Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) is a small sea bird which spends most of its life living on the open ocean. It is also known as the Common Puffin and it is the only puffin species which occurs in the Atlantic Ocean. All three other puffin species are found in the Pacific. When they are not mating and nesting, Puffins spend their time flying, swimming or riding the vast watery ocean, regardless of the weather. They feed primarily on fish, although they have also been known to eat crustaceans and molluscs. When diving for fish, they make use of their specially adapted wings as a means of propulsion while their webbed feet steer them. They are able to catch several small fish in their bills during the course of one dive, making use of their tongue to trap the fish while their mouths are open. Amazingly, these small pigeon-sized birds can dive to depths between 50 and 200 feet.

The species is primarily characterised by their brightly-coloured orange bills which only gain colour before the mating season. The male is slightly larger than the female and their bodies are mainly black on the top with a white underbelly. Their faces are grey and they have short, red-orange legs. Their bodies average between 28-34 cm in length and they have a wingspan of between 50 and 60 cm. During the winter months, these puffins may travel as far south as the Mediterranean and North Carolina. When it is mating season, the Atlantic Puffin can be found off the coasts of northern Europe, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and the eastern parts of North America. They also occur in the Arctic Circle and in northern France and Maine.

Every year near April, puffins start to grow brightly coloured bill plates as they move north towards their breeding grounds. These bills are used in courtship rituals and a pair will usually tap their bills together. After the mating season these brightly coloured bill plates are shed. The male puffin will clear out the nest area for the female he has found before she arrives at the nesting ground, lining it with suitable materials. The female then lays a single egg and the pair share incubation responsibilities. After between 39-45 days, the chick will hatch and then after a further 49 days, will be ready to fledge. When it is old enough it will venture out to sea alone and begin life as a young puffin adult. At about 5-6 years of age, the young puffin will become sexually mature and be ready to mate and produce offspring.

American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates) is a coastal bird that can be found along the Gulf Coast and over most of the Atlantic Coast. This is a bird that is 16 inches in length and can be identified by is predominantly black body, grayish-brown back and wings, and a snowy white belly. This coastal bird has pink legs and a bright orange or blood red bill, with yellow eyes and an orange orbital ring. Juvenile birds have a dark tip at the end of their bills and their eyes are dark. Although its coloring does not make the best fashion statement, it does make them distinctive. Being a coastal bird, the American Oystercatcher relies on the ocean for its food that consists of mussels, oysters and clams, Unfortunately, coastal developments by humans are increasingly encroaching on the habitat and lifestyle of these birds.

American Oystercatchers are migratory birds, with the breeding populations located in the north often migrating to the southeastern areas of the United States during the winter months. Due to development and coastal activities, populations in the Massachusetts area have increased in numbers. In contrast to the northern populations, it seems that the birds that are found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, are more established and remain permanent residents of the area. Many IBA’s (Important Bird Areas) have been established to provide the American Oystercatchers with safe nesting grounds, and winter habitats for the migratory populations. There are approximately thirty breeding pairs that are protected by the Hatteras National Seashore IBA, in North Carolina, and the Altamaha River Delta IBA, in Georgia, is home to approximately 250 migratory American Oystercatchers. Many of these IBA’s, including the Big Bend Ecosystem IBA, Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge and Hillsborough Bay IBA in Florida, play an important role in the conservation of these beautiful birds. These areas are also motivated by the fact that in the 1850’s, American Oystercatchers had become extremely scarce in the mid-Atlantic areas, and only began increasing in population numbers during 20th century.

Not only does human development threaten these coastal birds, but they also fall victim to hurricanes and oil-spills. All these factors make nesting very difficult for the birds. American Oystercatchers nest on the ground, which enables them to blend in with their surroundings as a form of camouflage. Their eggs are gray in color and are speckled, having a pointed shape which prevents the eggs from rolling away. But no matter how many preventative measures the American Oystercatcher has, it remains up to humans to protect these birds, and the land they live on.