BY THE LIGHT OF THE SILVERY MOON…
Today, I learned something new and wonderful and am excited to share it with you! This story is sure to touch your heart, and you will be amazed at the kindly man with a thick European accent behind it all. I so hope you can stay for a cuppa. And, if there’s a young person with whom you might like to share this inspiring and loving story, I have some ice-cold milk and, yes, even a cupcake or two! So find yourself a comfy chair and gather round.
SEARCHING FOR TREASURE Witless Bay is a 30-minute drive from where I live. It’s still summer here, but it won’t be long before you’ll see groups of people – young and old alike – walking about at night, curiously dressed in boots and heavy gloves with flashlights and nets in hand, scouring the seashore and wharves, and peering into the bushes alongside roads and driveways for something all too familiar. German-born film producer Juergen Schau and his wife, Elfie, head up teams of enthusiastic youth volunteers along with parent chaperones – as many as several groups of up to 15 people in a single evening – searching for something they hope NOT to find…
A FRIENDLY FACE Witless Bay is one of the most scenic places you’ll find anywhere on the planet, where there is an abundance of wildlife and the ocean just seems to wink in the sun! People arrive here from all over the world to see majestic icebergs, several whale species including orcas frolic in the ocean, playful dolphins perform synchronized swimming, and acrobatic seabirds of varied species pirouette across the vast sky.
And, then there’s the one creature who effortlessly charms you with his amusing antics, coaxes a wide smile across your face and puts that twinkle in your eye. Before you know it, you’re jumping up and down, squealing with delight and pointing to the stocky little bird with the clown-like make-up! He’s the ‘Goodwill Ambassador’ of Witless Bay and Newfoundland’s provincial bird – the cheery Atlantic puffin! The Witless Bay Ecological Reserve is made up of four islands, one of which is Gull Island, home to the largest puffin colony in North America. Every year, some 250,000 of these amazing little birds flock here to hang up their ‘Home Sweet Home’ sign.
ALL DRESSED UP WITH SOMEWHERE TO GO Puffins are “dressed” similarly to penguins in little black-and-white tuxedos. They are perfectly coordinated from head to toe as they have cute orange feet and their beaks are a colourful display of brilliant yellow, orange/red and black. They don’t always look that way, though. After the breeding season, puffins start to shed the outer ‘signature’ parts of their beaks, leaving a smaller and faded true bill beneath that turns pale grey in winter. The reason for this is yet unknown, but one theory is that they no longer need to romance their partners after the breeding season; and molting the vibrantly colored beak makes them less noticeable to their natural predators. Yet, as sure as the flowers return in April, so, too, the puffin’s beak “blooms” again in spring, strongly suggesting that it might well serve in attracting a mate since it is the time of year when they begin to breed.
DID YOU KNOW? Puffins smartly stand upright about 10 inches tall and weigh on average 17.5 ounces. The small puffin is related to that of the larger auk species? Like the auks, puffins live out almost all of their days on the sea and only go ashore for breeding – but not until they are about five years old! The gregarious puffin, after several years abroad flying to who knows where and back again (it’s thought they winter as far south as Morocco), return to their original nest among a colony of thousands of nesting sites! How do they to do it?! Sometimes even we humans can’t manage to do this! Our cookie-cutter houses all seem to look the same to us! And, on our less brilliant days, some of us have even been known to have walked into our neighbour’s home by innocent mistake! Just sayin’… 🙂 No one really knows how puffins can recognize their same nest year after year. Their great navigational and recognition skills remain a mystery to us mere mortals…
How’s this for a heartwarming photo?! Thank you to Jeremy Stein of Albuquerque, New Mexico, jsteinfoto.com for generously permitting the use of this beautiful, captivating picture! Ahh, to be in love… I hope you will come to visit us in Newfoundland, Jeremy! 🙂
DID YOU KNOW?! Some of the most at-risk ocean species are not underwater but in the air? Puffins give birth to only one egg each year. Both parents dutifully take their turn in caring for the chic for up to six weeks. Puffins dig burrows about 2 feet in length for their nest, using their beaks to dig and their webbed feet to kick out the dirt. Puffins ‘talk’ in their underground burrows. They make a soft growling-moaning sound. Predators such as seagulls and eagles have been known to swoop down upon the puffins’ cliffside burrows, sticking their head inside nests and stealing the chic eggs.
Baby ‘pufflings’, as they are called, are nocturnal – they need to be for survival. When they are just a few weeks old, the parents turn them out of the nest to enable them to learn the necessary survival skills that will take them into adulthood. Sadly, there was a time when many pufflings would not survive here and many residents in the coastal towns near the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve would awaken in the morning to find dead puffins throughout their neighbourhoods from Bay Bulls and Witless Bay to Tors Cove.
We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. ~Native American Proverb
ONCE UPON A VACATION… After coming to Newfoundland on vacation more than 14 years ago, international film consultant and entrepreneur Juergen Schau, along with his wife Elfie loved this place so much that they purchased a home in Witless Bay and return every year to vacation in summer and at Christmastime. It wasn’t long after Jeurgen and Elfie made the decision to live here when they decided to educate themselves as to why so many pufflings were crash landing in the towns and dying at their feet. The more Juergen talked to the locals, he learned that this was not an uncommon sight and that it had been occurring for many years. So, he began researching and the more questions he asked, the more he learned. In Norway and in Iceland, for example, where reportedly approximately 60% of all the world’s Atlantic puffins live, a similar phenomenon occurs soon after pufflings are born every year in July.
