In 1497, a man named John Cabot set sail from England in search of Asian spices but instead found a rugged Canadian coastline and islands teeming with plump, colorful seabirds known as Atlantic puffins. More than five centuries later, a puffin nicknamed Cabot has taken researchers on an unprecedented electronic voyage into the previously unknown wintering waters of birds bred on the North American side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin, which has been restoring puffins to Maine islands since the 1970s, put geolocators on eight birds on Seal Island in the summer of 2009. Last summer, interns captured two of the birds and downloaded the data from the devices. Of the two birds, Cabot, a male at least eight years old, had the most amazing journey. During the fall, winter, and spring of 2009-10 and 2010-11, Cabot traveled so far north into the harsh Labrador Sea that he was at the latitudes of Greenland and the southern tip of Baffin Island. Then he went nearly as far south as Bermuda. One of the eight-month trips from Seal Island covered 4,800 miles.
That was particularly impressive to scientists because flying puffins beat their wings between 300 and 400 times a minute, expending far more energy than seabirds that soar. Cabot’s journey is an exciting reminder how oceans that seem vast to humans are an everyday backyard for the natural world. The original Cabot would have been quite impressed with the ability of the puffin to chart such a course, yet return unfailingly to the Maine island of his birth.