A Puffin Comeback

Atlantic puffins had nearly vanished from the Maine coast until a young biologist defied conventional wisdom to lure them home

On Eastern Egg Rock, off Maine's coast, researchers label favored hangouts to help track the birds and monitor their behavior. (José Azel)
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Kress once imagined that he could one day leave the islands for good, the puffin colonies restored and the project’s work complete. He was wrong.

It became clear that two large gull species—the herring and black-backed gulls that prey on puffin chicks—weren’t going away. Kress had to play God again, this time to give puffins another ally in their battle against gulls: terns.

Terns look delicate and graceful aloft, but they are fighters, known for pugnacious defense of their nests. Working on the island, Kress wears a tam-o’-shanter so that angry terns will swipe at its pompom and not his head. Scott Hall, research coordinator for Project Puffin, wears a baseball cap fitted with bobbing, colorful antennae. Kress believed that the terns, once established, would drive off predatory gulls and act as a “protective umbrella” for the milder-mannered puffins. Unlike gulls, terns don’t prey on puffin eggs and chicks.

He and his colleagues used tern decoys, as they had with puffins, and played recorded tern calls through speakers to attract the birds. Again, their tricks worked: well over 8,400 pairs of terns, including 180 pairs of endangered roseate terns, now nest on the Maine islands where Kress and his team work, up from 1,100 pairs in 1984. But gulls continue to hover on the edges of the islands, waiting for an opportunity to feast on puffin and tern chicks.

Only one species, it seemed, could protect the puffins, the terns and the decades of hard work that Kress and his colleagues had invested: human beings. “People are affecting the ecosystem in all kinds of profound ways, underwater and above water,” Kress says. “Just because we bring something back doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way.”

So each summer, small groups of puffineers live as they have for almost 40 years, in the midst of the seabird colonies on seven islands, where they study the birds and their chicks and defend them against gulls.

On Eastern Egg Rock, Juliet Lamb, a wildlife conservation graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, is back for her fourth summer of living in a tent. She says she thrives on the isolation and even turns down occasional opportunities to visit the mainland for a hot shower. “I’d probably live out here all year if I could,” she adds with a laugh. She and two other researchers spend hours each day in bird blinds arrayed on the perimeter of the island watching puffins and terns feed their chicks. As the supervisor of island operations, Lamb also divvies up cooking and outhouse-cleaning duties, maintains the propane refrigerator and makes sure the island’s single cabin—which serves as kitchen, pantry, lounge and office—stays reasonably uncluttered. When her chores are finally done, she might climb the ladder to the cabin roof, French horn in hand, and practice until sunset.

Some days are decidedly less peaceful. When the biologists arrive in Maine each spring, they go through firearms training at a local firing range, learning to shoot .22-caliber rifles. In 2009, with permission from state and federal wildlife officials, Lamb and her assistants shot six herring and black-backed gulls, hoping to kill a few especially persistent ones and scare off the rest. Because of a worrying decline in roseate terns, they also destroyed the nests of laughing gulls, a smaller, less threatening species that occasionally eats tern eggs and chicks.

Kress and his colleagues are still dreaming up ways to replace themselves as island guardians.They’ve experimented with a “Robo Ranger,” a mechanized mannequin designed to pop up at random intervals and scare gulls off. The souped-up scarecrow wears a yellow slicker and a rubber Arnold Schwarzenegger mask. To teach the gulls that the mannequin is a serious threat, the biologists sometimes dress up in its costume and shoot a few. But mechanical problems have felled the Robo Ranger for now, leaving people as the puffins’ and terns’ only line of defense. The puffineers’ work is never done.

Michelle Nijhuis has written for Smithsonian about aspen trees, the Cahaba River and Henry David Thoreau. José Azel is a photographer based in rural western Maine.


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