Why the Puffins Keep “Puffin'” and Other Lessons from Gjesvaerstappan



In mid-June 2013, we traveled to a fishing village, Gjesvaer, high up on the northwest coast of Norway, far above the Arctic Circle. There we boarded a small boat to take us Gjesvaerstappan, a series of small islands, breeding colonies for thousands of birds, located about 15 km from the Nord Kapp (North Cape) on the roof of Norway. Gjesvaerstappan, in the Norwegian county Finnmark, is home to Finnmark’s largest flock of Puffins, as well as Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills, Cormorants, Skuas, Fulmars, Gannets and Sea Eagles and a shrieking bevy of other birds.

The Atlantic Puffins are stubby, orange-beaked birds, about a foot long, weighing less than a pound. The Puffins’ short wings are adapted to diving into the sea where they feed on small marine life.

Puffins spend their lives at sea, but come on shore during breeding season, joining Puffin colonies on high cliffs or off-shore islands like Gjesvaerstappan.

My son, John, and I were there on a “father-son” trip to enjoy and to photograph the vast array of Arctic bird life as well as the fjords and knurled rock formations that had fought their way from the depths of the sea, providing protection for these exquisite Arctic birds and their plush breeding grounds.

But I also had a deeper mission in mind. A mission that has occupied me for much of the past several years. That mission has had the sharpening of my “cognitive perception” about the mysteries and wonders – as well as the pains and sufferings – of our natural world as its objective. My goal has been simple: to improve my ability to read and understand the text of our wondrous Planet Earth, our Home – for, as Luther Burbank wrote a century ago, Nature is the “Manuscript of God.”

Gjesvaerstappan's Cliff Wals

Gjesvaerstappan’s Rock Formations

Those of you who have traveled with me over these pages may recall some of our “findings” from earlier ventures:

● In Iceland’s Illuminations we reported that, as global warming makes the Atlantic waters more “toasty,” Mackerel, normally in the waters off Scotland, have migrated north into the cooler waters off Iceland, to the detriment of outraged Scottish fishermen who are refused admission into Iceland’s territorial waters so they could follow the north-moving schools of Mackerel, upon which their livelihoods have grown to depend.

When Mother Nature Decides to Defrost Her Ice Box, explores the growing tension surrounding water rights as glaciers melt and their reservoirs of fresh water upon which life depends continue to disappear.

● In our blog, the Happy Plight of the Obese Marmot and Other Tales, we discuss what we learned on our winter trip to Yosemite: there is an ongoing “species range shift” from lower altitudes to higher altitudes and from lower latitudes to higher latitudes as wildlife and plants adjust to our warming planet.

Of course, these are but a sampling of our explorations and what we found is happening to and on our Planet Earth.

From our explorations, it’s pretty clear to me that Humankind is alone among Nature’s creations in our refusal to admit and deal in an appropriate manner with the adverse effects of global warming and planetary abuse. Groucho Marx’s puzzling question asked some 50 years ago remains as puzzling for us:

“Why won’t we believe our lying eyes?”

But I wonder. Are the Puffins, small and delicate – and our earth’s other birds – sending us messages we no longer can refuse?

Remember the story?

Once upon a time there was a miner who loved his canary and took the diminutive bird into the coal mine with him every day so he could enjoy its melodic songs as he swung his pick and chipped away the coal. But the mine was old and lacked a good ventilation system. The atmosphere in the mineshaft slowly became contaminated with carbon monoxide and methane. The sensitive canary was soon dead, but the miners were alerted and saved.

For years thereafter, canaries served as the “miner’s standard” for the detection of poisonous gases.

Now, for most of us humans (at least those of us who aren’t housed in smog-filled cities), living on Planet Earth is not like we’re living in a mineshaft filled with unbearable atmospheric contamination – at least not yet.

But suppose our Planet Earth’s global warming (shaped by atmospheric compositional changes coming from the melting Arctic Tundra’s release of methane gas into the atmosphere and our anthropomorphic contribution of carbon dioxide through fossil fuel use and our planetary abuse) serves as a harbinger of calamities to come?

