Jun 28, 2014 | 0 comments

Puffins. Need I say more?

My boss certainly didn’t have to, when I received a text from him one Saturday morning in May, not long after I had woken up late and just enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, staring absent-mindedly out the window.

The surprise text informed me that there was a free birding cruise for local nature guides, leaving in exactly 15 minutes.

Stuffing my binoculars and camera in my bag, I jogged down to Crescent Harbor. These cruises are usually upwards of $90, so knowing that it was not only full of ornithology experts, but also prime nesting season for seabirds on St. Lazaria, made it a no-brainer to at least try to make it before the boat took off.

Sure enough, As I got down to the dock, a woman closing the gate asked if I was trying to get on the birding cruise. “You’d better run.” She said, pointing to a small Allen Marine boat.

I was the last one on, and they were just untying it from the dock. About a dozen other birders were on board, equipped with oversized telephoto lenses and binocular harnesses.

The puffins are coming…

It was another rare pristine day, warm and sunny, but with a chilly seabreeze. I spotted my first Tufted Puffin as we neared the small wilderness island. Before I knew it, I was seeing clumps of a dozen or so bobbing placidly in the waves. More, and more, and more puffins, interspersed with huge flocks of rhinocerous auklets and thick-billed murres. I have never seen so many of these nesting seabirds in my life!

Faraway peregrine falcon

Up on the cliff, as we neared St. Lazaria, the peregrine falcon I had seen a month before was also still there. In classic peregrine form, it was grumpily attacking any bald eagle that flew near its perch on the rocks.

I simply couldn’t believe how many puffins and murres there were. We’re talking thousands! They flew overhead in their awkward auklet and puffin ways, like tiny footballs flying through the air with minimal direction and control.

Huge floats of thick-billed murres

Thousands of nesting seabirds

Unfortunately, after about the first hour on the boat, I had been looking through my binoculars too long, and sea sickness snagged me in the gut from out of nowhere. I tried to fight it as long as I could, but eventually it became unbearable, and I had to sit down for a while in the cabin.

Little did I know, this was an over 3 hour long cruise! I felt bad, being unable to tough it out on the deck with most of the other birders, but it was the worst sea sickness I’ve ever had. I was glad I had gotten to see most of the seabirds in the first hour, because they didn’t really see anything new in the remaining time they circled the island.

Grey whale flukes

On the way back to Sitka, a grey whale did pull me out of my nauseous daze for a short time. I first spotted the blow as I was trying to talk to (and not throw up on) one of the lead ornithologists; as the boat slowed down, the whale proceeded to breach and roll in the calm waters for us for several minutes, making for some great photo opps.

Grey whale back

Grey whale flukes again

One of my favorite islands
The visitor center where I work, on the left!

Despite being seasick for the majority of the trip, I had a blast seeing the plethora of puffins nesting on St. Lazaria. It’s crazy to think there is such an abundance and diversity of life, just a few miles from shore! It’s incredible how fast they all showed up as well. I hope to get some more opportunities to see St. Lazaria later this summer, and see what it looks like later in the season!


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