A photographer tracks the elusive puffin with tenacity — and some powerful equipment.
I STARTED GOING to Cannon Beach, Oregon, in 1987, when I met my wife; it was one of her favorite places. Ever since, that magical setting has turned into an annual pilgrimage for our family. I always noticed paintings, refrigerator magnets and sculptures of puffins but never really knew where or when to look for the birds themselves.
I was always told we were too early or too late to see them.
The Haystack Rock Awareness Program informed me that early April through July is prime puffin-viewing time, as they make their yearly trek to Haystack Rock to nest in the high grassy areas on the north and northwest sides.
This year, I headed out in early May with a 1,000-mm telephoto lens, a tripod, a warm jacket and a pair of 12 power binoculars.
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Turns out, a few dozen of these seabirds were scouting the rock for a place to nest and lay their single egg for the year. Thousands and thousands of other birds circle the rock this time of year, all looking for the perfect nesting spot. Spotting puffins is a bit of a challenge, as they are some of the smallest black birds there. During peak times, all the birds around the top of the rock reminded me of that scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where the monkeys circle the wicked witch’s castle.
The puffins fly at 48 to 55 miles per hour, making sharp turns, and are tough to keep track of while looking through a 1,000-mm lens, but once you track and follow them, they are a beautiful, colorful bird to watch. The best viewing is with a decent pair of binoculars: I recommend at least 10 to 12 power.
My most successful days catching photos were in the early morning, when the birds were most active and the sun was shining on Haystack Rock from the east. Low tides are best, when you can get closer to the rock for viewing. I did see some birds in the afternoons, but it is more difficult when the light is behind the 235-foot monolith.
The best time of year for viewing is when the eggs hatch in July, and the parents are bringing food to the young chicks. Spotting these colorful birds, with their bright-orange beaks and webbed feet, can last into late August, when a few of the stragglers are still hanging around.