Cornforth Images

Horned Puffin

The puffins, because of their large colorful beaks and comical looks, are probably the most easily recognized and most popular Alaska seabirds. Early sailors dubbed them the “sea parrot” for their stout bodies, short wings, and their orange or red webbed feet which are placed far back on their body. Two species live in Alaskan waters: the horned puffin and the tufted puffin. They belong to the family Alcidae, which includes auks, auklets, murres, murrelets, and guillemots. Puffins breed on coastal islands and headlands from Forrester Island, Alaska to Cape Lisburne on the Chukchi Sea.

The horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata) is similar in appearance to the Atlantic puffin. Its bill is yellow at the base and red at the tip. It is a pelagic seabird that feeds primarily by diving for fish. It nests in colonies, often with other auks. The yellow bill plate grows before the breeding season and is shed later. They have a small fleshy black “horn” above their eyes. They have a white face with a dark line extending from the back of the eye and red feet. They breed on rocky islands in burrows, in rocky cavities or among rocks. They winter far out to sea. Feeding areas are usually located fairly far offshore from the nest. Horned puffins will return from hunting with several small fish in their beaks. They also eat squid and crustaceans. The population of these birds has declined due to the introduction of rats onto some islands used for nesting.

Puffins are easily seen, but difficult to photograph. They are very skittish to get close to, even with a 600mm or longer telephoto lens. The best bet for photographing puffins is from land when they are nesting. It is possible to observe them without disturbing them and then isolating the birds against a clean ‘”blurred” out background. The Pribilof Islands, particularly St George, and Round Island near Dillingham, Alaska are great locations to photograph puffins.