And suppose the Puffins are sending us messages that are early warning signs for those of us who have eyes to see and ears to hear – as unsettling as the miner’s dying canary – about those calamities, calamities we seem bent to inflict upon ourselves and the rest of Nature’s creations?

A June 3, 2013 Associated Press article, titled “Atlantic Puffins in Peril, Populations Plummet As Ocean Temperatures Rise,” quotes University of Maine’s Professor Rebecca Holberton:

“It’s our marine canary in a coal mine, if you will.”

Why? As reported by the National Wildlife Federation in Wildlife Promise:

“Like the many migratory birds that have had to literally shift their way of life, the puffin is finding it more difficult to find its major food sources as fish populations are displaced causing mismatches in prey-and-predator relationships and shortages in the abundance of herring, their primary food staple. A marked deficit of roughly 5% annually has been recorded in the presence of herring in the diets of puffin populations. Many puffin populations are filling the void by hunting and feeding their young butterfish, now more abundant in the area as they too react to changing conditions, but this substitution is problematic for many puffin offspring which are simply unable to swallow these larger fish and die of starvation. Low birth rates, high fledgling mortality, food supply disruption coupled with recent unprecedented die-offs, delayed breeding seasons, and rapid habitat destruction caused by more frequent and extreme ocean conditions could prove crippling for puffins and many more of our feathered friends.”

So the Puffins are “puffin'” harder than ever as they scratch for food for themselves and their offspring. And their diminishing populations confirm that a lot of them are proving not up to the task.

Puffins are not alone. On June 20, 2013, CBS reported “One in eight bird species worldwide face the threat of extinction.” Echoing the wisdom gained by our coal miner, Stuart Butchart, Birdlife International’s chief scientist said:

“Birds are fantastic indicators. They are good at telling us where other wildlife is found and their trends also closely mirror what’s happening to other wildlife groups. So the fact that many bird species are declining, many are threatened with extinction, really should be ringing alarm bells.”

The loss of Puffins is more than the loss of a bird, that cute, petite Parrot of the Sea. The loss of vast species of birds creates more than the shuttering silence of Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring, more than viewing disaster for Audubon Society’s cadre of birdwatchers. As David Suzuki puts it:

“We can’t live without birds. Beyond being fascinating and beautiful, they play a crucial role in keeping the world habitable for all life, including people. They disperse seeds, pollinate plants, control insects, provide food and are indicators of the overall health of ecosystems.”

Is it now time to “Believe our Lying Eyes?”

Or, should we continue to dig our way further into the depths of that hot and polluted mining shift we have such a penchant to make out of our Planet Earth?


Photos from Norway, a “featured gallery:” dickjacobsphotography.com

National Wildlife Federation’s Report: Shifting Skies: Migratory Birds in a Warming World.
(Download the Report as PDF)

Birdlife International Report: State of the World’s Birds
(Download the Report as PDF)

PLOS One Report: Identifying the World’s Most Climate Change Vulnerable Species: A Systematic Trait-Based Assessment of all Birds, Amphibians and Corals

National Geographic article: Last Song for Migrating Birds.
(Anthropomorphism at its worst)

Huff Post article 7/14/13: Puffins On Maine Islands Flock Home
(Puffins, down 1/3 in Maine, are finding more food this summer.)

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8 Comments on "Why the Puffins Keep “Puffin'” and Other Lessons from Gjesvaerstappan"

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Hi Dick ,
Read your blog last night . Really makes you think and as always the photography is beautiful !

Heart warming to know you traveled with John, heart wrenching to know the state of our planet. Beautifully written, Dick.

As always, a great piece. You will be happy to know that the State of Maine is reporting the return of Puffins to islands off the coast of Maine, although in smaller numbers than previous years. For some reason there was a food shortage that kept them away last. This year the food supply is back.

WSJ is owned by the same investor as Fox News – enough said.

It is time to acknowledge the climate change. The indications are everywhere. Thanks for the bringing another indicator to the fore.

Excellent. Thanks for this. How the WSJ can publish an op-ed essentially denying climate change in the face of all the evidence is truly beyond me.