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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In the summer of 1973, Kress, a research assistant named Kathleen Blanchard and Robert Noyce, a sympathetic summer neighbor (and the founder of Intel), went to Newfoundland’s Great Island, one of the largest puffin colonies in North America. It was the first of more than a dozen trips that the Audubon-sponsored “Project Puffin” would make to Great Island.

During each trip, Kress and his team, accompanied by Canadian Wildlife Service staffers, clambered up the island’s steep banks and plunged their arms into the long, narrow burrows that puffins dig in soil. Sometimes they extracted a chick, but often they got only a nasty nip from an adult puffin. In total, they collected hundreds of chicks, nestling each in a soup can and storing the cans in carrying cases made for the journey. Making their way past amused customs officials, they flew home to Maine, and, in the wee hours, headed out to Eastern Egg Rock or to nearby Hog Island, where they deposited the chicks in hand-dug burrows.

Kress and his assistants became dutiful puffin parents, camping on the islands and leaving fish inside the burrows twice each day. Nearly all the chicks survived their international adventure, and by late summer were big enough to fledge. At night, Kress hid behind boulders observing the burrows, sometimes glimpsing a young puffin as it hopped into the water and paddled out to sea.

Because young puffins spend a few years at sea before returning home to nest, Kress knew he was in for a long wait. Two years passed, three, then four. There was no sign of homecoming puffins.

Kress also knew that the birds were extremely social, so he decided to make Eastern Egg Rock appear more welcoming. He got a woodcarver named Donald O’Brien to create some puffin decoys, and Kress set them out on the boulders, hoping to fool a live puffin into joining the crowd.

Finally, in June 1977, Kress was steering his powerboat toward the island when a puffin landed in the water nearby—a bird wearing leg bands indicating it had been transplanted from Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock two years earlier.

But no puffins nested on Eastern Egg Rock that year, or the next. Or the next. A few of the transplanted birds nested with the existing puffin colony on Matinicus Rock, but not one had accepted Eastern Egg Rock as its home.

Shortly before sunset on July 4, 1981, Kress was scanning Eastern Egg Rock with his telescope when he spotted a puffin, beak full of fish, scrambling into a rocky crevice. The bird hopped out, empty-beaked, and flew away, while another adult puffin stood by watching. It was the long-hoped-for evidence of a new chick on the island.

“After 100 years of absence and nine years of working toward this goal,” Kress wrote in the island logbook that evening, “puffins are again nesting at Eastern Egg Rock—a Fourth of July celebration I’ll never forget.”

Today, Eastern Egg Rock hosts more than 100 pairs of nesting puffins. Boatloads of tourists chug out to peer at them through binoculars. Kress and his “puffineers”—biologists and volunteers—have also reintroduced puffins to Seal Island, a former Navy bombing range that now serves as a national wildlife refuge. On Matinicus Rock, also a national wildlife refuge, the puffin population has grown to an estimated 350 pairs. Razorbills, a larger, heavier cousin to the puffin, also nest among the boulders; common and Arctic terns nest nearby. In all, a century after Atlantic puffins almost disappeared from the United States, at least 600 pairs now nest along the Maine coast.


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