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The book is Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock by Stephen W. Kress and Derrick Z. Jackson
As a “Puffineer” of three seasons working on puffin nesting islands, this is a book that is close to my heart. In it, we follow the undying efforts of a young scientist who was determined to reintroduce healthy nesting populations of a small, hardy seabird back to islands off the coast of Maine. His success, despite strong skepticism early on, has led to a legacy of accomplished seabird reintroduction techniques and devoted preservation that carries a global reach more than 40 years later.
Atlantic Puffins, along with a wide variety of other island-nesting seabirds were vanquished from the islands along the northeastern coast of the United States in the late 1800s, taken by hunters for food and the millinery trade, or feather industry.
To reestablish a seabird nesting colony and bring puffins back to the islands they’d long left had never been achieved. And it wasn’t an easy task, taking many years to achieve even just a hint of success. And that’s not even counting the difficulty of getting the project funded or even simply supported as an idea that might even work at all. To a doubtful scientific community, reintroducing puffins to islands long-abandoned seemed wildly improbable. The work would mean taking birds from further north, from healthy populations that breed along the coast of Newfoundland, and transport them to islands off the coast of Maine. To extract downy, defenseless pufflings (puffin chicks) out of their nest burrow from their native nesting grounds at the age of a mere ten to twelve days seemed like much more than a long shot, it seemed a waste of effort and not worthy of the significant funding that would be necessary for such a feat.
But the young Steve Kress was relentless in his determination and, with the support of renown ornithologist Dr. William Holland Drury Jr., leading seabird expert in New England and research director at Massachusetts Audubon Society, providing a backing of confidence that couldn’t be ignored by the scientific community, Kress was given the support required to allow for the go ahead.
Nevertheless, even with support, this was a feat that had never been attempted: translocating young puffins with the intent that they’d grow up, reach breeding age and return by their own volition to the island they’d been introduced to years before was asking a lot. Puffins, after fledging, stay out to sea for years until they reach breeding age; would the island of their weeks-old translocation been ingrained into the brain of these little seabirds and would they return there to reproduce and raise their young? Or would they rather recall the island of their birth and return there instead? It was quite a gamble and, year after year, the team could only continue bringing chicks to these nursery islands, raising them and watching them take to the sea, hoping they’d return, years into the future.
Moreover, how did he even know if a ten-day old chick could even make it to fledging age without their parents, something that would take 30-50 days of successful rearing, by a human, no less, to reach? What Steve knew was that puffin chicks were fairly self-sufficient even when it came to the birds’ early lifespan. He knew that the solitary chick–as puffins will only lay one egg a season–don’t require parental regurgitation to be fed as with other seabird chicks; puffin parents deliver whole fish to their young that chick will gobble up, even if merely left at the “front doorstep” of its burrow. Secondly, upon fledging–when the bird first leaves the nest–a puffin chick needs no escorting, the young seabird naturally has the capacity to fledge on its own and will tend to its own survival and migrate alone to the species’ wintering grounds without guidance.
In the early seventies, Kress and his team dedicated years of work struggling against the elements and living life on a remote, uninhabited island miles out to sea, far from the simple luxuries of running water, electricity and food stores. They translocated hundreds of puffin chicks from Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock, an uninhabited, 7-acre island out of Maine’s Muscongus Bay, experimenting with artificial burrows-nest boxes implanted into the loamy soil of the Maine island to mimic the puffin’s natural nesting conditions of the north.
As they reared the fuzzy black puffin chicks, which grew into white-bellied, hearty-yet-cautious birds, they could only watch helplessly as the fledged birds took to the steely waters in the night, heading out to sea with no hint as to where they’d follow their instinctive urges when the time to breed came. Incredibly, of the 954 birds brought from Newfoundland, 940 were successfully fledged.
But after four years of reintroduction, none of the fledged puffins had returned to the island. In order to continue with the project, it was necessary to show some kind success to the scientific community so as to continue to receive support to keep the project going, but there was no sign of puffins on or near the rock, at least that the team know of, pointed out Kress:
“I worried that these highly social birds might be returning to the vicinity of Egg Rock, but if they did not see other puffins on the island, they might not stay long enough for us to see them. And if they landed on the water but never came ashore, we would not see their bands and be able to prove that the translocations were working.”
