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Atlantic Puffins: Population Rebound Evan Barnard, Planet Forward Correspondent

In the summer of 2013 on the coast of Maine, I attended the national Hog Island Audubon Teen Camp on a scholarship from the Atlanta chapter of the National Audubon Society. I had just gotten my first serious camera, so my first real yet amateur photography experience was photographing birds, and I was immediately hooked on nature photography.

The director of the camp was a man named Stephen Kress, whose innovative Project Puffin aims to bring puffins and other sea bird species back to the islands of coastal Maine. As a special part of the camp, we visited Eastern Egg Rock, the island where Kress first pioneered his method of population restoration with the Atlantic Puffin in 1973.

Historically, people commonly killed particular bird species for their feathers to be used for fashionable items like hats. This practice was actually decimating a number of species, and Atlantic Puffins were not excluded. As a result, the islands off the coast of Maine that once hosted many nesting puffins eventually became devoid of puffins.

Puffins had last nested on Eastern Egg Rock in 1885. In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed, and this act made the possession or sale of any part, nest, or egg of a migratory bird illegal. However, it was not until Kress came along that the puffins began to return.

Arrival

In the early years of his Project Puffin work, Kress translocated about 1,000 Atlantic Puffins between 10 and 14 days old from Newfoundland. Kress put metal bands on the legs of the puffin chicks so he could track which returned after migration.

Kress used a variety of techniques to ensure the puffins would return to the same island to breed, including decoys and mirrors. He created many wooden puffin decoys and set them up all over the island so that if any transplanted puffins returned, they would think there were other puffins populating the island. The idea was the returning puffins would be more likely to return and stay to breed and nest on the island if other puffins were already present, because puffins nest in colonies.

Tracking

The researchers who live on the island during the field season use non-invasive leg identification bands to track which birds return to the island each year to breed and nest. During the summer breeding season while the puffins are on the island, a few researchers share a tiny shack lovingly called the "Egg Rock Hilton." This close proximity to nesting areas allows researchers to observe the birds and resight the bands of the different puffins. By comparing the bands with flagged and labelled gathering and nesting locations, the researchers are able to measure the program's progress and nesting success.

My View from Inside a Research Blind Overlooking Puffin Burrows
Puffin Original Decoys Viewed from a Research Blind

While on Eastern Egg Rock, I had the incredible opportunity to observe puffins and other species from one of the research blinds on the island. The researchers use numerous research blinds to study the puffins and other birds.

Success

Project Puffin has been incredibly successful. After nearly a century of the island not having any nesting puffins, just five pairs of puffins nested on Eastern Egg Rock in 1981. As of 2017, there were 172 breeding pairs, including a 15 percent increase from 2016 to 2017.

More than 1,000 pairs of puffins now nest off the coast of Maine on Eastern Egg Rock, Matinicus Rock, Seal Island NWR, Large Duck Island, and Petit Manan Island NWR, and an additional 5,000 pairs of puffins now nest on Machias Seal Island on the U.S.-Canadian Border.

Method Applications

The methods developed by Project Puffin, especially the use of decoys, are being applied beyond Maine. In fact, at least 42 endangered seabird species in 14 countries have benefited from Project Puffin techniques. Examples of these species include Dark-Rumped Petrels in the Galapagos Islands, Chinese Crested Terns in China, and Short-Tailed Albatrosses in Japan.

Prior to 1980, terns - smaller, more slender cousins of seagulls - did not nest on Eastern Egg Rock. Thanks to predatory seagull management and the use of decoys and sounds, there are now about 1,350 nesting pairs of terns, primarily Common Terns, annually on the island. The Common Terns can be very territorial, protecting their nests from intruders.

Common Tern Chick

The Common Terns here are exchanging a fish. When I visited the island in June, the Common Tern nesting season was under way.

Arctic Terns, which mate for life and typically return to the same breeding colony annually, also breed and nest on Eastern Egg Rock. The Arctic Tern on the left is giving its mate a fish.

Roseate Terns

About 150 pairs of Roseate Terns nest on Eastern Egg Rock, making up more than half of this endangered species' Gulf of Maine population. In addition to the puffins, terns on the island are also banded and monitored.

Black Guillemot

Eastern Egg Rock may only be an outcropping of 7.30 acres, but over the past 45 years, this small island has become the nesting location of around 4,000 pairs of breeding terns, gulls, sea ducks, and members of the auk family, which includes puffins and guillemots. Stephen Kress's dream of restoring Maine's sea bird populations is coming to fruition, and Project Puffin's continued success suggests a positive future for the illustrious Atlantic Puffin.

Created By
Evan Barnard
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Evan Barnard 2013

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