Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Atlantic Puffin - Fratercula arctica
ALCIDAE Members:
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General Comments The Atlantic Puffin is one of the most charismatic waterbirds in North America, very popular with the layman; one of the birding highlights is a visit to a nesting colony of puffins in Maine or the Canadian Maritimes. For the longest time, this species went unrecorded in North Carolina waters, even though it was being seen regularly on pelagic trips off Virginia Beach, Virginia, less than 25 miles north of the state line. Part of the difficulty in finding the species in our waters was the difficulty in reaching this cold water zone on a one-day pelagic trip. Oddly enough, the first puffin record for the state was seen in Aug, completely out of season! Thankfully, an increase in winter season pelagic trips to cold waters, including several departing Virginia Beach and heading southeast into North Carolina waters, has turned up puffins on a number of recent trips. The species is clearly increasing in Atlantic waters in recent decades. The species is being seen on North Carolina pelagic trips almost every winter in the past few years, and there are now several single-day counts in triple digits, starting in Feb 2022. Puffins are even being seen (rarely) from shore in the state, at least at Cape Hatteras Point; they forage well offshore, often 20 or more miles from the coastline.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Winter visitor/resident, essentially only offshore; greatly increasing in recent years. Formerly very rare, but now uncommon and increasing, off the northern coast (Cape Hatteras northward); casual farther south. Remarkable numbers were recorded on pelagic trips out of Oregon Inlet in Feb 2022, and some were even seen from shore in that month. Mainly from late Jan to late Feb (if not later, as practically no trips are taken in Mar). Additional records are one emaciated bird found on the beach at Atlantic Beach (Carteret) on 27 Feb 2013 [Chat 77:56 link]; two photographed from shore at Cape Lookout, 9 Mar 2010 [Chat 74:90 link]; one found injured on Topsail Beach on 28 Mar 2005 [Chat 69:116 link]; one in breeding plumage seen off Oregon Inlet on 14 Aug 1993 [Chat 59:93-94 link]; one found at Buxton (Dare) and taken to a wildlife rehabilitator, where collected, in early Jan 2020; and one found dead at Atlantic Beach, 23 Feb 2022. Slightly "inland" was one seen in Barden Inlet from the ferry to Cape Lookout (Carteret) on 12 Apr 2021. Peak counts: 302, off Oregon Inlet, 21 Feb 2022; 222, off Oregon Inlet, 19 Feb 2023; 166, off that inlet, 7 Feb 2022; 146, off that inlet, 18 Feb 2024; 118, off that inlet, 19 Feb 2022; 91, off Hatteras Inlet, 16 Feb 2020; 83, counted from Cape Hatteras Point, 16 Feb 2022, with 55 counted there on 1 Mar and 81 there on 9 Mar; 31, off Hatteras Inlet, 19 Feb 2005; 24, off Hatteras Inlet, 18 Feb 2001; 20, off Hatteras Inlet, 10 Jan 2011; 19, off Brunswick close to the South Carolina border, 20 Feb 2005 (N.A. Birds 59:251).
Piedmont No records.
Mountains No records.
Finding Tips Take a pelagic trip out of Hatteras or Oregon inlets in winter. In recent winters, several trips usually encounter the species; it was seen on all six trips in Jan-Feb 2018 and all five in Feb 2024, though you should assume your chances are around 50-50 on a winter trip.
Attribution LeGrand[2024-05-11], LeGrand[2023-05-17], LeGrand[2023-03-13]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.