Closely related to the Tufted Puffin, another interesting but fairly rare seabird here, the more numerous Rhinoceros Auklet is fun to watch as it swims about with a mouth full of forage fish. That crazy horn grows during breeding season, but drops off in winter. With two light feather tuffs streaming along the head, it’s a fun bird to paint. They nest in burrows, mainly on Protection Island west of Port Townsend with a second large colony on Smith Island, that rock pile and lighthouse west of Whidbey Island. Nest burrows can be twenty feet long and fork several times, leading to a nice little mossy nook with only one chick, fed by both parents and usually at night so the comings-and-goings are safe.
Rhinos often feed by diving along tide lines and current channels where small fish such as sandlance and herring congregate. It’s a mystery to me how these birds can catch not just one slippery fish, but often half a dozen. In the Seattle Aquarium, I’ve watched them reach amazing speeds by “flying” underwater using their wings for propulsion. I think they must grab one fish, and with tongue holding it firmly in place, go after another, and another, until there are a pile of fish hanging out of both sides the bill. Now, think of how YOU get your food and eat it, and you’ll admire the skills of this fisher-extraordinaire.
Larry Eifert paints and writes about wild places. His work is in many national parks across America – and at larryeifert.com.