A Crazy Idea to Bring Back Atlantic Puffins Is a Success

Photograph by John Huba
Photograph by John Huba
Map by Peter and Maria Hoey
Map by Peter and Maria Hoey

A Crazy Idea to Bring Back Atlantic Puffins Is a Success

Ornithologist Steve Kress’s once-controversial methods are the gold standard for saving seabirds around the world.

 

By Bruce Barcott
Published: September-October 2013

Every visit to Eastern Egg Rock Island, six miles off the coast of Maine, is like coming home for Steve Kress, a soft-spoken man of 67. Forty years ago, as a young Audubon bird life instructor, he hatched the idea of reviving the Atlantic puffin colonies that flourished on this seven-acre island before hunters wiped them out in the 1880s. Years of trial and error ultimately led to the reestablishment of puffins—now 2,000 strong on three protected islands, including Egg Rock—and to the creation of Project Puffin, an Audubon program that today manages North Atlantic breeding colonies of American oystercatchers, Arctic terns, and 14 other seabird species, on seven Maine islands.

Maine gave birth to Kress’s ideas, but during the past 30 years the discoveries and techniques pioneered by Project Puffin have driven a new science of seabird restoration and conservation. In that time nearly 60 projects worldwide have used Kress’s “social attraction” techniques to move dozens of seabird populations to safer nesting grounds (see "The Power of Attraction," below). Decoys simulating specific species and amplified birdcalls signal that the new location is desirable and secure. Moving very young chicks from an old colony to a new one can help the birds imprint, encouraging their return to the safer island when it’s time to come in from sea and establish their own broods.

Those strategies have set the standard everywhere. They helped save the Bermuda petrel, whose nests were threatened by storms and rising sea level. Between 2004 and 2008 scientists translocated 105 petrel chicks to a 15-acre wildlife sanctuary on higher ground, and by 2012, 15 pairs were breeding there. On Japan’s Torishima Island, a colony of short-tailed albatrosses, one of the most threatened birds on earth, was nesting on the rim of an active volcano. Using decoys and audio recordings, biologists first lured adults away from the rim, and then moved chicks to a safer nearby island. Comparable projects have built new colonies of diving petrels in New Zealand, double-crested cormorants in Oregon, and Ascension Island frigatebirds in the equatorial South Atlantic.

“There aren’t many of us who can look at our lives and say we made a real difference to the planet,” says Scott Weidensaul, author of the bird migration classic Living on the Wind. “Steve is one of them.”

Map by Peter and Maria Hoey
Map by Peter and Maria Hoey

Four decades after bringing the first puffin chicks to Egg Rock, Kress hasn’t slowed down. Now director of Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, he’s still experimenting with new ideas.

“I’m anxious to see how the carpets are working out,” he says on a trip to Egg Rock. Four interns live all summer on the island, guarding the nests of puffins, common terns, Arctic terns, laughing gulls, and storm petrels. Fast-growing mustard weeds threaten the tern nests (“Terns can’t find their chicks in it,” he explains), so Kress laid down a few strips of rock-colored carpet to prevent the vegetation from growing. He wants to see if the terns can successfully nest on the artificial surface.

That kind of ingenuity has marked Project Puffin from its beginnings. The puffin recovery story is often told as a tale of unqualified success. But as Kress unspools the details of his 40-year career, it’s apparent that acceptance of his approach was hard won—born of Kress’s ability to push against the norm and exercise the courage to fail, learn, fail again, and ultimately succeed. Over the years his example has fostered a robust culture of debate and trial and error.

“The autonomy we have to exercise scientific thought and try new ideas—that’s what keeps us coming back,” says Emily Pollom. For the past two summers Pollom, a 27-year-old biologist, has co-managed common, Arctic, and least tern colonies with her fiancé, biologist John Gorey, 29, on Stratton Island, also off the Maine coast. “If I call in [to the Project Puffin office in Bremen, Maine] and say to Steve or Paula Shannon, the seabird sanctuary manager, ‘Hey, we’ve noticed the common terns like to do this with the tidal wrack. What if we put some wrack on the carpets?’, they’ll think it over and say, ‘Sure, give it a try.’ ”

It’s hard to imagine, but 40 years ago conventional wisdom held that seabirds shouldn’t be helped at all.

