An Atlantic puffin was rescued from the beach in Ponce Inlet, Florida
© Michael BrothersAn Atlantic puffin was rescued from the beach in Ponce Inlet, Florida and treated at the Volusia County Marine Science Center's Mary Keller Seabird Rehabilitation Sanctuary, but did not survive its emaciated condition.
Atlantic puffins arrive on beaches more than 1,000 miles from home

One question keeps surfacing this month, as reports of a certain quirky and beloved seabird keep popping up along Florida's east coast: A puffin?

The black and white seabirds with the bright orange beaks are almost unheard of anywhere in the Southeast, but at least four puffins have been seen along Florida's east coast beaches since Feb. 8, shocking bird rescuers and others.

Bird watchers know one of the easiest places to see an Atlantic puffin is to head for the islands off the coast of Maine, but something odd has happened this winter.

A flurry of seabirds usually seen most often off the Northeastern coast - including puffins, razorbills and dovekies - have surprised birdwatchers along the Southeastern coast from the Carolinas to Florida. Experts say the birds' wayward path could possibly be linked to offshore storms or winds that stirred up colder water near the coast.

Before February, only five Atlantic puffin sightings had ever been reported in Florida, all weakened birds found stranded on beaches, said Andrew Kratter, collections manager of birds at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Since Feb. 8, four puffins have been seen along the coast south of Daytona Beach. Two of those birds, also found stranded on the beach have died, too emaciated to recover.

The sighting of even one puffin "really is amazing," said Michael Brothers, a member of the Florida Ornithological Society's records committee and a retired manager of a sea turtle and bird rehabilitation facility in Florida. "The fact that there are four reports now is really extraordinary."

Two puffins treated at Florida rehab centers

When the phone rang on Feb. 8 at the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station in Miami, the staff was shocked to learn Miami Beach Fire Rescue was delivering a puffin that two lifeguards found on South Beach. A puffin? In Miami Beach?

Rehabilitation manager Yaritza Acosta was incredulous when she heard they were getting a puffin.

"I was initially like no, they must have misidentified it. It can't be possible," she said. "But then my intake manager showed me the picture and I said nope, that's a puffin."

When she went to work the morning after the bird was delivered, she picked the puffin up out of the box to carefully stretch its wings looking for anything obviously wrong, thinking she couldn't believe she was actually holding a puffin.

The bird, emaciated and weak, was unable to recover.

About 2,000 animals a year are treated at the non-profit rehabilitation center, said communications director Hannah McDougall. But this was the first puffin in the station's 44-year history.

"I think everyone was kind of in shock and disbelief," McDougall said. Though excited to see such a "rare and beautiful bird," the staff and volunteers also wondered how it ended up so far south.

How did the puffins find their way to Florida?

Given an upwelling of colder than usual water shown on sea surface temperature maps along most of the Atlantic Coast right now, Brothers figures the seabirds might have been just following fish until finding themselves far off course.

Puffins spend most of their lives at sea, eating small fish, less than six inches long, such as sand lance and herring.

Cold water is good for bringing fish up to the surface, said Kratter, also a member of the state ornithological society's records committee.

There's been "a huge movement" of seabirds in the auk and puffin family along the coast since January, Kratter said.

Dovekies were found along the Atlantic Coast as far south as the Carolinas after a January storm, according to Facebook posts from Audubon Society chapters and wildlife rehabilitation centers.

Birders on a boat trip off Tybee Island, Georgia, reported seeing 88 razorbills, Kratter said.

Conditions have been rough along the Atlantic Coast with a couple of big storms causing high tides and windy conditions from Maine southward in January and February.

Several periods of longshore currents produced by northerly winds have been seen off Florida's east coast, said Robert Haley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Melbourne, Florida. Those winds and currents could be causing upwelling that might explain the lower water temperatures between the coast and the Gulf Stream, Haley said.

A similar event with displaced seabirds happened with razorbills during the winter of 2012-2013, Kratter said. Thousands were seen in Miami Beach and South Florida. Many of the birds died.

Kratter said experts thought the deadly event might have been related to Superstorm Sandy, which they speculated may have depleted fish stocks offshore of the Northeast coast for months.

Something similar might have happened offshore this year, he said. The seabirds "get to where they want to spend the winter and there's not enough fish there to support them, so they keep going south until they find fish."

Given the four puffins seen along the beach, Brothers said it's likely there were considerably more puffins offshore.

Where were the other puffins found in Florida?

The four puffin sightings occurred over four days between Feb. 8 and Feb. 19.

On Feb. 10, a woman alerted a wildlife rehab group on Facebook with a picture she'd taken of a puffin on the beach at Patrick Space Force base in Brevard County, Florida. When rescuers went back to find it, the bird had vanished.

On Feb. 16, a puffin was found on the beach in Ponce Inlet, and taken to the nearby Mary Keller Seabird Rehabilitation sanctuary, an animal hospital at the Volusia County Marine Science Center. It also died. Brothers, a retired manager of the science center, said almost all birds that strand on the beach are seriously underweight and suffering from a range of ailments that could include parasites, exhaustion or starvation.

On Feb. 19, a birdwatcher posted to eBird a photo of a puffin in flight at Canaveral National Seashore, also in Brevard County, Florida.

To have all of these sightings in less than a two-week period is "really crazy," Kratter said.