WASHINGTON COUNTY, Maine — In a span of fewer than six months, Mainers have seen two birds from far away make rare visits to the state's coast. The most recent? A tufted puffin.
"Mind-blowingly rare" are the words the National Resources Council of Maine used to describe the puffin's recent presence in Maine. The bird is native to Japan and Russia, and its closest breeding range is 2,500 miles away, according to a blog post on the NRCM's website.
The bird was first seen in June on Petit Manan, an island two and a half miles off the coast of Steuben in Washington County, and then on Machias Seal Island, according to the blog post. It is likely the same bird was seen earlier in July on Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge off the coast of Rockland, the NRCM said.
The bird's namesake feature is the golden tufts on its head.
This isn't the first rare bird to appear in Maine this year. The Steller's sea eagle, also native to eastern Asia, was first seen in Maine right before the new year and immediately started attracting crowds of enthusiastic birdwatchers from all over the United States and Canada.
"Rare birds like this are just another one of these examples of why humans are connected to the natural world, and we can’t help but be fascinated and enthralled by mysteries of the bird world," conservation biologist Jeff Wells, one of the nation's leading bird experts who, along with his wife Allison, authored the NRCM's blog post, said. "Hopefully, people will keep enjoying birds and keep looking for the oddities but also the familiar right around home and garden.”
Wells said the rare bird sightings in Maine over the past six months could just be a coincidence — but he said climate change could also be a factor because stresses on a bird’s native environment can cause it to seek out new places.
A fun historical twist to the tufted puffin story? According to Wells, John James Audubon made a painting of a tufted puffin based on a bird that Audubon wrote had been obtained by a hunter at the mouth of the Kennebec River in the winter of 1831-32. Wells said this account had been viewed skeptically by many due to how far the bird would have needed to travel, but now it seems more believable.
"[The tufted puffin] had always been on the Maine list ever since then, but in modern times when people understood where they were supposed to be from -- in theory, at least -- everyone kind of wondered, 'Was that some kind of mistake? Did somebody find it somewhere else and send it to him, and he got his notes mixed up?' You kind of come up with all kinds of reasons why it could have been a mistake," he said. "But suddenly now, when we have two sightings in the Gulf of Maine ... it makes you wonder if maybe it was correct all along."
To read and learn more about the rarity of the tufted puffin in Maine, click here.