EASTERN EGG ROCK— Wings beating rapidly, an Atlantic puffin flew by, fish spilling from the sides of its orange bill.
“He’s circling,” said Dr. Steve Kress, following the puffin with binoculars. “I think he has hake — maybe herring.”
The puffin returned, flying low over the berm of granite slabs piled along the shore, then dove into a gap in the rocks, his orange feet first. Just above the crevasse, painted on the stone in bright red: “82.”
That could mean only one thing: In burrow 82, on Eastern Egg Rock, a puffin chick had hatched.
“Puffins are an excellent indicator of the health of the oceans,” said Kress, founder and director of the National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin. “And that health is not just about puffins. That’s about everything that lives in the oceans.”
Eastern Egg Rock — a treeless, windswept isle that lies 6 miles off the coast of Maine — is home to the world’s first restored seabird colony, and this summer marks the 40th anniversary of Project Puffin, the program that made it all possible.
Puffins, once hunted for meat and feathers, disappeared from Maine’s islands in the late 1800s. Today, a predicted 1,000 puffins are nesting off the coast of Maine, with about 100 of those pairs nesting on Eastern Egg Rock, where it all began with Kress.
Yet recent ocean conditions are threatening the puffin colonies Project Puffin has worked so hard to rebuild.
“Last winter, we started getting reports of puffins showing up in places they don’t normally show up — close to shore,” Kress said. “And then eventually, we started getting reports of birds washing up; some of them were starving, others were dead.”
About 450 dead seabirds, including 35 puffins, were found off Cape Cod alone. Seven of the dead puffins had been banded on Maine islands.
“This suggests that the marine conditions were not good, at least in part of their range last winter,” Kress said. “This coincides with the warmest sea surface temperatures recorded in 150 years. And warmer water generally means poor fishing for birds like puffins.”
Puffins feed on small fish and shrimp that thrive in cold, nutrient-rich water. And when the ocean warms, these sea creatures move and become less abundant.
Audubon researchers witnessed the sad result of this during the summer of 2012.
“We saw puffins starving on Seal Island and Matinicus Rock because the food that the parents were bringing back was too big for them, and the little chicks couldn’t swallow it,” Kress said. “That was a problem. That was unusual.”
And it isn’t just Maine puffins that are struggling to find adequate food.
“In Iceland, the center of the puffin’s world range, where there are maybe 5 million puffins still nesting, they’re not reproducing nearly as well as they used to, again because of change in sea surface temperatures and food availability,” Kress said.
On top of that, puffins faced another stressor last winter — storms.
Puffins that nest on Maine islands depart in the winter, and little is known about where they actually travel.
“They head far off to sea; they’re too small to carry satellite transmitters like you can attach to some larger animals; and when they dive deep in the ocean, they don’t tolerate anything attached to their feathers,” Kress explained.
Nevertheless, the Audubon devised a way to track puffins with leg tags that measure daylength and date, and for the winter of 2012, they attached these tags to two Maine puffins. The puffins first traveled north to Labrador, then turned around midwinter and headed south to spend the rest of the winter on the Bermuda plateau. In the spring, they headed back to Maine.
This means that Maine’s puffins endured the thrashing of last October’s Hurricane Sandy, followed by a succession of winter storms.
“What this means for the Maine puffins, we’re still trying to figure out,” Kress said. “We know for sure that puffins are not nesting as many on Matinicus Rock. We have only about 60 percent of our burrows occupied this year. The birds that chose not to nest may not have survived, or they may just be taking the year off.”
Rewind to the late 1970s, when Kress first arrived at Hog Island Audubon Camp to be a bird life instructor. Right away, he began reading about Maine seabird history, and it wasn’t long before he learned that puffins used to live just 8 miles away on Eastern Egg Rock — before they were hunted into extirpation.
“I thought, what a terrible loss,” Kress said. “And I wanted to show the people at the camp the puffins, so I thought I’d take a few summers, I’d go get some puffins, release them. The obstacles were huge. No one had translocated — that is, moved — baby seabirds of any kind before.”
Kress took six puffin chicks from Great Island, Newfoundland, to Eastern Egg Rock on July 15, 1973. Biologists fed the young puffins vitamin-fortified fish in artificial sod burrows. Each puffin received a leg band before departing for the winter so they could be recognized in the future.
“You just have to have hope that they will go out and then come back,” said Kress, counting on the fact that young puffins typically return to breed on the same island where they hatched.
They didn’t come back.
Kress waited four years, then decided to try a new trick — puffin decoys. Because puffins are social birds, he thought the sight of the wooden puffins would attracting the living, breathing puffins. He was right.
“The day we put them up, we couldn’t believe it — a puffin just appeared,” he said, smiling. “We had three decoys, and we looked out and there were four — one walking around.”
And the puffin was wearing a leg band, meaning it was one that Kress has translocated from Newfoundland to Maine. The sight spelled success, yet it was four more years (1981) before a puffin actually nested on the island.
“It was the Fourth of July, a puffin came flying in with fish, dropped into the rocks, and came out without the fish. And so that was — that was — a huge success,” he said, looking down at the wooden puffin decoy in his hands.
