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.
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.