 

In the early 1970s the ruling theory held that humans should let nature take its course. If that meant scavengers like gulls and raccoons crowded out other species, then so be it.

“I didn’t buy that,” Kress recalls.

The problem was, humans had already interfered and tilted the playing field. Herring and black-backed gulls had taken over islands like Egg Rock because fishermen and hunters had killed all the puffins and terns. Gulls flourished by fattening up on lobster bait and open-air garbage dumps, not because they were winning any “balance of nature” battle.

Photograph by John Huba

Puffins launch themselves into flight from rocky cliffs along the coast. Their takeoffs and landings look awkward, but the birds are expert swimmers and divers, using their wings to propel them deep underwater, where they catch fish in the frigid depths.

By the early 1970s puffins had vanished, though their habitat was still there. So were the fish. Puffins feed their young a heavy diet of juvenile white hake, which are the perfect size and shape to slip down a chick’s gullet whole.

Ornithologists knew that puffins breed at the same sites where they are raised, and that the young alcids go to sea for two to three years before returning to their fledging grounds to mate. Kress’s plan was to move 10-day-old chicks from Great Island, Newfoundland—then host to more than 160,000 Fratercula
arctica
nests—to Egg Rock before they imprinted on the Canadian island. The homing instinct is strong in puffins and many other seabirds. Once they fledge, it’s difficult to convince them to nest anywhere other than their natal grounds. Translocating adults wouldn’t do any good—no matter how desirable the new habitat, they’d always fly back to their birth site.

It took four years and the intercession of an early supporter, William H. Drury, research director of Massachusetts Audubon, before the Canadian government gave Kress permission to take six chicks.

With the help of nature enthusiast and Intel cofounder Robert Noyce, another early supporter, Kress and research assistant Kathleen Blanchard moved the chicks in juice cans to be hand-reared on Hog Island and then released on Egg Rock. They hand-fed the chicks hake stuffed with vitamins. When the chicks fledged, Kress says, he never saw them leave. “They always head off to sea in the middle of the night.” Puffins spend most of their lives on the open Atlantic, resting on the water and diving as deep as 100 feet for fish. (Their range remained unknown until Kress and colleagues attached a geolocator to a bird hatched on Maine’s Seal Island in 2009. “Cabot,” named after the explorer John Cabot, roamed over the western Atlantic, from the Labrador Sea all the way to waters near Bermuda.)

Kress and his team translocated more and more chicks in the following years—in all, 954 between 1973 and 1986. For the first four years, no birds returned to Egg Rock.

Kress realized the island, with bare rocks and no birds, didn’t look very appealing. Puffins are highly social. They enjoy one another’s company and view the presence of other puffins at a particular site as a security blanket. An old National Geographic article sparked an idea. Puffin hunters in Iceland, where the birds are common, attracted their prey by propping up dead puffins to lure live ones into range. So in the spring of 1977 Kress put out carved decoys on Egg Rock.

The idea worked. That June two-year-old puffins returned and began nuzzling up to the wooden birds, “billing” them (rubbing bills as a sign of affection) and even attempting to mate with them.

Still, none of the puffins reproduced for four long years. Then on July 4, 1981, Kress’s team spotted a puffin returning to Egg Rock with a beak full of fish. Since adults swallow their prey underwater, it signaled a hungry chick on a nest. The tiny band on the adult’s leg confirmed its place of origin. “It was one of ours,” Kress says.

That year, four nesting pairs raised chicks. The colony plateaued at 15 pairs for about a decade, then continued to grow, stabilizing at more than 100 nesting pairs today.

 

Kress finishes his story just as we reach Egg Rock’s sandless coast. Maggie Lee Post, 26, the island supervisor, rows out to greet us in an inflatable skiff.

“Watch your step,” she tells me. “A lot of birds are nesting on the rocks and in the grass next to the trail.” She points to an Arctic tern egg on bare rock, marked by a small blue flag. Overhead a cloud of agitated terns and laughing gulls announce our presence. “You might be dive-bombed a little,” she warns. We follow Post up the trail, surrounded by shrieking terns.

