Cornforth Images

Tufted 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.

Tufted puffins (Fratercula cirrhata) are mostly black with a white facial patch, and, typical of other puffin species, feature a very thick bill which is mostly red with some yellow and occasionally green markings. Their most distinctive feature and namesake are the yellow tufts that appear annually on birds of both sexes as the summer reproductive season approaches. Their feet become bright red and their face also becomes bright white in the summer. During the feeding season, the tufts moult off and the plumage, beak and legs lose much of their luster.

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.