When I was a kid, my family would take summer road trips to the Oregon Coast, where a favorite stop was always Haystack Rock on Cannon Beach. The 250-foot-high, grassy behemoth of an outcropping just off the coast is a prominent backdrop in old family photos.
What I didn't realize back then was just how important a sanctuary this rock was for rare seabirds. I discovered that while on a recent reporting trip in Oregon, when I had a few hours to spare and decided to make the nostalgic, winding drive on U.S. Route 26 from Portland to Cannon Beach.
There was that rock shrouded in mist just as I remembered it. And the beach was just as popular, crawling with people, only now visitors were taking iPhone selfies with the rock in the background rather than using old Nikon cameras. A small crowd was gathered around a tall, bearded man in a fleece vest, clutching binoculars and standing by a pair of high-powered scopes on tripods trained on the rock.
"Well, they're up there somewhere," Art Broszeit said, softly, as he patiently scanned the rock, looking for the elusive tufted puffin.
Cannon Beach locals have nicknamed Broszeit the "Puffin Man," a citizen scientist and de facto expert on the exotic cold climate birds that are becoming harder and harder to find.
Broszeit is actually one of tens of thousands of volunteers that agencies like the National Park Service rely on every year to conduct wildlife studies, field surveys, or in this case man a pop-up, mobile interpretive center about tufted puffins on Cannon Beach.
"Everyone wants to come here and see puffins," Broszeit said. "I've had people specifically go to Iceland to see puffins and don't see them." But they're relatively easy to see in Oregon most summers. In fact, this may be one of the most accessible places in the world to get a glimpse of one.
They're amazing. They have black and white faces, black bellies and a bright orange bill that has hooks in it that enable them to catch and hold fish. Right now, during the mating season, both the males and females have grown their signature "tuft," which looks like a strand of coiffed blond hair.
"For such a small bird, they're pretty tough," Broszeit says, as he spots one taking flight from the rock. "They live out 100 miles off the shoreline here and the young ones, they'll spend their first four years out there."
There used to be hundreds of puffins nesting on the rock. This summer, the local Haystack Rock Awareness Program estimates there are only 30. One reason there are fewer birds, according to scientists, is that their food source is becoming harder to reach due to climate change. The puffins are a diving bird, sometimes plunging 40 feet or deeper into the ocean to catch fish. As ocean temperatures warm, those fish are going deeper down to survive.
"So the fish are going down deeper into colder water and a lot of the birds just can't reach them," Broszeit says.
So I was glad I decided to return to Cannon Beach to see them while I still can. We also spotted a bald eagle, cormorants, black oystercatchers and cliff swallows.
I remembered how cool it was to explore the vast tide pools beneath the rock too when I was a kid. I was reassured to find that this clearly hasn't changed when I caught up with Connor Reblkin and his family, on a summer road trip from their home in the Canadian province of British Columbia.
"I'd like to live up there, wouldn't you?" Connor asked.
Watching over it all, Art Broszeit beams. Whether he's looking for puffins or answering questions from curious beachgoers, he says it's great to volunteer and give back, especially when it comes to getting people interested in science.
"If I can spark interest in one or two young people to enjoy the outdoors, and look through the binoculars, it's a good day for me," he says.
Broszeit, a retired engineer, has volunteered at public lands sites from the Everglades in Florida to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado. He counts his latest four-month stint here on the Oregon Coast among his favorites.
So what's next for the Puffin Man? Maybe home for a little bit of a break and then it's on to pick a new wild place to enjoy with visitors.
As for me, my short road trip diversion is over and it's back to my actual reporting beat. It's hard not to feel a little nostalgia driving away. I know I can come back — but I wonder how long that will be true for the tufted puffins?
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One of the biggest tourist attractions on the Oregon coast is Haystack Rock. I'm looking at pictures now - wow, a monolithic rock at the edge of the ocean covered in grass surrounded by tidal pools. But the main thing visitors want to see is the puffins who live there. A volunteer has styled himself as the Puffin Man to help tourists reach their goal. Our intrepid correspondent Kirk Siegler went to a Haystack Rock to meet him.
(SOUNDBITE OF SQUAWKING SEAGULLS)
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In a fleece vest, clutching binocs (ph), meet Art Broszeit.
ART BROSZEIT: Yeah, I've just recently been called, by the locals, the Puffin Man (laughter).
SIEGLER: He's one of tens of thousands of volunteers that the Park Service relies on every year to conduct wildlife field surveys, staff visitors centers and things like this mobile interpretive center on the beach next to a Haystack Rock. We're looking through a pair of high-powered spotting scopes trained on its grassy slopes...
BROSZEIT: They're up there somewhere.
SIEGLER: ...Trying to spot the elusive tufted puffin.
BROSZEIT: I see them flying. There's one flying there. A lot of times what happens is they come right out of their burrow and they just take flight.
SIEGLER: This is about as far south as you'll still find the puffins, which burrow in and nest on this rock in the summer. They're cute - their black bellies, a bright orange bill, black and white faces, and the yellow tuft which looks like a strand of coiffed blond hair. The males and females grow the tufts during the mating season.
BROSZEIT: For such a small bird, they're pretty tough because they live out 100 miles off the shoreline here. And the young ones, you know, they'll spend the first four years out there.
SIEGLER: Art volunteers out here all summer and has met people who have trekked long distances to see these birds.
BROSZEIT: Everybody wants to come here and see puffins. I've had people that specifically go to Iceland to see puffins and don't see them. And, you know, and I'd have them down here, and I try my best to give them a view of a puffin.
SIEGLER: There used to be hundreds of puffins nesting on this rock. This summer, the official count is 30. One reason - their food source is becoming harder to reach due to climate change.
BROSZEIT: The puffin's a diving bird. They dive down typically 40 to 60 feet. And so the fish - you know, the upper water - the upper parts of the ocean are warming. So the fish go down deeper into colder water, and a lot of the birds just can't reach them.
SIEGLER: So you'd better come see the tufted puffin while you still can.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, I see a bird.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Dude, that bird's chilling.
SIEGLER: There are plenty of other birds to see too - cormorants, black oystercatchers, cliff swallows.
BROSZEIT: Oh, there's a bald eagle. There's a bald eagle right there.
SIEGLER: Art says Haystack Rock is the eagles' dinner table, so most of the other birds take flight.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)
SIEGLER: The eagles, the puffins, the waves and especially the tide pools beneath Haystack Rock are a hit with kids like Connor Reblkin. Connor is visiting from British Columbia, and it's his first time seeing Haystack Rock.
CONNOR REBLKIN: I'd like to live up there.
CONNOR: Yeah. Wouldn't you?
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)
BROSZEIT: Up there - they're the black and white ones that kind of resemble a penguin.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK.
BROSZEIT: So right now, I'm not seeing any puffins, but...
SIEGLER: Art Broszeit says, whether he's out looking for puffins or just answering questions from beachgoers, his is a great summer gig.
BROSZEIT: If I can spark interest in one or two young people, you know, to enjoy, you know, the outdoors and looking through binoculars and stuff like that, it's a good day for me.
SIEGLER: Puffin Man is winding down his summer volunteer stint. Soon he'll look for another wild place to enjoy with visitors.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A family of science engineers.
SIEGLER: Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Cannon Beach, Ore.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, we say that a particular stretch of the Oregon coast is about as far south as you'll see a tufted puffin. In fact, tufted puffins are also found farther south at the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.