Why puffins on this Maine island are master climate change ‘researchers’

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“When you listen to the birds, they can tell you a lot."
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EASTERN EGG ROCK, Maine — Out here on this treeless chunk of rock 8 miles from the tiny coastal town of Bremen, the endless cries of terns, laughing gulls and other seabirds serve as a constant soundtrack for the important work that’s being done.

Look a little closer — beyond the dive-bombing birds, the guano-stained rocks and the small wooden spotting blinds that hint at the long-term scientific presence on the island — and you’ll begin to see the birds that have long been the stars of the show, for those lucky enough to step foot here.

Those stars: Atlantic puffins. The small birds with the toucan-like bill, bright-orange feet and the same upright stature that make penguins so universally loved. And out here, thanks to people such as Stephen Kress, the puffins are everywhere.

John Holyoke | BDN
John Holyoke | BDN
Atlantic puffins and other seabirds on Eastern Egg Rock in Maine.

A recent story by The Associated Press said there were approximately 750 nesting pairs of puffins in 2018 on Eastern Egg Rock and Seal Island and that those numbers are expected to be higher this year.

The story said the birds are thriving due to several factors, including an abundance of the type of fish they’re best suited to eat. That dynamic could be tied to somewhat cooler waters recently in the Gulf of Maine.

On Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree from Maine’s 1st District, and her grandson Smith Pingree, 14, tagged along with National Audubon Society personnel on a fact-finding mission to the island.

John Holyoke | BDN
John Holyoke | BDN
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) on the shore of Eastern Egg Rock while on a trip to the first restored Atlantic puffin colony in the world on Aug. 7, 2019.

The puffins and seabirds that nest here are pretty good teachers, said Kress, the executive director of the Seabird Restoration Program and vice president for bird conservation of the National Audubon Society. All humans have to do is pay attention to the lesson. And listen.

“When you listen to the birds, they can tell you a lot,” Kress said. “I think of them as fishing fleets. They go out in the morning, and then they bring the catch of the day back.”

Kress said watching what the birds eat — five interns spend more than two months living in tents on the island watching and documenting just that — helps inform scientists as they study the way the planet’s climate is changing.

John Holyoke | BDN
John Holyoke | BDN
Tiffany Huenefeldt, managing director of the National Audubon Society's seabird restoration program, stands atop a building sometimes called the "Egg Rock Hilton," to improve her photo-taking opportunities on Eastern Egg Rock, a 7-acre island in Muscongus Bay, Maine.

Some fish thrive in warmer waters, while others don’t. As it turns out, puffins make great researchers — so long as they’re being watched by humans — because it’s pretty easy to find out what the birds are feeding their chicks.

“With us having an ongoing presence on the island we are able to document changes in fish populations because the puffins bring back their fish in their beaks,” Kress said.

Fact-finding mission

Kress was eager to share some of those findings with Pingree, the first member of Congress to step foot on Eastern Egg Rock, which is closed to the public during the nesting season, between April 1 and Aug. 31. And Kress has a unique voice when it comes to sharing the lessons that puffins can teach. As the person who began Project Puffin in 1973, he’s among those most responsible for making Eastern Egg Rock the home of the world’s first restored Atlantic puffin colony.

And Pingree was eager to listen.

John Holyoke | BDN
John Holyoke | BDN
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and her grandson, Smith Pingree, visited Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay off Bremen, Maine, on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. The island is the site of the world's restored Atlantic puffin colony and the birds are helping researchers track changes in the ocean due to climate change.

“There’s so much interest now in what’s happening in the Gulf of Maine and ocean warming, there’s an awful lot we can learn from what [seabirds] are eating and what these [researchers] are observing,” she said.

Pingree said the same fish puffins eat — often herring — are sought by lobstermen. Understanding population trends by looking at firsthand data gathered in spots like Eastern Egg Rock can help inform future debate.

By monitoring the kinds of fish puffins eat, as well as the size of puffin chicks, scientists can begin to predict the population trends when a particular species grows from bite-size puffin snacks to harvest-size fish that would be attractive to commercial fishermen. And knowing that kind of information could help regulating bodies as they formulate management plans, Kress said.

“It’s very difficult to know what’s going on under the water, but seabirds are turning into a new and convincing way to show that there’s changes under the water. We’ve been doing this for over 30 years now,” Kress said.

John Holyoke | BDN
John Holyoke | BDN
An Atlantic puffin takes wing at Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, Maine, on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019.

