Project Puffin: Restoring Bird Diversity to the Coast of Maine

Christian Science Monitor
July 30, 2001

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 (2.8-hectare) island about five miles (eight kilometers) 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 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 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, Arizona, 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.

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