Today, the methods Kress developed to restore puffin colonies in Maine have been used to restore colonies of 49 different bird species in 14 countries.
Stepping onto Eastern Egg Rock is like entering another world.
The 7 acres of grass and rock is home to roughly 7,000 nesting seabirds — thats 1,000 birds per acre — and each bird is protecting an egg or chick.
“As we walk through, each species will attack,” said Kress as he stepped onto the narrow path that leads through the island grasses to a tiny cabin and blinds. “I’m glad I’ve got a hat on, lets say.”
Terns dove down at Kress’ beret as he walked carefully along the path. Laughing gulls emerged from the grass and hovered over their speckled eggs, their deep red bills moving as they cackled in alarm.
“We have lived on this island for 40 years — a place that the local fisherman say, ‘You can’t live there,’” Kress said. “It is a wild, wild place. The ocean crashes over it in the winter almost completely.”
Eastern Egg Rock, owned by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, is one of the seven National Audubon Society research islands in Maine. A handful of interns live on the island during the summer, sleeping in tents and using the small cabin as a home base for meals, work and, on rainy days, card games. They spend their days conducting seabird censuses and collecting data for studies related to seabird health.
“The laughing gulls never really stop calling out here. They stand on our tents in the middle of the night,” said island supervisor Maggie Lee Post, who doesn’t step off the island once during the 10-week field season. She and the four interns spend hours sitting in the blinds, watching puffins dive into burrows and recording the numbers.
“We’re watching the puffins pretty closely,” Post said.
Post, who has spent five field seasons on Eastern Egg Rock, said she has a favorite puffin, one she met during her first year as an intern on the island in 2006. His name, written on a little yellow band around his leg, is C6.
“He sits right on top of his burrow and stands all day long,” she said. “We haven’t seen him yet this year, but I’m still watching. I still have faith he’ll come back.”
In addition to collecting important seabird data, Post and the interns protect the seabird colonies on the island by controlling invasive plant species and scaring off predators, such as great black-backed gulls, peregrine falcons and eagles.
“If we were to take our interns off the islands, these islands would immediately be taken over by predatory birds, and puffins would disappear,” he said. “Their presence here is the primary deterrent. The day after we leave in mid-August, eagles will be sitting on top of the cabin.”
On the evening of July 2, a puffin egg cracked in a burrow on Seal Island, and a chick emerged. A high-definition camera captured this magical moment and streamed the video live on the Internet, sharing the birth of one Maine puffin to thousands of people around the world.
The Audubon crew on the Seal Island named the chick Hope, from Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is a thing with feathers.”
In an effort to connect people with wildlife, four cameras were set up to broadcast Maine seabirds (puffins, terns and osprey) during May 2012, thanks to a three-year grant from Explore.org, a division of the Annenberg Foundation. More than 1.6 million viewers worldwide watched Maine seabirds during the cameras’ first summer.
Another way to connect to a puffin is by adopting one.
Eastern Egg Island is home to the Audubon’s Adopt-A-Puffin program, which enables people to adopt a specific puffin, identified by leg band, for $100 a year. Each adopter receives a photo and written history of their puffin, a certificate, and the knowledge that their money goes toward Project Puffin.
Kress sat in a blind and watched puffins loafing on the rocks. By the opening of a burrow, two puffins began rubbing their beaks together, a courting behavior called “billing,” akin to kissing.
Nearby, a puffin with fish darted into a gap in the rocks. Minutes later, it emerged with an empty bill.
“We’re glad to see them carrying hake and herring,” Kress said, lowering his binoculars, “which are small enough [for chicks to swallow].”
In 2011, the puffin population hit a peak on Eastern Egg Rock, when interns recorded 123 pairs of nesting puffins. But in 2012, that number dipped to 105, likely because of lack of proper food. This year’s count will be tallied at the end of breeding season, in August.
“When I started Project Puffin, many people said, ‘Why are you doing this? Just let nature take its course. Surviving animals will survive, and those are the ones that will inherit the Earth,’” Kress said. “I didn’t accept that. My view is if people cause the problem then it’s up to other people to try and fix it. I believe people are stewards of life on Earth and if we ignore that, future generations will have a much more diminished planet to live on, and animals affect each other and affect us in ways that we really have no way of knowing.
“These puffins affect us in many ways,” Kress said. “Sure, they’re fun to look at, and they are becoming an increasingly important ecotourism revenue source in the state of Maine, and that’s not to be diminished, but these puffins tell us about the quality of the oceans — the lungs that support life on Earth — if the puffins can’t survive here, then we won’t be long for this planet, either.”
• Some puffins tagged for Project Puffins are 35 years old.
• Puffins often return to the same mate, year after year.
• Mates take turns incubating the egg and feeding the chick.
• Puffins lay just one egg each year.
• Puffins are excellent swimmers and dive down to 200 feet under the surface.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the naming of the chick “Hope,” from Henry Dickenson's “Hope is a thing with feathers.” It is Emily Dickinson.