A Crazy Idea to Bring Back Atlantic Puffins Is a Success

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

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.”

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There were over 1,000 pairs

There were over 1,000 pairs of Puffins breeding in the Gulf of Maine before the National Audubon society famously "Brought them back". It should be acknowledged in a realistic discussion of their program that transplanted puffins added about 2% to a growing and expanding population. The significance of the use of Social attraction of seabirds on the coast of Maine by the National Audubon society has been similarly misrepresented.
From Vinalhaven you can hire a boat to take you to Seal Island to see the birds there, among them Great Cormorants the most threatened seabird population on the coast of Maine.

Check out

Check out hardyboat.com/puffin.htm !! The tours are led by members of Audubon research staff and it's a wonderful way to un-obtrusively get close to the birds. Great opportunities for photography!

Donal O'Brien gave my

Donal O'Brien gave my husband, Ken Gleason, the honor of carving the Puffins!

This was the cover story in

This was the cover story in the current issue.

Hello Puffin Fans! You can

Hello Puffin Fans!

You can visit Seal Island and look into a nesting burrow from the comfort of your own home!

Care of explore.org in conjunction with Audubon.
Loafing Ledge - where puffins, razorbills, murres and more come to hang out: http://explore.org/#!/live-cams/player/puffin-loafing-ledge-cam

Burrow Cam: http://explore.org/#!/live-cams/player/puffin-burrow-cam

The breeding season just ended and a puffling (baby puffin) that we watched emerge from the egg and grow has recently fledged. Her name is Hope and she is wonderful.

There are lots of pictures and videos on the explore site to tide us over until next spring.

I would go see them in July.

I would go see them in July. That is the best time. See: http://projectpuffin.audubon.org/puffin-watching-cruises :-)

One of my bucket list ideas

One of my bucket list ideas is to go see the Puffins, but I do not want to cause any harm and wonder when is the best time to see them and is a charter boat the best way to see them off the coast of Maine? Thank you for your response in advance.

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