Perhaps nowhere else on Earth is so important to so many birds from so many different places as Alaska’s Bristol Bay. In any given year, millions of marine birds arrive here from around the globe to breed, forage, or rest. Some travel great distances to reach Bristol Bay. They migrate from nesting sites in the Southern Hemisphere to spend their winters (our summers) foraging in the region.
Other seabirds, like Tufted Puffins, choose to breed in the rocky cliffs and islands that punctuate the Bristol Bay shoreline. These colorful characters have bright orange feet, a fleshy orange bill, and two tufts of yellow feathers that start behind the eyes and curl back around their heads like a messy comb-over. Tufted Puffins spend their summers in Bristol Bay building nests in deep burrows that dig into the sides of cliffs and steep grassy slopes. Unlike many other birds, they need a running start to take to the air. Like others in their family, they can dive and even swim underwater at great depths (up to 200 feet). They use their wings and feet to steer underwater to feed on small fish, which they catch in their bills. Puffin parents can be seen packing ten or more small fish crosswise in their bills to bring back to hungry chicks waiting in their rocky nests. These small fish and other tiny plankton are the foundation of the rich food web that gives rise to Bristol Bay’s productive salmon fishery and supports the incredible abundance of bird life. After 6–7 weeks, the young Tufted Puffins leave the nest and head out to sea. If they aren’t yet ready to fly, you may see these adorable little ones walking towards the water.
Bristol Bay is an amazing place full of bird stories like this one. But this fragile ecosystem is facing challenges. It is already under stress from climate change and warming ocean temperatures, and now is being threatened by resource extraction and development. A large-scale open-pit mine, like the proposed Pebble Mine project, poses an untenable risk to the region’s food web, which supports millions of salmon and birds—including Tufted Puffins. Given Bristol Bay’s global significance for birds, protecting this remarkable resource is a priority for Audubon Alaska.