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Lending a hand to the “clown of the sea”

by Renee Houlihan

It’s mug up time at Alderwood Estates, a senior’s complex in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. This is no ordinary bedtime cup of tea. The seniors, gathered in the dining hall to discuss the inaugural Alderwood Puffin Patrol at the facility, are getting warmed up before they hit the road in search of lost puffin chicks.

Over tea and raisin buns, the team banters back and forth about the foggy conditions and the number of chicks likely to be rescued tonight. Fueled up, they dress warmly, don their reflective vests and grab their nets.

Watching the Alderwood Puffin Patrollers scour the roads with canes and walkers, clambering down over the beach to reach the water’s edge to release their puffins is an amazing sight to behold.

Their determination to give back at their age is truly inspirational. Instead of watching life pass them by, they are contributing and are excited to do so. The stories they tell are relevant and the knowledge shared is vitally important to a healthy community.

While the way Newfoundland society hunts for puffins has changed drastically from a gun to a butterfly net, from a stew pot versus a safety crate to hold them, the puffin is still bringing communities together.

As you watch the young puffins fly out to sea you can’t help but contemplate who the real beneficiaries are—are we helping the puffins or are the puffins helping us?
The puffin patrol is comprised of a 10-member team who range in age from 71 to 98.

With canes and walkers, they grab their flashlights and begin with a perimeter check of the grounds. Alderwood Estates is nestled along the shoreline of the harbour of Witless Bay, 35 kilometres south of St. John’s. This is a hotspot for finding baby puffins.

Often, puffins are found on the back lawn of the seniors’ facility. Having been attracted to the lights of the centre, they fly into the windows trying to reach that light. Most times they are unscathed.

As night settles in, residents “leap” in to action—with a spryness that belies their age—to rescue anywhere from two to five baby puffins a night during fledging season; proving themselves an integral part of the Puffin Patrol.

The Puffin Patrol Program began in 2004, when Juergan and Elfie Schau from Germany were visiting their summer home in Witless Bay and noticed baby puffins gone astray.

During fledging season, the sight of disoriented young puffins on the street was a common occurrence.  Unfortunately, it was also becoming common to see dead baby puffins on the street. The chicks become confused by vehicle lights and sadly become roadkill as they are struck by motor vehicles. Juergan and Elfie mobilized local volunteers to patrol, catch and release the young puffins and with that, the Puffin Patrol was born.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS-NL) joined the team in 2011 and helped facilitate and grow the program that has expanded to include all five communities within the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, which runs from Witless Bay to Burnt Cove on Newfoundland’s southern shore.

This reserve is home to more than 600,000 mating pairs of puffins that dig a burrow for a nest and lay one egg in May or June. Fledging season starts in late summer as the chicks leave the nest and head out to sea for the winter. Baby puffins fledge at night to avoid predators and use the moon, stars and horizon for navigation.

According to CPAWS-NF, the increased development, both residential and commercial along the southern shore in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, has resulted in an increased number of stranded seabirds along roadsides and backyards.

Each puffin receives a tag for identification if caught in the future. Below left: A young puffin navigating the waves shortly after its release.

Sadly, on foggy nights the chicks can become disoriented and are attracted to artificial light like street lights, vehicles and homes. This can lead the young puffins to be bamboozled and head inland instead of out to sea. That’s when the Puffin Patrol springs into action as volunteers drive or walk the roads, rescue the wayward chicks and hold them in crates.

The next morning they are released after being banded, weighed, wing measured. A sub-sample are swabbed to test for avian influenza.

The Atlantic puffin has become beloved by adults and children alike. Its nicknames, Clown of the Sea or Sea Parrot, are fitting for a species that is colourful, cute, cuddly and endearingly clumsy as they take flight. It was not always so in outport Newfoundland. There was a time when puffins were considered a supplementary food source.

Dave Melvin, a resident of Alderwood Estates and Puffin Patrol Leader, remembers growing up in the small outport community of La Manche, with 21 mouths to feed in his family. Puffins were a source of protein.

“When the caplin came in, we would take the punt out to Great Island and hunt the puffins, turrs and bull birds,” Melvin said.
He explains this was not sport hunting, but a necessity for putting food on the table of many families.

“We also caught many seabirds in our fishing nets by accident and in those days, nothing was wasted, so we brought those home as well as the fish to eat,’’ he said.

