“Welcome back, puffins!”
So reads a handmade sign held by a flock of school children in front of Cannon Beach’s most prominent landmark, Haystack Rock, every April.
Haystack Rock is home to a colony of 200-300 tufted puffins during the summer months, where they congregate after many months on the open ocean to mate and raise chicks.
Their arrival is a sure sign of spring in Cannon Beach and is celebrated during the annual Twelve Days of Earth Day celebration.
During the event, April 11 – 22, 2012, volunteers with the Haystack Rock Awareness Program set up puffin-viewing stations on the beach with spotting scopes. They are also available to answer questions about the distinctive birds.
Tufted puffins are striking birds during the summer breeding season: each sports a thick, bright orange bill, a bright white face atop a jet-black body, and a pair of golden tufts curling from orange-rimmed eyes down the back of the neck. In the air, they fly purposefully with constantly flapping wings.Haystack Rock, a designated Oregon Marine Garden and part of Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, is one of the best places on the West Coast to see tufted puffins. Cannon Beach visitors can usually start seeing puffins arrive around late March or early April. They spend about a week gathering together on the water just offshore before pairing up and moving to the rock. There, they build a nest in a burrow that can be more than five feet long and lay a single egg per pair.
The best time of year to see the birds is in April, before the puffins begin incubating their eggs, or July, when the parents frequently leave the nest to catch fish and squid for the chicks. Low tide is the best time of day, when you can get the best view of the north face of the rock, where the birds prefer to nest. You can see them flutter around the rock with your bare eyes, but bring binoculars to see plumage details and watch the birds interact.The puffins prefer the north side of the rock because it is the windward side, and they need a windy perch in order to fly. They are built to be swimmers more than flyers. Their short, powerful wings and football shape give them little grace in the air, but they can swim up to 200 feet deep for food using their wings and webbed feet.
The puffins may be the stars of the Twelve Days of Earth Day celebrations, but visitors can enjoy a variety of other events, too. These include an art show, native tree planting, a street fair complete with face painting and a Sitka spruce giveaway, and the Salmon Celebration and Potluck, a fundraiser to help the City of Cannon Beach purchase Native American artist Lillian Pitt’s sculpture “Salmon Journey.” Speakers will present on a variety of environmental issues, including climate change, organic gardening, marine debris from the Japanese tsunami, conservation areas in Oregon state forests, and backyard beekeeping with native bees.