This concern led to a game-changing development and something that has influenced seabird research and reintroduction efforts all around the world. The struggle to lure a social bird to a deserted island led to the genesis of the use of seabird decoys to attract these social birds back to their artificial nesting grounds. Decoys had never been used for birds for anything other than hunting. By mounting these painted replicas on boulders and high outcrops around the island, the puffins, which actually were nearby, were drawn back to the island they’d left behind, four years prior. In June of 1977, the team watched a puffin land on Gull Rock, the highpoint of the island. It was the first to land on Eastern Egg Rock since the 1800s, Kress and his team reflected, and a monumental moment in the history of ornithological research and conservation.
As the birds came back to the island, a new challenge presented itself. By offering up prime nesting habitat for these birds, the seabird researchers had the responsibility that the birds they were luring in would find a safety on the island so that they could successfully carry out their breeding season and not fall prey to predators. That meant replicating a healthy functioning ecosystem that hadn’t existed on the rock since the first half of the 19th century. Healthy and functioning includes a biodiverse system which will support more than one species. In the case of other islands off Maine’s coast that had historically supported a rich diversity of seabird species, the outhunted birds were replaced by the ubiquitous and aggressive gull which is a less sensitive creature to human influence than other seabirds and exist in great populations along Maine’s coast. They’d taken over the islands and likely helped deter other more cautious species from recolonizing. To be able to ensure a safe island nesting environment, human presence is essential to inhibit gulls from pushing out the more apprehansive species. A Greater Black-backed or Herring Gull will prey with relish upon seabird eggs, chicks and even fledgling puffins.
By attracting terns to the island, reusing the ingenious method of social attraction through decoys, along with the implementation of audio systems that broadcasted their vocalizations near the decoys mounted on the rocks, the implementation of a more diverse, functioning ecosystem was developing. These feisty, sharp-beaked, pointy-winged, fork-tailed, gull-like seabirds nested on the open rocks off the treeless islands, around which jumbles of boulders lined the perimeter and within which the quickly growing colonies of puffins had established their nesting burrows. While puffins were wary birds that flee at the first sign of a predator, terns would rather face the enemy, ganging up and diving upon and taking sharp stabs at any gull that chose to run the tern gauntlet to nab a tasty egg or chick. But terns hadn’t nested on the islands in decades so it took another five years before the first pairs of Common and Arctic Terns took to nesting there again.
Now, Project Puffin is in its 44th year and manages seven islands that host more than 20 nesting waterbird species including the endangered Roseate Tern, Arctic Terns which migrates hundreds of thousands of miles within its lifespan, Razorbills, Guillemots, sea ducks known as Eiders, Great Cormorants, Manx Shearwaters, egrets and ibises and various shorebirds. Each season, teams of seabird biologists spend the summer out on the islands monitoring and protecting these species while learning about how they interact with their environment in the face of human encroachment and climate change.
The early methods that Kress used to bring these birds back to the islands are now standard in the toolkit of seabird biologists have been crucial in the success of seabird restoration efforts made around the world.
“Behind every restoration are innovative and caring biologists who are doing their best to enhance chances for survival for rare species and enhance biodiversity. These are true heroes of our time, often risking their own safety to undo mistakes of others.”
Currently, of the seven Project Islands, three island, Eastern Egg Rock, Seal Island and Matinicus Rock, support more than 1,000 nesting pairs of Atlantic Puffins.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Stephen W. Kress is the National Audubon Society’s Vice President for Bird Conservation and director of the Audubon Seabird Restoration Program and Hog Island Audubon Camp. He is an associate of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca NY, where he developed and teaches a popular course in field ornithology. His work in seabird conservation and habitat restoration is world renowned for the innovative methods developed in Maine. He lives in Ithaca, NY.
Derrick Z. Jackson is an award-winning op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in commentary. He is an associate editor at the paper as well as being an editorial board member. He is also well known for his nature and documentary photography; his images of Barak Obama have been exhibited by the Boston Museum of African American History. He lives in Cambridge, MA.