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

Posted July 18, 2013, at 6:10 a.m.
Kaitlyn Nafziger, 20, a junior at Unity College, checks on the condition of a feisty black guillemot chick on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Kaitlyn Nafziger, 20, a junior at Unity College, checks on the condition of a feisty black guillemot chick on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine. Buy Photo
Kaitlyn Nafziger, left, and Maggie Post measure and weigh common tern chicks as they gather data on nesting seabirds on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Kaitlyn Nafziger, left, and Maggie Post measure and weigh common tern chicks as they gather data on nesting seabirds on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine. Buy Photo
Maggie Post rows a load of supplies from a moored boat to the 7-acre Eastern Egg Rock, an island about five miles off the coast of Pemiquid, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Maggie Post rows a load of supplies from a moored boat to the 7-acre Eastern Egg Rock, an island about five miles off the coast of Pemiquid, Maine. Buy Photo
Kaitlyn Nafziger, on raft, hands hers bags to to Kate MacNamee as she arrives for a stint on Eastern Egg Rock. Landings on slippery seaweed-covered rocks and surging surf require patience and agility.
Robert F. Bukaty
Kaitlyn Nafziger, on raft, hands hers bags to to Kate MacNamee as she arrives for a stint on Eastern Egg Rock. Landings on slippery seaweed-covered rocks and surging surf require patience and agility. Buy Photo
A common tern dive-bombs Maggie Post, the island supervisor on Eastern Egg Rock, as she ventures into the bird's nesting territory. Field biologists pad their hats to protect themselves from attacks.
Robert F. Bukaty
A common tern dive-bombs Maggie Post, the island supervisor on Eastern Egg Rock, as she ventures into the bird's nesting territory. Field biologists pad their hats to protect themselves from attacks. Buy Photo
Aspen Ellis, 17, of Ann Arbor, Mich., illustrates her journal while Kaitlyn Nafziger catches up on her reading on a rainy day on Eastern Egg Rock.
Robert F. Bukaty
Aspen Ellis, 17, of Ann Arbor, Mich., illustrates her journal while Kaitlyn Nafziger catches up on her reading on a rainy day on Eastern Egg Rock. Buy Photo
On Eastern Egg Rock the day's duties begin with the weather report at 6 AM and and ends with a phone call to the Audubon base in Bremen at 8 PM.
Robert F. Bukaty
On Eastern Egg Rock the day's duties begin with the weather report at 6 AM and and ends with a phone call to the Audubon base in Bremen at 8 PM. Buy Photo
Kaitlyn Nafziger, Maggie Post, and Aspen Ellis, play cards while Kate MacNamee rests on the couch on a rainy day on Eastern Egg Rock.  Wet weather confines the field biologists to the island's small cabin.
Robert F. Bukaty
Kaitlyn Nafziger, Maggie Post, and Aspen Ellis, play cards while Kate MacNamee rests on the couch on a rainy day on Eastern Egg Rock. Wet weather confines the field biologists to the island's small cabin. Buy Photo
A dowitchwer on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
A dowitchwer on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine. Buy Photo
Robert F. Bukaty
A group of dowitchers fly over Eastern Egg Rock.
Robert F. Bukaty
A group of dowitchers fly over Eastern Egg Rock. Buy Photo
A guillemot takes a red rock eel to its burrow on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
A guillemot takes a red rock eel to its burrow on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine. Buy Photo
A puffin, the result of a 40-year re-colonization effort led by the Audubon Society, looks around on Eastern Egg Rock.
Robert F. Bukaty
A puffin, the result of a 40-year re-colonization effort led by the Audubon Society, looks around on Eastern Egg Rock. Buy Photo
Whimsical watercolors of &quotpuffin-burros" painted by intern Aspen Ellis hang inside the cabin on Eastern Egg Rock.
Robert F. Bukaty
Whimsical watercolors of "puffin-burros" painted by intern Aspen Ellis hang inside the cabin on Eastern Egg Rock. Buy Photo
The Project Puffin field biologists wave from the roof of the &quotEgg Rock Hilton" to an Audubon colleague who was guiding a tourist boat passing the island.
Robert F. Bukaty
The Project Puffin field biologists wave from the roof of the "Egg Rock Hilton" to an Audubon colleague who was guiding a tourist boat passing the island. Buy Photo

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.

More slideshows

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
The Forecaster
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business