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Annual rescue of pufflings — baby puffins — underway in Witless Bay

A rescue group at a Newfoundland bird sanctuary has turned into something of a tourist attraction, with people from all over looking for the chance to rescue baby puffins — or “pufflings.”

The Witless Bay Puffin & Petrel Patrol was founded by Juergen and Elfie Schau, who travel from Berlin every summer to help save the birds.

It was something they started doing after first visiting the area in 2004.

Schau holds a chick he rescued in this photo from 2016. (Puffin & Petrel Patrol/Facebook)

“We were walking down the roads and we saw several dead birds in the morning, and we wondered what happened,” said Juergen Schau, recalling his first encounter with the puffins.

Pufflings, on their first trip away from their parent’s nests, will venture out toward the ocean in search of food.

A large crowd gathered to celebrate the launch of the annual Puffin & Petrel Patrol on Wednesday. The season to rescue baby puffins begins this week. Later in the month, the group will start to rescue petrels. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

The night-blind birds will follow the light of the moon, but with increasing amounts of artificial lights in the area — like streetlights and headlights — they end up in lethal danger, often being hit by vehicles.

After much research, Juergen says he found that if the puffins were collected at night and released the next day, they’d have a much better chance of survival.

Schau, who founded the puffin patrol with his wife Elfie, is affectionately referred to as the Puffin Man. He estimates that over 10,000 puffins have been rescued since the patrol began in 2004. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

“Elfie and me at the beginning, we bought a little butterfly light, and a flashlight, and a glove, and then we saved the little birds who are standing where there is light,” he said.

The two of them would keep the puffins in cases overnight, and then release them when it was safe for them in the morning.

Since the group was founded, it’s become a bucket-list item for locals and tourists alike.

From left to right: Emma Burton, Sarah Burton, Sue Dougherty and Jillian Smith are all smiles as they prepare for their first puffin patrol. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Emma Burton, Sarah Burton, Sue Dougherty and Jillian Smith, from Pennsylvania and Boston, are in Witless Bay this week for four night of rescuing birds.

Dougherty read an article about puffins and pufflings a few years ago, and put rescuing one on her bucket list. This year, she brought her family to help.

“While we know it’s better if we don’t find puffins, we would like to rescue one,” said Sarah Burton.

Elan Failing, left, and Kathy Unger comb the area surrounding the BGI Crab Plant in Witless Bay for any signs of puffins. Failing came to St. John’s from Vancouver to work on the Puffin Patrol with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

“I’m just here for an adventure and to find some birds,” said Jillian Smith.

“We’ll try to keep our excitement to a minimum and try to keep calm if we do find one, because I think that will be important for the birds.”

The family was part of the 70 people who visited Long Pond Beach on Wednesday for the official launch of this year’s patrol, and picked up nets and cases at O’Briens Whale Watching Tours to start the watch for another year.

Street lights like this one can be a beacon for pufflings. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

It may still be a little early in the season for puffins to be roaming the streets, so these plush replicas might be the next best thing. The patrol will be ongoing every night until mid-September, and interested rescuers can pick up equipment at O’Briens Whale and Bird Tours between 9 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. each evening. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Finding the pufflings can be a tricky business. Here, a member of the puffin patrol shines a flashlight under two transport trucks to look for any signs of the small bird. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Joan Hutchings has been part of the patrol for four years now, saying there’s nothing quite like rescuing your first chick. ‘It just feels so good to know that you’ve saved it and it’s going to be released to live.’ (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

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