Atlantic puffins off the coast of Maine. (Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region/flickr)

For years, Atlantic puffins could be spotted on land in coastal Maine during their breeding season, from May to August, elegant in the water, endearingly awkward on land.

Scientists could only guess where the birds went the other eight months of the year.

But on Tuesday, researchers said the mystery had been solved–puffins migrate hundreds of miles off New York and New Jersey, it turns out, in an area of the ocean known for sea mountains, deep canyons, and, for the birds, plentiful amounts of food.

The findings, announced by The National Audubon Society, came more than five years after researchers attached dozens of geolocators to the birds, in the hopes of tracking their whereabouts.

They recovered 19 of the geolocators last year, finding that puffins spend most of their winters out at sea.

“A surprise to many is that adult puffins spend about eight months resting and sleeping on the waves,” says Stephen Kress, who led the research. “They can drink salt water and eat under waves too. Young puffins are even more ocean going, spending at least the first two years of life on the water without ever stepping foot onto land.”

The birds nearly disappeared from Maine in the 1800s because of hunting and egg collecting, but they have since made a comeback. Kress says the Audubon’s research was an important step in preserving puffins’ future. 

“The discovery that Maine’s puffins winter over submerged Atlantic canyons and sea mountains provides another reason to protect these areas, and better understand what needs to be done to reverse population declines,” Kress adds.