CANNON BEACH - The eagle landed and the tufted puffins took off. It almost looked like they wouldn't be hanging around Haystack Rock Thursday morning for their big "welcome home" celebration.

But by the time the Cannon Beach students arrived on the beach with their banner that said, "Welcome Back Puffins from the kids at Cannon Beach Elementary School," some of the black and white birds with orange bills and yellow tufts had returned.

They may have wanted to hear the children, many wearing puffin masks, sing a song they have practiced for weeks. To the tune of "The Muffin Man," they sang:

"Have you seen the puffin, man?

the puffin, man,

the puffin, man...."

They sang other verses asking if anyone had seen the puffin fly, nest, fish and dive. Then they shouted at the end, "Welcome back puffins!"

But that wasn't the end of the homecoming celebration. There were still telescopes to peek through, sand sculptures to make and a game to play.

The "Welcome Home Puffin" celebration launched the beginning of Cannon Beach's 12 Days of Earth Days event, which runs through next week and culminates with the "Spring Unveiling" arts festival April 30 through May 2.

Scoping them outAfter greeting the puffins, the children lined up at the telescopes. They peered intently at Haystack Rock, looking at the birds flying around it and those tucked snugly on their nests, or burrows, on the rock face.

"I saw a puffin," said Everest Sibony, 6. "He was in his burrow, but I still saw him."

After taking their turns at the telescope, the children answered a questionnaire. Did they see a puffin? How many? How are the puffins flying: in a straight line, weaving back and forth, in a circle, rising and falling or some other way?

Emma Phillips, 5, spread out her arms and pumped them up and down, resembling a bird in flight when asked how the puffins were flying.

"They were flapping their wings," she said. "Up and down, up and down."

Her friend, Aamiah Trine, 9, said she had seen one puffin flying and two on a rock. "They have black and white on their heads, pinkish orange legs and yellow right here," she said, pointing to the area behind her ears where the tufts are.

After viewing the puffins, the students next captured their images in the sand. As they scooped up the cold, wet sand, piled it and shaped it, they tried to figure how to create the bird's round, stubby beak and short, chunky body. Their teachers handed out bits of yellow twine to act as the tufts.

"I'm making a giant one," said one boy, searching for some rocks. "I need huge eyes."

Being puffin parentsFrom the sculpture area, the children headed toward the "feeding" area. It was time to play a game: They would be puffin parents, dig a hole in the sand representing the burrow and head out to find sticks, representing "fish," for their puffin babies.

The only problem: They had to dodge their predators, sharks and eagles. Their predators, however, looked much like their parents and other adults in the community who swooped down on the children, tapping them on the shoulder and forcing them to drop the "fish" they had collected to take back to their nests.

"It gets your heart racing," said Jeff Poling, of Cannon Beach, who "flew" with the eagles and chased the kids. "We had some fast puffins and slow eagles."

At the end of the game, where many of the "burrows" dug in the sand were filled with "fish sticks," Kristen Wizzard, staff interpreter for the Haystack Rock Awareness Program, told the junior puffins the "feeding day" was over.

"You've done an awesome job collecting fish," Wizzard said. "You now are the proud parents of the puffin family."

Although Nala Cardillo, director of the Haystack Rock Awareness Program, has counted 21 puffins at Haystack Rock this year, she's not sure how the count compares to previous years. However, she has heard that the puffin population is much less along the coast than previous years.

"I have heard there were 200 to 300 puffins here 10 years ago," Cardillo said.

A volunteer from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will begin a puffin count at Haystack Rock on May 17. She will continue to count until the puffins until the chicks "fledge," or leave the nest, to forage for themselves.

It's unknown why the puffin population is going down, Cardillo said.

"There's no smoking gun," she added. "It can be due to a number of complex factors. I wonder what is happening to their food sources - are they being affected by climate change or acidity in the ocean? Are there fewer fish, is it due to man-made actions like oil spills in the ocean, are there more predators?"

Puffins will lay only one egg a year. If that egg is disturbed, it may not hatch. That is one reason that people are prohibited from climbing the rock, which is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife seabird nesting colony.

As the welcome ceremony wrapped up, Cardillo asked the students what they had learned. At the telescopes, they learned, said one student, "All puffins really do have tufts." At the sand, they discovered that "puffins are very small" and in the game, it struck them that "it's hard work for them to feed their chicks."

They know their puffinsJeff Jewel, director of the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce, who helped to organize the event, expressed surprise at how much the children knew.

"The kids are full of puffin knowledge," Jewel said. "One girl saw a puffin in the scope and practically shrieked, 'I saw them, I love them.'"


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