The Puffineers of Project Puffin!
This group of intrepid field researchers join forces at the beginning of the summer in Bremen, Maine, the base camp for Project Puffin and soon part ways after training to spend their summer on an array of seven islands owned and managed by the project. We are here to study puffins and terns and several other species of seabirds and help protect their summer breeding habitat. If we weren’t here, more prolific predators such as gulls and birds of prey would run these sensitive species off these few remaining islands that provide less common seabird species adequate habitat to raise their young over the course of the nesting season.
It’s almost dreamlike to say goodbye to civilization for three months and take on the elements living out of a tent and small kitchen/office cabin for the summer. There’s no fresh water out here so we bring it from the mainland in weighty jugs and put our food into waterproof bags to survive the often drenching boat ride our respective islands. It will be another two weeks before a boat comes out with the next delivery of food, water and a new 2-week volunteer. For the season-long islanders, opening newly arrived food bags is comparable to opening Christmas presents, except with much more squealing involved. The fresh veggies are greeted as if they were long lost friends.
When you arrive to the island, all of the food, water, luggage and other equipment is tossed from the boat into the dory and rowed to shore. Carrying these heavy loads is often treacherous, over seaweed and algae-draped rocks that often shift underfoot. Hefting it up in stages, the cabin seems ten times farther away than usual. We set up our tents on large wooden platforms that remain throughout the year and then cover our summer living quarters in large tarps held down by island rocks against the elements and bird poo.
Most of the interns and supervisors are within the 20-35 year old age range which was exciting for me when I first came out in 2003 at 20 years of age (don’t do any math there please..) because. up til then, I knew only one or two others my age who were as equally interested in birds as I was. Here, everyone was! And we were all pursuing the same passion, studying nature for the preservation of nature. In fieldwork like this, you spend every day with your team, working, eating, recreating, battling the elements, together..so you become a sort of family. You share experiences like none other and build memories of living in a place where few others have lived, in a kind of behind-the-scenes world. I learned almost more about ornithology and field research in 3 months than I could have ever learned in school, much of which from the fantastic people I’ve had the honor of working with.
What makes working on the project all the more exciting was the fact that not only we were living in out among the birds, but we’ve actually left our world and stepped into theirs. We walk among a colony where the entire population of nesting birds is hovering above you, and pooping on you with remarkable aim, not to mention dive bombing you with dagger-like bills. They’re protecting their offspring. And we’re disrupting their ways. It is something I struggle with but, our presence doesn’t affect whether the nesting season is successful or not. Our presence deters the predators that pick off eggs and nestlings, although it still can be a serious problem. And the work we do helps us learn about these birds, their habits and needs. We learn about the kind of prey they are bringing in which tells us a lot about the marine environment that can’t be studied in any other manner than seeing what the birds bring in.
And over years of watching and documenting what they bring in, we can view fish population trends and get an idea of how ranges of prey species are shifting in response to changes in climate and the fishing industry. By looking at this link in the food web, we can get an idea of how different species affect and are affected by other species, their environment and by human influence on all these aspects. Adding to this growing body of knowledge while living in what I basically consider paradise (even during 30+mph winds buffeting my tent in the middle of the night). This place is stunning. Waking up every morning on an island that is home to birds is what I consider a privilege. Sharing this experience with others who all come from different backgrounds of fieldwork, culture and knowledge makes this experience even more priceless. And the birds are what brought us together in the first place, they’re precisely why we’re here.