puffin on the side of the road,” Singer-Strong says.

This time they picked up the little bird and brought it to the water. There, they finally met up with the puffin-rescuer himself, Schau.

Schau explained to them the first rule of puffin rescuing: always release the birds back in daylight.

Otherwise they might wander off again looking for the moon.

When baby puffins are kicked out of their boroughs, they seek out the sea by the light of the moon.

But as the countryside becomes more populated, man-made light, like car headlights and street lights, can trick the youngsters.

“They’re mistaking the light of the land for the moon,” Singer-Strong says.

If the puffins get lost, they can become easy prey or roadkill.

Now, Singer-Strong and her husband volunteer regularly with Puffin Patrol. They look for lost birds at night and keep them safe until the morning when they are released into the sea.

She said they got into it as a way to connect to the land where her husband comes from. She even has a puffin tattooed on her arm.

She said it’s also a way to bond with the community, as children and adults come together to help the provincial bird survive in the modern world.

“It’s not about the puffins,” Singer-Strong says.

“It’s about planting the seed in the children that nature was here first and it’s our place to make sure that it survives.”