Guano and Feathers

If you love puffins, please visit my facebook page The Daily Puffin. You don’t need to join facebook to view it, but if you are on facebook I’d appreciate a “like” and a “follow”.

I was so taken with Atlantic puffins in the Faroe Islands that three and a half weeks after coming home, I took my camera, tripod, and two new lenses and set out solo for the Bonavista Peninsula in Newfoundland, Canada.

There are numerous puffin colonies in Newfoundland, including the well-known Puffin Viewing Site between Elliston and Maberly; the Cape Bonavista lighthouse; and Cable John Cove. At each of these locations the colony is on an islet, just a short distance from the mainland: good places for the birds, since they can’t be preyed upon by land mammals.

Also, the islets protect the birds from us. Not that Newfoundlanders hunt them (as the Faroese did traditionally), but overly enthusiastic tourists unknowingly trample their burrows, killing chicks.

Islet colonies mean you need a long lens to get good pictures. The 200mm lens I used really wasn’t quite long enough (I had to crop many of the photos).

But I read that in some of these places, if you’re still and quiet, the birds will come and land on mainland ledges, and hang out for awhile, and you can get really close to them. Which is common sense, really: don’t spook the wildlife.

Sadly most people were so caught up in the moment that they didn’t stop to think. As soon as one bird landed on a ledge, there would a rush of people with iPhones out, and the bird would take off again.

So I spent a fruitless day of multiple visits to all three sites, then decided to return to one place after dinner, a little before sunset. The weather was gray and damp, and the light frankly sucked for photography, but nobody was there. As I rounded the last little hill on the trail, I saw about 50 puffins lined up along the ledge.

I quietly dropped my pack and lay down on a little hillock (among feathers and dried guano), picked up the camera, and started shooting. Every minute or so I would scootch forward a little, until I got to about ten feet from the ledge.

Then I heard voices – human voices! Two groups of four people were approaching. Oh, no…

I’m not one to tell strangers what to do, but I waved emphatically, and when I got their attention, put a finger to my lips, then made a “slow down” motion. Thankfully they all got the hint, stopped talking, and quietly spread out at a respectful distance, allowing everyone to spend some real quality time with the little birds.

The next evening played out much the same way, except I was never alone. I lay in the grass alongside another photographer, and together we convinced people to be quiet and patient. Within five minutes the birds started arriving. The skies were mostly overcast, but in the last ten minutes before sunset the sun broke through, bathing the little spit of land in golden light while the cameras clicked away.

On the third evening first one and then another photographer joined me in the grass on the little hillock. They were both disappointed that the birds were far away on their islet. I advised them to be patient, wait for most of the people to leave, then get ready. Once again I got the remaining peoples’ attention, got them to be still and silent, and once again the puffins came and perched on the ledge.

I stayed well past sunset, and darn if some of those low-light pictures weren’t among the best I took the whole trip.

The closest I got to the birds was about four feet. Of course my inner child wanted to get closer, and maybe I could have if I’d stayed longer, but there were still other people around, and I didn’t want to ruin their experience by spooking the birds.

And really, four feet was close enough. After awhile, I stopped shooting and just watched, for a long time.(all the pictures above were shot handheld with a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR lens on a Nikon D750 body)

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