Reporting From Puffin-Land in Mid-Coast Maine
When I first came to work as an instructor for adults at the Audubon Ecology Camp in Maine 40 years ago, I didn’t know the difference between a puffin and a popover. If a puffin had fallen out of the sky, dead, and landed at my feet, I would have had no idea what this strange and unusual-looking bird was. Since puffins are a Maine wildlife icon, along with the moose, the loon, and the lobster, I was clearly an out-of-stater and incredibly naïve about important topics of discussion. After a week or two at camp, however, I came to find out that puffins in mid-coast Maine are viewed as an especially attractive and charismatic North Atlantic seabird which few people in this part of the state have actually seen in the wild. I also found out that one of my new colleagues was working on a program to bring puffins back to the area.
I soon met Steve Kress, the originator of the puffin restoration program, and then, after years of natural history and avian tutelage at the wonderful Hog Island camp, I eventually started narrating eco-tourism boat cruises for the general public out to the restored puffin colony on Eastern Egg Rock. I became a great appreciator of these long-lived, comical-looking seabirds, and I’ve closely followed their nesting season each summer to see how they’re doing. With predators like large gulls, the potential of oil spills, getting caught in fishing nets, or starving because of a lack of fish, puffins and all seabirds face enormous challenges to their survival, and thus, each year brings new observations, discoveries, and challenges.
Atlantic Puffins are primarily found in cold and sub-arctic waters like Iceland, the North Sea, northern Russia, Newfoundland, and interestingly, down to the mid-coast area of Maine within the very chilly waters that make swimming here almost prohibitive. Several hundred years ago, puffins apparently nested on 6 or 7 islands off the Maine coast but by 1900 they had been hunted for their edible meat, and only one pair remained on an island 22 miles from shore. We know this because a lighthouse keeper hired by the just-formed National Association of Audubon Societies kept gunners from finishing off some of the very last seabirds on the entire Maine coast, and he kept records detailing his warden work.
Steve Kress and his team of young biologists began researching the very challenging possibilities of puffin restoration back in the early 1970’s, and they worked out a plan, which some 48 years later, has proven to be famously successful. They decided to trans-locate puffin chicks from a huge colony in Newfoundland to a tiny island, one thousand miles south, where puffins had nested until the late 1880’s. The restoration methods and the ensuing story has been covered by National Geographic, CNN, HBO, and hundreds of other media and television outlets, so I won’t go over that information here, but the bottom line is that there are now about 1300 pairs of Atlantic Puffins nesting on 4 Maine islands this summer, information given to us by on-island researchers who just returned to the mainland after living offshore for the past few months.
The business of being a seabird biologist involves hard work, long hours and frequently difficult conditions, be it cold, incessant fog, wind, rainstorms, or just the isolation of living in a tent miles away from hot showers, running water, and all the things most of us take for granted on an everyday basis. However, since the 1970’s, over 700 college and graduate students have experienced this unique seabird-island summer, and many have gone on to distinguished careers in conservation biology, zoology, and environmental studies. We call these folks “Puffineers” or “Seabird Island Stewards.”
This summer our biologists have shared some interesting happenings. On three of Audubon’s managed puffin islands (Eastern Egg Rock, Matinicus Rock, and Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge), puffins nested earlier than in past decades of observation. This turned out to be quite advantageous, as the waters of the Gulf of Maine had not heated up yet and the fish supply was good, thus providing food for both the adults and the young chicks. Why puffins are nesting earlier, however, is a question that no one seems to know the answer to….
Secondly, haddock seems to have saved the day for puffin survival, and ten years ago this fish was almost unknown in local seabird diets, possibly because it had been overfished commercially, and also because puffins feasted almost entirely on relatively good supplies of herring, hake, and sand lance. This year hake was still a big ticket item, but the amount of herring the biologists saw the adult birds bringing in to their chick was way down. This particular statistic is worrisome because herring are a keystone species in the Gulf of Maine ecosystem, and their decline would have a lot of negative, cascading effects over time.
On another front, the number of eco-tourists coming out on the three different boat lines that venture out to Eastern Egg Rock were way down this year, due to CDC regulations on boat capacities. The family-run Hardy Boat, out of New Harbor, is licensed to take about 110 people out at a time, but this summer they were maxed out at 48 per trip. The demand to see puffins was still strong, and the birds were certainly there. On a trip in late July, I saw around 65 puffins – a great number any day - floating in loose groups off the shoreline of Eastern Egg Rock. (Approximately 170 pairs nest there.) They were joined by many hundreds of airborne Common, Arctic, and Roseate Terns, as well as Black Guillemots, Laughing Gulls, Eider Ducks, and cormorants. (4 species of terns have also been restored to Maine islands by Audubon scientists, but that is for another story.)
More than 120,000 people have travelled out to the restored puffin colony on Audubon-sponsored tour boats over the years, and the take-away message that our narrators share has always been that if humans were responsible for the demise of the puffins, don’t we now have a responsibility to make amends and attempt to re-balance some of what was lost in the eco-system? (The same philosophy, I believe, holds true for the restoration of wolves out west and wherever they were extirpated, as long as habitat remains. Etc.)
The significance of the well-documented puffin (and seabird) restoration here in Maine over the last 48 years is huge, as methods developed locally by Steve Kress and crew are now being used by scientists around the world to help globally-endangered and threatened seabirds in dozens of other countries. And it shows, of course, that people can make an outstanding difference for wildlife.
For much more information, check out www.projectpuffin.org. Also, take a look at the children’s book on this subject which I wrote with Steve Kress, called “Project Puffin: How We Brought Puffins Back to Egg Rock”. (Tilbury House.) Take a look at Steve’s newer, more biographical book for adults, entitled “Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring Back a Beloved Bird To Egg Rock.” (Yale University Press)