Friday, September 12, 2014

Atlantic Puffins

Few birds attract the fascination like Atlantic Puffins. These seabirds' appearance is endearing.  They are only seen readily when they come to isolated islands to nest in late spring.  Once fledged, they disappear for years until ready to join the nesting cycle. We've sponsored a pair of puffins through the Lab of Ornithology for several years, and read each year's report on the success of our birds. So, we were intent to find some puffins on this trip, even though it is late, and we were likely to only see the fledglings.

While we saw a few puffins around the Bonavista lighthouse, they were nesting on the hidden side of the island near the light.  The advice to us was to go to nearby Elliston, billed as the root cellar capital.  That's a new one.

So, puffins like a rocky island with some turf to burrow in. The sites look like this one a few miles from Elliston. But, unlike this island, the one in Elliston is separated from land by a very narrow channel.

Arriving at the location, we spotted the first of many root cellars. They dotted the hills, indicating where homes once stood. Inside the outer door is a passage to a second door protecting the stored veggies from the hard winter's cold. The abandoned cellars are a testament to both the decline of the traditional cod fishery and to the limited growing season in Newfoundland.  Only root crops are practical in the garden.  

The town of Elliston has an annual puffin festival and welcomes puffin watchers in good style. A local resident welcomed us and briefed us on the best path and safety.  It ended up being an easy 10 minute walk towards the sea and across a narrow neck of land. This is pretty nice.  A lot of puffin sites require a boat ride and a wet landing from a bouncing tender.

So, what did we find?  Joining three pro photographers on a grassy knoll, we were maybe 150 feet from a gang of juvenile Atlantic Puffins. Their burrows were easily spotted.

There seemed to a cycle among many of the birds wherein they would gather along the edge of the  island and launch into flight from there.

So, I just isolated on those birds and waited to see the wingtips move.  It worked pretty well.

The folks at Elliston were really accommodating. Well, truthfully that was true for everyone we met during our nine days in Newfoundland.  Here, they even provided a nice relaxing puffin chair to rest in after the hike back from seeing the birds. Very creative, eh?

Now, allow me to provide some details for the photographers about these birds-in-flight photos. I used a Nikon Series 1 mirrorless V2 camera with the FT1 adapter attached to a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. I shot at 15 frames per second! The exposures  were 1/1000 second at  f/8, ISO 800.  At 200 mm, the equivalent focal length in a 35 mm DSLR is 540 mm. This rig weighs about 4 pounds and is easily hand-held.  An equivalent full frame 35 mm camera, tripod and telephoto lens weighs over 22 pounds. I would never have carried the 22 pound rig onto an aircraft, nor to some of the locations where I used the Nikon V2. I am sold on the benefits of this little camera for travel.

Paul Schmitt

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