Fifteen-year-old Ben Strong releases a baby puffin in Witless Bay in an undated handout photo. Puffin Patrol, a group dedicated to saving baby puffins in the town, has already saved hundreds of birds this year. — File photo
The Puffin and Petrel Patrol rescued record-breaking numbers of baby puffins in recent days on the Southern Shore.
For the past decade, volunteers from Witless Bay and beyond have spent their nights saving the young sea birds from the roads and yards, where they often meet their end. During fledging season, pufflings fly out to sea using the stars and the moon to navigate. But often, particularly during bad weather, many are drawn to land, confused by artificial lights.
Suzanne Dooley, co-executive director of CPAWS-NL, which co-ordinates the patrol, says the volunteer-run effort has been saving more seabirds than usual over the past week.
“Initially, we started off with 20s and 30s (each night). Several nights ago we broke our record — we had 114. And Sunday night, we broke it again. We had 165. And today, we have over 70 as well,” she told The Telegram Monday.
As many as 80 volunteers will patrol for pufflings at night, storing them safely overnight until they can be released during daylight. Traditionally, the volunteers release them over the ocean at the beach in Witless Bay.
This year, three tour boat companies have made helping out a regular part of their week: Molly Bawn releases pufflings on Mondays; O’Brien’s take them on Tuesdays, and Gatherall’s helps out on Wednesdays. The tour companies will also pitch in when the weather isn’t ideal.
“What's really good about releasing them from a boat is, one, they don't have to swim as much, and they're closer to the island, and they'll be faster getting into the water,” Dooley said.
“We do like to keep the beach, because it is a local initiative and we want to make sure that people are involved and they can see all the actions that are taken, too. It gives them an opportunity to have that experience, to see what great work they do.”
Dooley said it’s believed the increased numbers of stranded puffins the past week has been influenced by an abundance of caplin, overcast weather and an early full moon. The number of dead birds they’re finding is pretty consistent with other years, and the ones they’re assessing seem very healthy.
The rescue is only part of the effort. CPAWS-NL and the Puffin and Petrel Patrol are also making an effort to prevent the birds from coming onshore in the first place. Signs asking drivers to slow down are in place, and residents are asked to turn off their porch lights and close their curtains.
“And we tried some experiments with different coloured bulbs. So last year and this summer we've been giving out coloured light bulbs that people can try out over their doors, and some of the local businesses have been kind enough to turn off some of their advertising signs as well,” she said, adding it’s made some difference over the past couple of years.
So far this year, more than 500 pufflings have been rescued. Dooley said one year, more than 800 were rescued and released. She’s hoping things slow down and they don’t match that number this year.
The Puffin Patrol is on, all the way down to Burnt Cove-St. Michael’s-Bauline East, until Labour Day weekend. In October, the focus will shift to petrels.