Kress and I head off to one of the island’s 11 bird blinds. “When we first came out here we were extremely careful not to disturb the birds,” he says. “But now we know our visible presence actually helps to keep predators away.”

As we wait for puffins to appear, Kress points to numbers painted onto the shoreline rocks, granite fractured into flat table boulders by winter ice and tossed haphazardly into stacks. “Each of those is a puffin burrow, and they go down quite a ways, like an apartment building,” he says. “A mated pair will return to the same one year after year.”

Eventually a lone puffin appears just offshore, furiously flapping its stubby little wings. “Those wings are a compromise,” Kress says. “He needs to fly underwater, too.” The bird lands next to a puffin decoy perched on a rock. Then another live bird joins it. And another. Five more land.

“See the grooves on the bill?” Kress says. “They’re like rings on a tree. The older the bird, the more grooved the bill.” And they can get pretty gnarled; it’s not uncommon for a puffin to live 20 years or more. One old-timer on Egg Rock is 35.

The puffins are smaller than I’d expected. They’re a bit like miniature penguins, 10 inches high, tuxedoed and plump. And they’re exceedingly cute.

“The charisma of the puffin,” says Pete Salmansohn, Project Puffin’s education coordinator. “That’s what brought the media, and what drew volunteers and donors.” In the 1970s a feature spot on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom inspired a young Susan Schubel. A decade later, as a University of New Hampshire graduate, she volunteered to live in tents on Maine’s outer islands. As a result of her 13 years with Project Puffin, Schubel now consults as a seabird audio engineer on international restoration projects. Last year, for example, she designed a system that broadcast double-crested cormorant calls to lure the birds to Oakland’s new Bay Bridge, because their perches on the old bridge rafters are scheduled for demolition in 2015. It’s a technology Kress first developed to attract common, roseate, and Arctic terns to Maine islands. (Puffins are visually oriented; terns respond more strongly to acoustic safety signals.)

Project Puffin’s influence began to reverberate in the early 1980s, when word of its accomplishments inspired other translocation programs. “The work on Egg Rock showed us that the strong homing instinct of long-lived seabirds could be overcome,” recalls Colin Miskelly, a biologist who during the past 20 years has led dozens of translocation projects in New Zealand for species from common diving petrels to lizards.

Kress’s techniques have been passed along largely by former interns—there are more than 500 of them from 18 countries—by word of mouth, and in scientific journals. In their next phase, Kress and his colleagues envision a formalized approach to seabird restoration education. They would like to bring young professionals from around the globe to the Audubon Seabird Institute they will establish at the Hog Island Audubon Camp. The scientists would do 10-week internships, during which they would receive training in methods for restoring nesting seabird populations on islands.

 

People sometimes ask Kress about his exit strategy: At what point do you declare Project Puffin a victory and walk away? He thought about that a lot in his early years.

“If people were ever going to exit Egg Rock and turn it back to nature, we had to find a balance, some way to protect the puffins against predators,” he says. “I thought the answer would be the terns.”

Puffins and terns tolerate each other as nesting neighbors, and common terns are notoriously tough defenders, often flocking together to attack predators like black-backed gulls, which prey upon puffins. Puffins are swimmers not fighters, so they reap great benefit from their neighbors’ willingness to ward off danger.

Terns are one of the most vocal bird families, so to attract them to Egg Rock Kress devised a combination of decoys and audio recordings of their cries. It worked remarkably well. Within a few years common and Arctic terns returned. Endangered roseate terns came, too—they often find safety by nesting within common tern colonies.

The technique’s success is evident as Kress, Post, and I delicately make our way to the island’s center. Arctic terns claim the bare rock along the shoreline. Puffins nest in the cracks and crevices of broken bedrock thrown up by winter storms. Farther inland, common terns arrange twig-size bits of flotsam into little cupped nests where rock meets soil. Laughing gulls sit on their spotted eggs in the waist-high grass at island center. Underneath the grass, storm-petrels hide their eggs inside underground burrows. 

