This photo of a pair of Horned Puffins was taken in late May, right in the heart of their breeding season which runs from mid-spring through mid-summer. This is when their enormous bills are at their largest and most colorful – literally fluorescent. Males and females are monomorphic; that is, they show the same plumage. (Alaska Gulf)
Who knew that in some species of birds, bill shape, size and color changes with the seasons? Such is the case of the Horned Puffin, which grows additional layers of colorful keratin – the same material hair, feathers and fingernails are made of – during the breeding season. When the season concludes, puffins sluff off the additional material and their beaks become smaller and duller. The vibrant lemon-yellow coloration mostly disappears and the tangerine-orange becomes a more mellow peach. While relatively large, the bills of juveniles are smaller than those of adults and appear gray or a coal-dusted orange.
Juvenile Horned Puffin, Chignik Lake, September 11, 2021. The Chignik Drainage cuts through mountains, creating an avian corridor across the Alaska Peninsula at a point where it is about 40 miles across from the Alaska Gulf on the southwest side to the Bering Sea to the northwest. From passerines falling out in nearby spruce groves to oceanic species seeking refuge during storms or pausing during migration to forage, you never know what you’ll encounter along the Chignik.
With puffin breeding colonies on nearby Alaska Gulf islands as well as additional sites on peninsula headlands, the estuary and seas near Chignik Lake are an excellent year-round place to encounter Horned Puffins. Here they feed on abundant herring, sand lances, juvenile salmon, sculpins and other forage. Dense, well-oiled feathers and wings that become flippers propel puffins to depths of 100 feet and possibly more. Feeding for themselves, puffins swallow most of their prey underwater. If you see one with a beak overflowing with silvery sand lances or herring, it’s undoubtedly taking them back to its nest.
It is reported that a Horned Puffin can carry dozens of small fish in its bill. I counted eight sand lances here. (Alaska Gulf near Chignik, July 28, 2020,)
In former times, puffins were shot and salted down for food by the barrelful. They were even considered acceptable fare on Catholic holy days when fish rather than other forms of meat was to be consumed. In Alaska, both Tufted and Horned Puffins were traditionally hunted with hooks baited with fish a well as with hoop nets on long handles. Also, a type of bola was thrown into the air to entangle seabirds returning to their nests. In addition to utilizing puffin meat and eggs, the skins and feathers were used in clothing. Historical accounts describe puffins as curious and friendly, but they are apparently still hunted in some areas and anytime that’s the case they can be challenging to approach.
Horned Puffins, so named for a small, fleshy point protruding above each eye (see the first photo in this article) are easily distinguished from Tufted Puffins, above. Both species are present in the Alaska Gulf near Chignik.
The best time to see puffins along the Alaska Peninsula is during the summertime breeding season. The weather is often mild, the seas calm, and the birds, hunting for themselves as well as for their chicks, can often be found close to shore. Look for the same sorts of current breaks you might look for when salmon fishing, as these rips concentrate baitfish.
In flight, they skim the seas like some form of exotic bee, chunky dark bodies pulled along by those wonderfully colorful bills, determined wings rapidly beating the air into submission. Suddenly they glide upward along the face of a rocky headland and unerringly disappear into a crevice where a chick or mate is waiting. Over and over they repeat the circuit – the flight out, the deep dives, the return flight – until one day they gather their forces and all the puffins and perhaps other nearby nesters as well head en masse out to sea where they will spend the winter months. Juveniles, no longer under the care of their parents, will struggle at first to tag along, often not making it far before they need a rest. And then, they too will find themselves over the sea’s depths. For the youngsters, it will be two years before they return to their natal headlands or island. But the adults return each year, finding familiar ledges and spaces between rocks, watching over a single egg, and joining other puffins, murres, auklets and guillemots over shoals of herring, sand lances and out-migrating salmon smolts. It is an amazing sight to behold.
Horned Puffin Fratercula corniculata
Genus: Fratercula – Medieval Latin fratercula = friar for the semblance of their plumage to monks’ robes
Species: corniculata – Latin for horn-shaped, referencing the bill
Status in Marine Waters near Chignik: Common to Abundant; rare or accidental in the freshwater drainage
Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010: Uncommon in Spring, Fall and Winter; Common in Summer
© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.
For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake