Tufted Puffin -Qilangaq/Tunngaq

original artwork by Frank Keim

by Frank Keim

This is another of those auks (alcids) I never saw while living in the YK Delta because its nesting areas in the Bering Sea were just too difficult for me to get to. They nest colonially in burrows mostly on treeless islands with grassy steep slopes or cliff tops with sheer drop-offs. Along with other auk and gull species that nest nearby, their colonies become very busy in spring and summer with flying and diving birds everywhere. I’ve only witnessed this activity, however, in Prince William Sound while kayaking in the area many years ago.

I’ve also watched them at the Seward Sea Life Center as they swam and dived in the enormous glass aquarium there. And do they put on a show! Along with their first cousins, Horned puffins, while foraging for small fish, they literally fly underwater, pushing themselves mostly with their stubby wide wings, and turning and twisting on a dime with the help of their orange webbed feet and tail. And, although they are also adept at flying in the air, they have to work hard to take off, running along the surface of the water for all they’re worth and using the thermals generated by waves to become airborne. This is why they dig their burrows into steep hillsides or on craggy slopes or cliff faces, so they can use gravity as an assist to propel them aloft. As they do underwater, they use their feet and tail to help them steer while flying.

Since Tufted puffins migrate far out on the open Pacific Ocean outside of the nesting season, not much is known about their courting rituals. But by the time they return to an ice-free Bering Sea in March or April to begin nesting, they have already formed their pair bond and are ready to get to the serious task of finding a place to call home for a few months. Both sexes help excavate their nest in a long (2-7 feet) burrow on a steep grassy slope in a deep natural crevice among the rocks, or less seldom, on the ground under a shrub on a steep incline. At the end of their burrow, the pair line the nest chamber with grass, feathers or other soft materials.

The female lays one lavender-brown spotted bluish white egg, which is incubated by both parents for 40-42 days. Both parents also help feed the nestling, carrying 4-5 fish in their bills and dropping them inside the burrow by the nest or near the entrance. Since they hunt for their quarry farther from the colony than Horned puffins, it may take up to two days for an adult to return to the nest with its quarry hanging in its bill to feed the chick. The young bird leaves the nest 6-7 weeks after hatching. Tufted puffins only have one brood per year.

After taking its first daunting leap off its nest perch into the sea, the young puffin quickly gets down to business and fattens up with a diet rich in oily fish, such as sand lance and capelin, although it may also feed on small squid, crustaceans, mollusks, sea urchins and algae. Its parents do not feed it but model the foraging behavior necessary for its survival.

Tufted puffin young usually stay in the vicinity of their noisy nesting colonies in the Bering Sea until the water freezes, although with climate change and open water lasting longer, they are able to take advantage of the bounty found there till much later in the year. But finally the time comes when they must disperse farther south into the southern Bering Sea and the open reaches of the Pacific Ocean to hunt for their favorite foods.

This puffin has two Yup’ik names that I’ve run across: In Hooper Bay, I found Qilangaq, the meaning of which is unknown; and in Scammon Bay and the Yukon, Tuungaq, which probably refers to the sauce pan, or bowl shape of their wide colorful bills. Their Aleut name is Toporkie, which has a Russian origin. They have a number of other common English names including, old man of the sea, sea clown, and sea parrot. Their scientific name, Fratercula cirrhata, means, “little friar (brother) with curled locks or ringlets.”

Something fascinating about Tuungaq is that, although both males and females have the same garish plumage and golden tufts and gaudy parrot-like bills during the late spring and summer months, these traits change dramatically in the fall. Then their plumage fades to brownish-black, and they shed their colorful yellow bill plates, rosettes, and blonde ornamental eye tufts, leaving their appearance much plainer and less imposing for human eyes to ogle with binoculars – making it a true Goldilocks bird.