“We would come in with our fish and birds to the stage where we would clean them, take them home and make a stew or a soup. Puffin meat is dark, like most seabirds, and tastes similar to duck,” he added.

The years have passed and, at 87, Melvin no longer has to feed a family and has jumped on board the conservation movement. What it means to hunt puffins has changed dramatically for Dave Melvin. 

“If you had told me 70 years ago I’d be walking around Witless Bay with a pink butterfly net in my hand saving baby puffins, I wouldn’t have believed you,’’ he said.

“But it’s fun to watch the youngsters get so excited about catching a baby puffin and you can’t help but smile when you catch one and hold it in your hands,” he added.

Mike Keiley, another resident and former fisherman from Petty Harbour, joined the Puffin Patrol Team initially for the social aspect.

“Before this, the only puffin I cared about was puffin’ on my cigarette, but searching through the ditches with a net trying to save a little puffin is exciting,” Keiley said.

“Heading down to the beach and being part of the crowd is fun. When we release the chick, I can’t help but cheer as the puffin flies away,” he added.

Whatever the reason for joining the team, the residents have converted to the conservation ethic and doing what they can to save the puffin chicks.

At 98, Nora Normore is renowned as the world’s oldest puffin patroller and has the distinction for having most years of such service. She made her first successful puffin rescue more than 25 years ago.

Normore, who hails from St. Vincent’s, was quick to join the Alderwood Estates Puffin Patrol team along with nine other residents who wanted to aid in the plight of the birds.

“I was driving home on a Saturday night after mass with my daughter, Sister Anne Normore, who was a schoolteacher in Bay Bulls,” she said.

“We saw a baby puffin on the side of the road in Witless Bay and stopped to help. We wrapped the bird up in my coat and took it home to Tors Cove.”

The before-their-time conservationists even had the foresight to buy some worms on the way home to feed the puffin.

They decided to make a nest in the barbeque for the chick and proceeded to use a pair of tweezers to feed worms to the little bird. The puffin enthusiastically devoured the worms.
After feeding, they closed the lid of the barbeque and thought that was it for the night, but a local dog got the scent of the puffin and was getting dangerously close to opening the lid.

With their plan foiled, the women relocated the young puffin to their woodshed, and decided to leave the light on, thinking it would calm the young bird to be able to see its surroundings. This was not the case as the chick continuously tried to fly towards the light. They quickly realized their mistake and turned off the switch.

“Once we turned off the light the chick settled right down. The next morning, we were up at six and took the puffin down to the wharf,” Normore recounted.

“There were a bunch of fish plant workers there and they started to tease Anne, who was a teacher in the community, ‘Whattayat? Are you looking for a job’? We laughed with them and everybody milled around as we released the baby puffin and watched as it swam out to sea,’’ she added.

 Normore says that even 25 years ago, before it was trendy to rescue puffins, it was still a wonderful sight to behold when the little birds are released and fly out to sea.
She said everyone became quiet as they watched the puffin fly away and when she looked around everyone was smiling.

The tradition of the old teaching the young is a cultural norm, but in the case of the Puffin Patrol it’s often been the young teaching the old.

In the case of resident Jose Whalen, it was her daughter, Carmel, her granddaughter, Wendy, and great-granddaughter Kate who encouraged her to join the Puffin Patrol team.

Wendy was looking for ways to teach her children about the importance of conservation and realized that the hands-on approach of the Puffin Patrol offered a rare opportunity for her children to feel like they were making a difference.

This interactive approach created a sense of accomplishment in her children so when she told her grandmother about it, Jose quickly volunteered to be part of the team. With four generations of the Whalen family out on the Puffin Patrol, it truly has become a family affair.
Jose, at 88, is the matriarch of the family and offers a calm and soothing presence to her four-year old granddaughter who is both excited by and scared of the flapping wings of the puffin chick. Intergenerational learning has become critical as grandparent and families are often farther apart geographically than they would like.

As cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Somehow we have to get older people back close to growing children if we are to restore a sense of community, knowledge of the past, and a sense of the future.” 


(Editor’s note: Puffins are now widely considered an endangered species. An identical situation exists in Iceland where fledglings also land in a local town by mistake and are at risk. A group of youngsters is coming to their rescue. On the other hand, while puffin numbers in much of Europe are dwindling, the population on the Welsh island of Skomer is booming. Research is under way to determine why they are doing so well, and if the island could be key to saving the colourful birds.)

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