Behold the mighty puffin

Film will shine light on clownish seabird’s serious side

Josh Pennell
Published on June 16, 2014
A closeup of footage taken during the filming of the documentary “Puffin Patrol.” — Submitted photo

A local seabird referred to as the “clown of the sea” is about to get a lot more street cred.

The clumsy and often caricatured puffin is the subject of a documentary being shot for an episode of CBC’s “The Nature of Things.”

As it turns out, there’s a lot more muscle to this little seabird than its comical face would imply.

“Once I started looking at it, I learned a lot of fascinating facts about puffins and then all sorts of interestings things about what’s happening to their world,” says Rosemary House of Rock Island Productions.

House is a co-producer of the documentary “Puffin Patrol.” She’s working with her friend Charlotte Engel of Rock Yenta Productions on the film.

It started with the idea of doing something on a group called the Witless Bay Puffin Patrol. Young puffins fledge under cover of darkness and use the moon to guide them to the sea.

They sometimes get disoriented by lights from the community and get stuck on roads or in vegetation. Members of the Puffin Patrol find the otherwise doomed birds and take them to the ocean.

Engel suggested they use the patrol as the hook on which to hang the documentary on the life history of the puffin.

“We’re looking at their social behaviours. We’re looking at their navigational abilities, which are really quite amazing,” House says of the birds.

Puffins spend most of their lives at sea. It’s a solitary life of riding out storms, feeding and travelling. They return to land for just a few months a year to breed and don’t start doing that until they’re about four years old.

When they do start coming ashore, they become quite social creatures for a short period, living in colonies and choosing a mate that they will keep for life.

Although they likely won’t interact with their mate all year, they return each year and find them. Also, they return to the site of their own birth to start having young of their own.

“How do they know? What is it that allows them to have these incredible homing instincts?” House asks.

That’s a question that will be explored in the film, along with the mystery of where puffins go during the winter. While Newfoundlanders often think of puffins as uniquely our own, there are colonies in Maine and in Europe, as well.

The birds travel long distances in the winter, but nobody  knows exactly how far and how wide. The documentary will speak to a group geotagging about 30 Newfoundland puffins to track their movements.

“So, we’re gonna get to see on film in the show where the Newfoundland puffins have been going,” House says.

The clumsy appearance of the puffin is misleading, she says. Those short, stubby wings are converted into fins when the birds dive for food.

“They swim so quickly they look like they’re flying underwater,” she says. “It’s a fascinating bird.”

The documentary will also look at threats to puffin populations. While there are large colonies, some biologists refer to the puffin as the oceanic canary in the coal mine.

They’re an indicator of how healthy and stable the oceans are.

Already in the southern colonies in Maine, the fish the birds eat are heading further north due to rising ocean temperatures.

So those colonies suddenly find themselves searching for a disappearing food source. That’s trouble for a bird that returns to the same colony each year to breed.

From the story of the Witless Bay puffins trying to make it to sea for the first time, House says they’ll tell the fascinating life story of one tough and misunderstood seabird.

While the birds may be no less charming by the end of the film, they’ll likely seem a lot more complicated.

“It’s the science and it’s the stories (of puffins) that connect one place to another,” House says. “It will be beautiful to look at and it will tell a great story about a bird that people adore.”

“Puffin Patrol” will air on “The Nature of Things” during the 2015 season.