The terns came back, but Post and three summer interns are here watching over the menagerie because Kress’s tern-based exit strategy didn’t work. “The tern colony is helpful, but eventually we realized it wasn’t enough,” Kress says. On the seven islands the project actively manages, supervisors like Post work sunup to sundown monitoring tern nests and puffin burrows; warding off predators; and removing the weeds that choke out tern nests. “If we weren’t here, the black-backed gulls would return and absolutely take over,” Kress says.

The terns and puffins live in such a thin band of survival that a single event can wipe out an entire breeding cycle. Last year a severe high-tide storm destroyed least tern nests on the Maine coast and Stratton Island. “It came early enough in the season that the birds were able to lay again,” says John Gorey, who notes that many coastal birds relocated to the island after the storm. “The problem was, they laid them below the high-tide line.”

After talking it over with Kress and Shannon on the mainland, Gorey and Pollom painstakingly moved each nest six inches every day. “We had to trick them,” Pollom explains. “If you move them too far at once, the terns become confused and abandon the nest.” It took two weeks to transfer the colony to safety.

Even a win can create its own problems. As black-backed gulls were driven off, the smaller laughing gull, a native but rare Maine species, returned to nest in the tall grass. That positive development came at a price. “You put two thousand laughing gulls on an island like this, it’s like a rain of high-nitrogen fertilizer,” Kress says, holding a guano-splotched grass blade. That led to the boom in mustard weeds, and the carpet experiment.

“We tried all sorts of things on the mustard,” Kress recalls. “Rock salt. Gravel. We did controlled burns.” Nothing worked. Three years ago, after landscaping fabric proved too thin and weak, a trip to Home Depot turned up a rock-colored outdoor carpet that’s been a hit with the terns and so far impenetrable to the mustard. It blends in so well that I had difficulty picking it out—even when I was nearly on top of it.

 

Kress’s next challenge may take more than carpets to solve. Last winter a series of storms deposited 3,500 dead puffins onto the shores of Scotland, and at least 35 puffins washed ashore on Cape Cod.

Kress and others believe that climate change may be driving the severe storms, along with shifting patterns of fish availability, in the North Atlantic. “Once they leave the nest and head out to sea, predators aren’t the issue—it’s food. The dead puffins that washed up on Cape Cod were emaciated, in bad shape,” he says. “That was the concerning thing.”

Project Puffin researchers saw worrying signs during the 2012 breeding season. Instead of feeding their chicks juvenile white hake, adult puffins returned to their burrows with butterfish, a larger species. “We found dead puffin chicks surrounded by rotting butterfish,” says Kress. “The chicks were starving because the fish were too big to swallow whole.” Kress believes that those that did fledge may have been too weak to survive the abnormally stormy winter.

It’s not known whether the butterfish were unusually plentiful last summer, or if the juvenile white hake were late, or both. But it’s worrying. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that at least half of 36 commercially important North Atlantic fish species, including white hake, are moving their ranges north as a result of warming ocean waters. “If the hake is declining, that’s going to be a problem for all those species that depend on it,” says Kress.

Toward the end of our time on Egg Rock, Kress asks Post if she’s seen any sign of butterfish around the puffin burrows.

“Nothing yet,” she answers. Project managers on other islands had reported common terns and least terns—which feed their adult mates on the nest—returning with plentiful white hake.

“That’s a good sign,” says Kress.

As we bid Post farewell and make our way through the waist-high grass toward the shore, a flurry of common terns dive on Kress and peck at my overly tall skull. He shouts, “They’re getting pretty intense! That’s good. That means their chicks are about to hatch.”

On the return ride to the mainland, Kress’s thoughts turn to the phone calls and emails waiting for him back at Project Puffin’s summer office in Bremen. Kress is advising on one of the most ambitious international restoration projects, the effort to restore the critically endangered Chinese crested tern. The work is ramping up. In May greater crested tern decoys and an audio playback system were deployed on an island nature reserve in China’s Jiushan Islands. There are so few Chinese crested terns that biologists first have to attract the more numerous greater crested terns and then use their presence to lure in the endangered terns. Just as human guardians have done for three decades elsewhere across the earth, the biologists will spend the entire nesting season on the island, tipping the balance in the birds’ favor.

This story ran as “Follow the Leader” in the September-October 2013 issue.

 

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