Cannon Beach’s Haystack Rock is perhaps the Oregon Coast’s most iconic site. But for some people, it’s known not for its physical beauty, but for a bird that calls it home.
“We sure hope to see a tufted puffin,” said Marlene O’Connor with a laugh. She and her husband, Patrick, stood side-by-side on the beach, scanning the rock with binoculars, completely oblivious to the drizzle. They had come from Michigan to see the bird, so they weren’t about to let a little rain get in their way.
Suddenly Marlene stopped scanning and focused her binoculars. “Four puffins in different burrows,” she exclaimed. “Pretty cool!”
“This has been on my wish list for a long time,” said Patrick, beaming so brightly he could burn the clouds away.
“It’s the target bird for this trip,” nodded Marlene.
Haystack Rock hosts the last significant tufted puffin colony in the continental U.S. that people can see from the shore, making it a destination for birders from around the country. The trouble is, the puffin population has dropped from 612 birds in 1988 to just 124 in 2019, and their colonies are disappearing up and down the West Coast. So now puffin lovers are taking the bird’s conservation into their own hands.
“They’re so iconic for Cannon Beach,” said John Underwood, who launched the Protect our Puffins campaign with the Friends of Haystack rock. “It’s all about creating awareness of what’s going on here not only with puffins, but with all the seabirds in the world.”
It’s easy to see why the tufted puffin has become the unofficial avian mascot for Cannon Beach. While the bird’s plumage is a nondescript dark gray during the winter, both males and females undergo a colorful transformation during the summer mating season. Their large beaks turn bright orange, their face feathers turn white, and the namesake cream tufts sprout from their heads. Their scientific name, Fratercula cirrhata, compares them to little friars, but others like to call them “the parrots of the sea.”
A member of the auk family, tufted puffins spend most the year on the open ocean. Their short wings allow them to swim gracefully, like they’re flying underwater, as they line up sometimes dozens of small fish in a row in their beaks.
Then during the summer, they come in to nest in burrows on offshore sea rocks — places like Haystack Rock, Three Arch Rocks and other sea stacks and cliff faces from Northern California to Alaska to Japan.
No one is following the plight of the puffins here on Haystack Rock like Tim Halloran. From the adults arrival in the spring to mate, until the last little puffling flies out to sea at the end of summer, Halloran can be found staked out in the sand to the north of the rock with his scope.
“There are a few up there,” said Halloran, peering at the rock through the incessant downpour. “This is great weather for puffins; not so great for us.”
For nine years, Halloran has monitored the rock’s puffin colony as a volunteer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, keeping a detailed record of their population, activity and breeding success.
“So I will write down the time and location and a little about them,” he continued, pulling out a notebook.
Since he’s out there three or four days a week, he also doubles as an informal ambassador to birders like the O’Connors.
“We’ve got a population of about 130 here that’s been pretty stable for 10 years,” he told them, as they stopped nearby to peer through their binoculars. “Sixty years ago, there would’ve been 800 just here on the rock.”
“Wow,” exclaimed Marlene and Patrick in unison.
And it’s not just Haystack Rock. The puffin population has been falling throughout their Oregon nesting colonies.
“In 1988, a burrow nesting survey was done along the entire Oregon Coast; they estimated approximately 5,000 tufted puffins,” said Shawn Stephensen, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who oversees Halloran and the agency’s seabird monitoring programs at the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “Then in 2008, I conducted a survey, and we documented several hundred puffins along the entire Oregon Coast. And that threw up a red flag.”
Washington, too, saw an enormous drop in its puffin populations — approximately 90% — and listed tufted puffins as endangered in 2015. There have also been highly publicized die-offs in Alaska in recent years.
Scientists hypothesize that tufted puffins could be suffering from a number of challenges, including changing oceanic and climatic conditions, a reduction in the fish and other prey they feed on from both climate change and commercial fishing, oil spills, fishing net entrapment, human disturbances to their nesting colonies, and increased predation from bald eagles. But it’s hard to say with any certainty, because there has been little puffin research, particularly into the seven or so months they spend on the open sea.
Advocates petitioned to get the bird federally listed under the Endangered Species Act, but in late 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied the listing. The agency stated that, despite losses in the southern range of the bird, from California to Washington, the majority of the range-wide population of 3 million is stable or increasing, particularly around the northern Pacific Rim.
With little state or federal protections, Oregon puffin lovers have stepped in to fill the void.
Underwood grew up visiting Haystack Rock from his home in Beaverton, and he remembers the rock being covered with puffins. But by the time he and his wife, Ann, bought a vacation house there, things had changed.
“We would stop by and see Tim every visit and ask him, ‘how many puffins are there?’ And it kept going like this,” said Underwood, moving his hand down and down. “About three years ago, we were like, that’s horrible. So walking back to the house, we asked, what can we do?”
They decided to launch a campaign called Protect Our Puffins. They approached the nonprofit group Friends of Haystack Rock to house it, and now every year they organize an event called Puffin Watch in the days around July 4th, setting up scopes to the east of the rock to raise awareness about the birds. They also advocate for puffin-friendly changes like a “No Fireworks” ordinance that Cannon Beach passed in 2020 to limit the disturbance to nesting seabirds.
But their primary mission is to raise money to help fund research by Shawn Stephensen and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife through the sale of Protect Our Puffins sweatshirts, bags and other merchandise at local stores and online.
“Friends of Haystack Rock have been an integral player in conducting scientific research,” said Stephensen. “They have been able to do fundraising and to be able to assist us in our puffin research by contributing personnel to go out with us to survey the puffins.”
In addition to helping with surveys and funding Halloran’s travel and lodging expenses, the group initially helped buy radio transmitters with the hopes that researchers could track the birds both during the summer nesting season and in the winter to get a better sense of where they go, which might help scientists determine what factors are negatively impacting the bird.
But in 2020, when it started to become clear that the puffins wouldn’t get federal protection, the group pivoted to funding research to determine whether the tufted puffins that live along the California Current might be genetically distinct from the more populous puffins to the north, and therefore might qualify for protections under the Endangered Species Act as a distinct population segment.
“We’re gaining momentum,” said Underwood. “We’re learning a lot about the puffins and trying to share that with people to help support the programs.”
But they won’t see their work as done until scientists learn enough about the bird to protect it and help its population rebound, to ensure that visitors to Haystack Rock can still see puffins for generations to come.