Kress began Project Puffin back in 1973, moving puffin chicks from Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock and hand-rearing them in burrows. The hope was that a self-sustaining colony would be established. Although hundreds of puffins were visible this week, Kress said that dream of an entirely self-sufficient colony has not been realized.

“We have managed to reboot this colony, reinsert puffins, terns and other species to the ecology, but it’s only successful if we keep people living on the island,” Kress said. “The notion of some sort of balance that is island-specific doesn’t really apply in this day and age because Egg Rock is linked to everything else, including the little fish, and the climate, and everything else.”

Among things in the “everything else” category are a number of predatory birds, including bald eagles and various gulls that would eat the young puffins if given a chance.

That’s when the interns — a hardy group of college graduates — come in.

John Holyoke | BDN
John Holyoke | BDN
Penelope Murphy, an intern with the National Audubon Society's Project Puffin, holds a Leach's storm-petrel chick on Easter Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, off the coast of Maine.

Life on the rock

While the interns spend a lot of time documenting the dietary habits of birds, their presence also deters attacks by human-avoiding birds that would otherwise feast on the puffins.

The living conditions on the island are spartan, to say the least, as interns spend about 10 straight weeks on Eastern Egg Rock, doing what they were hired to do. They live in tents, prepare their own meals, and don’t return to the mainland until the season ends in mid-August. They amuse themselves by holding ceremonies like “Christmas in June” and cataloging things that mainlanders might think odd.

Smells, for instance.

“They’ve not seen a tree in months,” Kress said while introducing the interns.

“I smelled one the other day,” intern supervisor Sarah Guitart said. “Off the breeze. I was like, ‘Oh! It’s a tree!”

And things that float ashore.

Michael Rickershauser, who spent time as an auto mechanic before abandoning that trade in order to study seabirds, said the crew once found a lone acorn that made its way to the island from who-knows-where.

Wednesday was the crew’s last day, and they had different goals in mind.

“If I could just get a proper load of laundry,” Rickershauser said.

Guitart said she had been perfectly happy bathing in the cold bay waters, but she did have a bit of a craving.

“I’m excited to eat a salad and some french fries, interestingly,” she said. “But it’s very bittersweet. We’ve had a wonderful summer, and we’ve gotten to know the birds and this island very well.”

John Holyoke | BDN
John Holyoke | BDN
Atlantic puffins on Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, Maine. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) visited the island, site of the first restored Atlantic puffin colony in the world, on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2019.

Angry birds

Kress piloted the boat that delivered Pingree’s party to the island, and after a short dory ride to the rocky shore, led the group up narrow paths that wind through the low vegetation to several wooden structures that serve as blinds for the interns to observe birds.

The veteran researcher pulled a jaunty tam o’ shanter onto his head, then explained that the traditional Scottish cap served an important purpose.

“I’ll walk first,” he said. “The tam acts as a tern deterrent.”

Terns, he explained, tend to dive-bomb the tallest thing around. That, he said, would make his hat’s pom-pom the target of any aggressive birds, and save the rest of the party from assault.

The tactic seemed to work, and everyone reached the blinds unscathed.

John Holyoke | BDN
John Holyoke | BDN
A National Audubon Society staffer rows visitors including Rep. Chellie Pingree to Eastern Egg Rock during a trip to a restored Atlantic puffin colony on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019.

There, everyone got down to the serious business we had not-so-secretly come for. Everyone loves puffins, after all. And everyone wanted to watch a puffin in action.

It didn’t take long.

Smith Pingree spotted the first puffin from 100 yards away while hiking to the blind. In the blind, puffins began lighting on the stacks of rocks that serve as their nesting burrows. Those burrows have been well documented by researchers, and each one is marked with a white number on a red-painted background so the interns can easily track what they’re seeing and identify individual birds, some of which have numbered leg tags.

“There’s a puffin very close to us. Just came out of hole 130,” Kress said. “Notice how dry-looking the bird is? Even on the water, they never look wet. And if it sits there, it may help other puffins to land with it.”

Puffins are social birds, he explained, but they also are wary of possible predators. One puffin standing on a rock may be cute, but it is also vulnerable because it must detect any possible danger that could approach from any direction. When six or eight puffins stand near one another, they can work together to spot potential intruders.

And at the end of her visit, Pingree said she was happy to have spent time learning more about the iconic puffin and the lessons that it can help teach.

“You don’t learn the same from a book in the way that you do coming literally out here and seeing the birds and seeing what’s in their mouths,” she said.

Watch: What makes puffins so great




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