The Tufted Puffins of Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, OR

Since moving to Oregon, something has been on my radar. That something was the breeding population of Tufted Puffins that nest at Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach. I’d read about them before moving here and thought I’d have to make a trip to the small beachside town south of Astoria to see them sometime.

Haystack Rock is one of the only places in the region where you can see Tufted Puffins from land at an accessible spot. They nest on offshore rocks and this is the only one close enough to see without getting on the water. The rock is a large, looming remnant of volcanic eruptions that is visible on your way into and around town. The rock makes for a good nesting spot not only for puffins, but also for hundreds of Common Murres, cormorants and gulls. Closer to the water, Black Oystercatcher and Harlequin Ducks were also seen. The rock is a little community neighbourhood of breeding birds.

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Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, OR

Memorial Day weekend, my chance of the summer came and having seen the puffins returned as of April, I knew it was worth a try to make the trip. I did some research ahead of time, which indicated low tide and early morning were the best times for viewing, even better if the two coincide.

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Harlequin Ducks enjoying the rock as well

Sunday morning, we woke up early and made our way to the beach. We were on the sand by 7:30am although low tide was not until 1pm. We approached the rock from the north and watched as hundreds of birds flew in circles around and around the rock, out over the Pacific waves and back onto the rock again. At first, it was difficult to spot the puffins, but eventually, we spied the distinguishable orange beak and yellow tufts identify our first Tufted Puffin! He was sitting on a tuft of grass amidst bare-ish soil.

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Our first Tufted Puffin! The bright orange beak bright even beneath the overcast sky.

The puffins also nest on the grassy north side of the rock, so your best chance of spotting one is looking at that area. Once we spotted one, it was easier to see others. I began knowing what spots to look at on the rock and even what flights patterns to watch for. Puffins have quite a different flight style from some other birds; they don’t take off from stationary positions on the land by flapping their wings. They leap off the rock and catch flight that way, then flap their wings vigorously with faster, shorter flaps than other seabirds.

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Tufted Puffin taking flight from Haystack Rock

It was always a bit of a dream of mine to see a puffin. I was just so excited! I stayed there a while watching and admiring them, trying to remember it forever. Under the cloudy skies and wind, it got a bit chilly after a little while, and we decided to head back at low tide to see how much closer we could see them then.

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Common Murres nest alongside puffins at Haystack Rock

When we came back at low tide, there was a lot less bird activity, but a lot more people! There weren’t so many birds flying in the sky overhead, but we could get much closer and see the puffins better. They also seemed more settled and I thought there were more sitting on their nests. I could even see their orange feet this time! I’m so glad we were able to go and see them. It turned out much better than I’d hoped as I worried we wouldn’t see any puffins. It definitely exceeded my expectations and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it! I’m so glad I got to go see these birds in the wild and hope their dwindling numbers turn around so others can enjoy them, too. This was a trip well-worth making.

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Two Tufted Puffins at Haystack Rock
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Tufted Puffins at Haystack Rock

Another attraction at Cannon Beach is the tide-pools at low tide. A group of dedicated volunteers come at low tide to setup a perimeter around the pools in order to protect the delicate marine life living there. They educate visitors on the life there and encourage them to view, but not disturb the creatures. I was too enraptured by the puffins to spend much time a the tide pools, but there were quite a few people around them.

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Crescent Beach north of Cannon Beach

We ran into another volunteer with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife who spends 20 hours a week on the beach monitoring the nests, number of puffins and successful pairs. The day we were there, he said he’d counted 19. He’s been doing this for a number of years. I was very impressed with his immense dedication! He had a spotting scope set up that we got to look through and see a puffin a bit closer than we had before. I’m so glad these people were spending their time educating the public.


For more info:

Friends of Haystack Rock
Haystack Rock Awareness Program
Rediscovering Haystack Rock With An Assist From The ‘Puffin Man’ – NPR

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