‘Bird nerds’ live on remote island to watch over Maine’s puffin population

Posted July 18, 2013, at 6:10 a.m.
Last modified July 18, 2013, at 2:55 p.m.

EASTERN EGG ROCK, Maine — Aspen Ellis suddenly springs from the dinner table, grabs her binoculars and bolts out of the cabin. A small flock of flying shorebirds has caught her eye.

“Dowitchers!” she calls out.

In a moment her three colleagues grab their own field glasses and rush to join Ellis outside.

“We’re bird nerds,” says Kate MacNamee, explaining the excitement. Spotting a bird that’s not yet on your life list is reason enough to interrupt dinner.

Ellis, 17, a college student from Ann Arbor, Mich., and MacNamee, 21, a senior at Colby College, along with Unity College junior Kaitlyn Nafziger, 20, are field biologists working with seabirds under the supervision of Maggie Post on this 7-acre island. They’re part of Project Puffin, the Audubon Society’s successful re-colonization effort that brought the comical little seabirds back to Maine.

The puffins, which now breed on three remote Maine islands, probably wouldn’t survive here if they didn’t share the islands with the biologists.

“Our human presence helps keep away the predators, like black-backed gulls and falcons,” said Post, who has spent five summers collecting data for the project.

The researchers stay until the puffin chicks have fledged. “We’ve heard that almost as soon as we leave as many as seven bald eagles have been spotted out here,” said Post. Without people on the island the baby puffins wouldn’t stand a chance.

Living in a giant bird colony isn’t for everyone.

In addition to the 100 pairs of puffins, there are also about 5,000 laughing gulls and a couple thousand terns, making it one of the noisiest places in the state.

This summer has been plagued by fog and rainy weather, forcing the group to spend so much time inside the “Egg Rock Hilton,” (the small cabin where they eat meals and record data) that they’ve given names to several large spiders living on the cabin’s windows.

The job is also not without its hazards. Terns are especially aggressive about guarding their nests. The biologists pad their hats to protect from attacks.

Laughing gulls don’t attack so much as drop bombs. Hats and shirts are splattered with stains.

Interns, like Ellis and Nafziger, are unpaid. They joke that they do the job for free food and a free tent platform. But spending a summer in a sanctuary that is closed to the public is an experience they’ll undoubtedly cherish long after they return the mainland next month.