Do you know the puffin man? Audubon research talks legacy after 40 years helping seabirds

Steohen Kress, the founder of Project Puffin, checks a puffin trap on Eastern Egg Rock off the coast of Maine in July.
Steohen Kress, the founder of Project Puffin, checks a puffin trap on Eastern Egg Rock off the coast of Maine in July. Buy Photo
Posted Sept. 22, 2013, at 3:21 p.m.
Stephen Kress, the founder of Project Puffin, talks about the current status and ongoing research of puffins on Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, about six miles east of Pemaquid Point in July.
Stephen Kress, the founder of Project Puffin, talks about the current status and ongoing research of puffins on Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, about six miles east of Pemaquid Point in July. Buy Photo
A puffin flies with a fish in its beak on Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, about six miles east of Pemaquid Point in July.
A puffin flies with a fish in its beak on Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, about six miles east of Pemaquid Point in July. Buy Photo
A puffin sits next to a decoy on Eastern Egg Rock in July.
A puffin sits next to a decoy on Eastern Egg Rock in July. Buy Photo

After three years of trying to persuade U.S. and Canadian fish and wildlife officials to back a plan to reintroduce a seabird to an island off the Maine coast, Stephen Kress finally got his chance in 1973.

Kress packed six puffin chicks from Newfoundland in coffee cans and took them to Eastern Egg Rock Island, where he fed them by hand and raised them as if he were their mother.

At the time, the technique was untested and highly unorthodox.

Today, Kress, known as the puffin man, is regarded as a pioneer of a conservation strategy used around the world to save sea birds from extinction.

This year, the National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin is celebrating its 40th anniversary. And on Tuesday, Kress will return to Columbus, Ohio, his hometown, to discuss his work at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center.

“We were at the right place, at the right time, with a good idea,” Kress said during a recent phone interview.

“His story is amazing,” said Kristin Vargo, the center’s director. “It really shows what one individual can do.”

The project got its unofficial start in 1969, after Kress earned a master’s degree in wildlife management at Ohio State University. He got a job with the National Audubon Society and traveled to its Hog Island Camp in Maine to work as an ornithology instructor.

It was there that he learned about nearby Eastern Egg Rock, an island that puffins once used as a breeding ground.

“They nested there until 1885, when the colony was wiped out by hunters,” Kress said. “They never came back.”

That’s when he came up with the idea to relocate the birds. While the practice is common today, wildlife officials back then weren’t so sure about Kress and his plans.

But after the success with those first six chicks, the project took off. Since then, Kress and his team have relocated more than 900 birds to Eastern Egg Rock.

“We had a long view,” he said. “Persistence was a big part of this.”

Kress, 67, said his childhood in Bexley and central Ohio helped shape his devotion to conservation.

He said he spent his summers and his weekends in Blacklick Woods and other area Metro Parks.

“They had a program called the junior explorers … each weekend was a different topic,” Kress said. “‘Reptiles and amphibians’ was my favorite.”

He spent many childhood hikes with friend Mac Albin, who today is the Metro Parks’ aquatic ecologist.

“We were always seeing something new — frogs or salamanders or lizards,” Albin said. “He knows plants really well. He taught me the first plants I learned.”

Albin remembered seeing Project Puffin’s beginning.

“He had these big coffee cans that he and his dad gathered up to make a carrying case,” Albin said. They put (the puffin chicks) in these coffee cans with some herring to keep them alive on the way home.”

At first, Project Puffin was an exercise in patience. The birds live on the ocean for three years before they seek a mate and nest. Then it takes five years before they reproduce.

The first birds returned to Eastern Egg Rock in 1977, drawn in by wood decoy puffins — another Kress idea. The first chicks hatched there in 1981.

Today, the colony has about 100 nesting pairs, and Kress has used similar techniques to colonize two other islands off Maine’s coast.

Kress estimates that his techniques, which also include taped bird calls, have been used to successfully translocate 47 seabird species in at least 14 countries.

Last year, a number of Chinese crested terns, an endangered species, were lured away from colonies on the coast of China to a rocky islet in the East China Sea.

Dan Roby, an Oregon State University wildlife ecologist who worked on the project, said 19 Chinese crested terns flocked to the islet after hearing taped bird calls.

“That’s about half the known (Chinese crested tern) population,” Roby said.

Roby said he first used the techniques Kress pioneered to move a colony of 17,000 Caspian terns from the mouth of Oregon’s Columbia River. The terns were feasting on millions of salmon and steelhead raised in federal hatcheries.

Tern decoys and taped bird calls lured the birds to East Sand Island, about 5 miles away.

“The entire colony relocated in two years,” Roby said.

Kress, now vice president of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society, said he’s pleased with his legacy.

“When I started this project I thought it would last a few years, but it’s lasted a lifetime.”

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

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