Although they reach as far south as North Carolina in the winter months, this was my first encounter with Atlantic puffins. While they are found in Maine and elsewhere along the north Atlantic coast, during breeding season they live in colonies along coastal cliffs and offshore islands and spend much of the rest of their time at sea, so they are not often seen without making a trip to where they are found.
Atlantic puffins abound on the Bird Islands; my impression was that they were easily the most numerous colony there. They nest in burrows in the grassy cliffs dug by the male or in protected crevices in the rocks like the one seen in the centre of photo #1 and in more detail in the inset at the left.
These puffins measure 26–29 cm (10-11 in) in length and have a wingspan of 47–63 cm (18–24 in)¹ Incredibly, in the air, they beat their wings at up to 400 times a minute, half the rate of a hummingbird, but impressive indeed for a much larger bird. Their wings are well adapted to swimming, enabling them to propel themselves through the water and to dive to depths of up to 70 m (200 ft); while underwater, they use their colourful reddish-orange webbed feet as a rudder.
If you divide their wingspan by their length, you discover that their wings are quite short relative to their body size. This makes it somewhat difficult for them to get airborne. Our tour guide told us that they prefer to dwell along the upper cliffs, as they can then just jump off and use the force of gravity to help them get out over the water where they can pick up speed.
These birds feed in the open seas, neither close to shore nor in shallow waters, on herring, sprats and sand eels, zoöplankton, crustaceans, and mollusks. When feeding the single chick that mature pairs raise each year, they may collect several small fish on a single trip: they use their tongue to hold the fish against spines in their palate, leaving their bill free to open to catch more fish; up to twelve small fish can be held in the bill, with the fish heads facing in alternate directions.
In photo #2, you can see the puffins standing in the grass at the top of the cliff; if you look very carefully, you can see the entrances of some of the burrows: two birds at the far right (left of the one in flight) are both standing at the entrance of their respective burrows.
I regret I do not have any close-ups of these interesting and colourful birds: my camera lens is not capable of picking up the requisite detail from the distance we were at in the tour boat. However, you can find some fine close-up views on the web pages referenced in the footnote as well as three fantastic photos here by Allan and Cathy Murrant.
¹ The information about the Atlantic puffin has been taken from the Wikipedia pages on puffins and Atlantic puffins. In most cases, the text has been reworked to fit in here, but some phrases from the originals remain outside quotation marks.↩