BELFAST, Maine — Maine seabirds – including the iconic Atlantic puffin – may be in trouble. Researchers are concerned about starving chicks and dead birds that washed up this winter off Cape Cod and Scotland.
Lately, the razorbill, a species related to puffins, has been demonstrating unusual behavior as well. The seabirds veered far south of their normal migration patterns this year and ended up in Florida instead of the Gulf of Maine for the winter.
Dr. Steve Kress, the director of the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Restoration Program, said that the troubling events coincided with warmer water temperatures along the eastern seaboard and abnormally big storms such as last fall’s Superstorm Sandy.
Those meteorological phenomena have been connected to climate change, which he said is a new dilemma for seabirds. Puffins were brought back from the brink of extinction in Maine in the early 1900s, and Kress and others are hoping they will not face another major decline.
“Puffins, because they eat fish, are a very good indicator of what’s going on in the oceans,” he said Wednesday, calling the colorful seabirds the “ocean canary.”
“For all the work that we do and have done to restore the puffins, it can be undone by these conditions that are maybe unfolding.”
About six to eight million Atlantic puffins live around the North Atlantic Ocean, nesting in Labrador, Maine, France, Iceland, Greenland and northern Russia. An estimated 2,000 of the birds live in Maine.
He said that scientists are waiting to see what happens with this year’s puffin chicks, which will soon hatch in their nesting colonies off the coast of Maine. They are hoping for a different outcome than last year, when parent puffins had trouble finding herring, the usual food for their fledglings. Instead, they brought a larger fish called butterfish back to their nests.
“We found dead puffin chicks surrounded by large butterfish,” Kress said. “We realized that the little chicks were actually starving … these fish were larger than the puffins’ beak. They struggled to swallow the fish.”
Earlier this spring, 3,500 puffins washed up on the shore of Scotland following a series of storms. In Cape Cod, at least 40 puffins and 400 other seabirds died this spring, including 200 razorbills, he said. Many of those birds had not gotten enough food to maintain their body weight or molt out of their drabber winter plumage.
It’s not the first challenge for seabirds. Maine puffins were over-hunted in the 1800s for food, eggs and feathers, Kress said. By 1901, only one nesting pair was left in Maine on Matinicus Rock. But conservation efforts over the last decades have paid off. He began a program to re-establish a puffin colony on Eastern Egg Rock off the coast of Knox County 40 years ago. Through Project Puffin, researchers moved puffin chicks from a colony in Newfoundland and raised them on Eastern Egg Rock so that the birds would eventually return to raise their own chicks.
The plan is working, he said, with more than 100 pairs of puffins nesting there now. Some other Maine colonies are located on Seal Island, Great Duck Island, Matinicus Rock and Petit Manan.
Those interested in puffins can watch them via a live camera on Seal Island, located 18 miles offshore of Rockland. It is also possible to adopt a puffin by making a donation to Audubon through projectpuffin.org. The funds help the group keep student interns on the offshore islands during the summer to scare away predators and monitor the birds, according to Kress.
Puffin popularity has not waned as more than 10,000 people in Maine each summer board boats to view them in their offshore island colonies.
“I think the little puffin is charismatic enough to capture people’s attention,” Kress said. “I hope the message about the puffins being the ocean canary will be something people will care about and think about. We don’t have to be actually shooting the birds to destroy them. We can have our effects just by our lifestyles: our carbon footprint, our choice of eating sustainable fish, our use of plastics. All of this affects the seabird’s world.”