Project Puffin: restoring seabirds to Gulf of Maine

Cute, cuddly, penguin-looking waddlers, Atlantic puffins spend years at sea, returning to barren islands only to breed.

It's not the treacherous footing visitors notice first. It's the racket. The wailing, squawking, cackling, and screeching drowns out even the crashing of the waves on this rocky seven-acre island about five miles off Maine's coast.

The aptly named laughing gulls cause most of the noise, but the island also harbors a sizable colony of Atlantic puffins, three species of terns, and four or five humans - none of which would be here without the efforts of Steve Kress and his staff at Project Puffin.

When Dr. Kress first came to work in this area of Maine 30 years ago, as an instructor at the Audubon Society's Hog Island Camp, Eastern Egg Rock hadn't seen puffins since 1885. Fishermen had decimated Maine's puffin population, and the only remaining colony in the state was on Matinicus Rock. The tern populations - arctic, common, and roseate - were also sliding fast, toward what Kress believes would have been extinction on the Maine islands by the 1990s.

Instead, puffins are back on Eastern Egg Rock and Seal Island, and visitors need to keep their eyes glued to the ground to avoid crushing a tern egg or chick.

"One of the exciting things about the project is showing people can really make a difference and increase diversity," says Kress. "It's hard for some people to understand," he adds. "They like to see the balance of nature restored. But that's not really a valid concept today.... If we want diversity of species, we have to be active stewards."

Today, active stewardship on the six islands where the Audubon Society's Project Puffin works means 56 people - permanent staff, summer interns, island supervisors, volunteers - taking care of logistics and doing the day-to-day research and resource management.

Those based on the islands typically spend two three-hour stints each day in bird blinds, carefully monitoring the feeding habits, numbers, productivity, and breeding activity of the puffins and terns. The idea of spending weeks on a tiny island, without running water, modern plumbing, or even the ability to walk around freely may sound like punishment to most people, but to the volunteers and interns here, it's heaven.

Ellen Peterson, an environmental-studies major heading into her final semester at Prescott College in Prescott, Ariz., says her internship has been the field-study experience she was looking for. Even the long hours in the blinds never get tedious.

"I learn something new about [the terns'] behavior every day," she says. Laughing spontaneously as one tern chick tries to emulate its parent's behavior, she adds: "I wonder how many people sit and giggle at their jobs."

When she gets called over later to help band a puffin, her eyes are wide as she helps Kress take measurements and record the data of the newly named U68. Even Kress, who's handled hundreds of puffins in the past 30 years, admits that "it's always a thrill."

It's also a thrill for him to see just how successful his dream has been. For this was a project that took years of patience and faith.

Initially, Kress based the reintroduction on two ideas, neither of which he could be certain would work. After spending their first years at sea, puffins tend to return for breeding to the place where they were raised. He also knew that for birds who nest in colonies, seeing other birds is important.

Since no puffins lived on Eastern Egg Rock, Kress built lifelike decoys and used sound effects - more important in the case of the terns than for the puffins - to create the appearance of a colony. The decoys lure the first birds, who, in turn, lure more.

The method has become known as "social attraction," a phrase coined by Kress, and has since been used successfully in many other reintroduction projects: murres in California, short-tailed albatross on Midway Island, dark-rumped petrels in the Galapagos.

Kress brought the first six pufflings down from Great Island, Newfoundland, in 1973, transporting them in a day and raising them in makeshift sod burrows. "We just had to invent the techniques as we went and hope that it would work," he says.

Over the next 13 years, Kress brought some 950 more chicks down, 95 percent of which successfully fledged. It wasn't until 1977, however, that the first adult puffins began to return to Eastern Egg Rock.

And this year marked the 20th anniversary of the first recorded puffin feeding on the island - the hoped-for sign that the project was working.

Just bringing the birds back, though, isn't necessarily enough to keep them there, and Kress acknowledges that this is a program with no end in sight. The most recent management issue is the gulls.

If Project Puffin were to stop working on Egg Rock today, Kress says, the gulls would take over the island in a few years, displacing first the terns, then the puffins.

To keep the project going, he relies on private funding. The "Adopt-a-Puffin" program he developed ( even pairs donors with individual birds, providing photographs, statistics, and updates on the birds every year.

Puffins, while threatened in Maine, are not an endangered species, but Kress sees purpose in the project beyond just restoring the birds to their original habitat.

Some 10 percent of the world's seabirds are threatened or endangered, including roseate terns, and the Audubon Society's efforts in the Gulf of Maine serve as a model for helping these species. In addition, says Kress, the birds serve as indicators for the abundance of fish and the health of the ocean.

"As long as they're doing well, we can have some confidence that the environment is doing well," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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