Los Farallones

Dispatches from Point Blue’s field station on the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge

A Peculiar Puffin

The Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge is well known for the many species of seabirds which roost and breed here. Maybe the most charismatic of these species (and the one most sought by visitors on the sightseeing boats) is the Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata). These dapper birds with their clownish bills and resplendent golden locks have been decreasing throughout much of their range, but are doing well at the Farallones. On a good morning, many can be seen roosting high on the hills and flying back and forth to gather fish for their waiting chicks.

Tufted Puffin landing by the Cormorant Blind on Southeast Farallon Island. Copyright Mario Balitbit, Point Blue Conservation Science.


However, on the morning of June 30th, the crew was alerted to a different kind of puffin. While sitting on Lighthouse Hill during a Pigeon Guillemot diet watch, one of our biologists spotted a HORNED PUFFIN (Fratercula corniculata) flying loops around Lighthouse Hill.

Horned Puffin flying over the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Copyright Mario Balitbit, Point Blue Conservation Science.


This bulky bodied alcid (family of seabirds that includes murres, guillemots, auklets, and puffins) has a white breast and face which can resemble that of a Common Murre, but its large triangular yellow and red tipped bill make this unmistakable for an adult Horned Puffin. It also has thin black wattles that protrude from the fleshy area above their eye and taper at the tips making them appear horn-like, hence their name.

Close-up view of the Horned Puffin showing the fleshy horns above the eyes. Copyright Pete Warzybok, Point Blue Conservation Science.


Horned Puffins are close relatives of the breeding Tufted Puffins but are much rarer to see this far south. Horned Puffins primarily breed along the British Columbia coastline, throughout the islands of Southeast Alaska, and at various locations along the Eastern Russian coastline. Only about 30 Horned Puffins have ever been seen here.

Range map for Horned Puffin generated by eBird based on sightings between 2015 and 2020. Note the red circle depicting previous Farallon sightings.


This individual may have been a failed breeder from one of these regions, or could have been the same adult individual that has been seen in past years (most recently 2018) but was overlooked among the thousands of seabirds that fly and forage around the island. Although it is impossible to know where this bird came from or why it is here when it should be breeding somewhere in Alaska, the island crew was extremely excited to see it. Having a two species puffin day is quite the treat for the California coast and created a rush of excitement for us hard at work biologists and interns.

Horned Puffin resting on Lighthouse Hill. Copyright Pete Warzybok, Point Blue Conservation Science.


Unfortunately one member of the Point Blue crew did not get to see this colorful billed gem that day. But not to worry, just a few weeks later during another Pigeon Guillemot diet watch the Horned Puffin made an appearance over Blowhole Peninsula which allowed our final member to catch a glimpse of it in all of its glory. Since then, it has continued to be observed almost daily around the island for the last few weeks, giving a brief thrill to the crew whenever it passes by.