DID YOU KNOW?! Pufflings usually remain at sea when they leave the security of the nest, but they have poor eyesight at night and are guided on their journey by the moon. Since they are instinctively seduced by light, the nearby lights of the communities all-too-often attract them on cloudy or foggy evenings when the baby pufflings are more prone to become lost and veer off their flight path.
PUFFIN PATROL Juergen decided that something within his power could be done to help the puffins which he could not ignore. At first, he started going out at night himself looking for pufflings to rescue, taking them home to secure them and then down to the beach the next morning to release them. You might ask, why not release them as soon as they are found? It is believed that if the pufflings were to be released immediately back into the night, it would be futile as the situation would only be repeated.
Take care of the earth and she will take care of you. ~Author Unknown
DIM DOWN THE LIGHTS! However, Juergen did not feel it was enough to stop there. He took on the task of printing 1,000 plus brochures and distributed them throughout the community, educating people about the birds’ plight and asking residents to dim any unnecessary lights at night. He wasn’t sure at first how people would react but he soon found that they were only too willing to help, and the “Dim Down the Lights Program” was born!
THE TOWNSPEOPLE SIGN UP! And, it wasn’t long before the townspeople people wanted to help in any way that they possibly could and were eager to enlist in Juergen’s “Puffin Patrol” setting out to find the birds that have fallen on town streets and in backyards during the night. The pufflings are placed in boxes with plenty of air holes and transported back to their sheds where they are cared for overnight and released back into the wild the next morning. Apparently, there is a right way to release a puffin back into their environment – the pufflings must be held so their wings are free and flapping before they are ‘thrown’ so they can properly take flight. Once they take that first dive, after being given a second chance, they are well on their way to living a long life.
DID YOU KNOW? Puffins flap their wings at great speed (up to 400 beats per minute) and can reach flying speeds up to 55 miles per hour? They can dive to depths of 200 feet and spend most of their lives at sea. They even have a flying technique for underwater. Puffins find it easier to fly underwater since their wings are small.
Puffins return to land only in springtime, gradually building up their colonies as the egg-laying season draws nearer. They nest in underground burrows well out of sight, several feet into the cliff and close to the cliff-top, allowing the parent birds to fly in quickly and then escape again to sea, giving their predators less opportunity to attack them. The nests are often carefully lined with bits of soft, dead plant material to cushion the eggs, which are usually laid in early May.
A puffin egg resembles closely that of a hen’s egg. Both parents dutifully take a turn in incubating the egg for up to six weeks. Near the end of July and early August, although the pufflings are not fully grown, they have reached about 70% of the adult’s weight and can fly reasonably well. They are still vulnerable prey, however, for gulls and eagles so they must leave the nest at night, working their way down to the cliff-edge and taking off in the darkness. They go by themselves and are out of sight of land by day-break. From hereon in, they are on their own and begin their journey. The young puffins remain at sea for up to two years. From the age of two onward, the young spend more and more time at the colony in summer, searching for a prospective mate and borough. Most puffins do not start to breed until they have reached age five! The breeding success of Puffins is not very high; on average each pair rears a chick every two years and less than one in five of these young survive to reach breeding age. It seems that once they have attained breeding age, they are long-lived birds.
THE LIFE OF A PUFFIN Puffins eat mostly small fish and, if all goes well in the wild, they can live up to 20 years. There are even reports in some parts of the world of puffins who have lived to be 34 and 38 years old!
PUFFIN, THE PUFFIN – WHO’S GOT THE PUFFIN?! The children of Witless Bay and surrounding communities are so immersed in the experience of saving the beautiful and loveable puffins, they even name each rescued bird! In the early days of the Puffin Patrol, it was not unusual to save up to 20 birds in one night. These numbers have now greatly reduced to just two or three, and on some nights none – proof the puffin program is working!
AN UNLIKELY HERO What many people may not know is that for some 15 years, Jeurgen was Managing Director for Sony Pictures Entertainment’s numerous companies which include Global Entertainment Productions and Tri-Star Films in Germany and Austria (Sony’s largest market outside North America) and was responsible for budgets over 100 billion dollars. Throughout his high-profile Hollywood film career, he worked with many famous writers, directors, producers, managers and actors including the likes of Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, John Travolta, Will Smith, Susan Sarandon, Drew Barrymore, Jane Fonda, Cameron Diaz, Jodie Foster and more… And, he has driven a Morgan sports car for over 30 years, travelled the world, is active in many charities, and is a keen protector of whales.
I asked Jeurgen why he and Elfie choose to live a simpler life here in Newfoundland and why he looks out for the puffins.
Jeurgen and Elfie’s home in Germany is in Berlin, where most of Jeurgen’s work takes him. Thanks to the internet, Jeurgen is able to coordinate his work at home in Europe from his Newfoundland home. When Jeurgen and Elfie are not in Germany or Hollywood, they love to spend their winters in Uruguay and in Baja California, where they have a keen interest in protecting grey whales. Juergen told me that he has made some 30 trips to Newfoundland in the past 14 years – Air Canada loves them! 🙂
The Puffin Patrol is now on and it’s a busy time in Witless Bay! Thank you Juergen and Elfie! We love you both for all that you do.
If you have these beautiful birds where you live, please visit the website below to learn how you can help make a difference. And, if you’d like to become part of the local Puffin Patrol, click on the link below:
NTV News Item
<a title=”NTV Puffin Video” href=”http://http://www.youtube.com/embed/iztEpiesSk8“>NTV News Video