Yankee Classic from August 1983 by Ron Winslow
Steve Kress worked diligently to establish a breeding colony of puffins at East Egg Rock. First the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the seagull population, then Kress and helpers imported puffin chicks from Newfoundland. The first real sign of success was when workers observed adult puffins returning to the island carrying fish to feed chicks.
It was 5:55, just before sunrise, when I ducked into an upside-down plywood box that served as a bird blind on an island outpost at the mouth of Muscongus Bay. I perched on an inverted garbage can and peered through the small windows that were protected with strips of burlap. I had binoculars and a camera. I scanned the nearby boulders, hoping to see a puffin. By 6:30 I was restless and impatient. Then I caught myself. Steve Kress has spent the better part of the last ten summers trying to recognize Maine’s East Egg Rock Island with puffins, the species that dominated it a century ago. The project is a monument to patience, and I had come here to spend the day expecting to see a puffin on demand.
Entitled or not, at 6:40 a small puffin with a band on each leg landed on a rock about 20 feet in front of me. I lunged for my binoculars, rattling the garbage can underneath me, then stopped, holding my breath, afraid I’d scare the bird away. The puffin preened itself and finally walked down the side of the rock and disappeared. Within five minutes, the puffin returned. Two minutes later a second puffin appeared. Another minute and a third landed on a rock. Ten years ago I would not have been treated to this show. I was watching the results of a nine-year project replete with patience, disappointment, dedication, and love.
A Puffin is a small seabird with a black back, snow-white breast, short orange legs, and webbed feet. Its most striking feature is its oversized beak, a rainbow of red-orange, yellow, and gray. The puffin’s most appealing characteristic, however, is its eyes. Small and dark against the bird’s gray-white face, they are highlighted by markings that give the puffin an innocent, vulnerable expression that looks just plain friendly.
As early as the 1880s, puffins were virtually extinct along the northern New England coast, the southern frontier of their range. They were the victims of fishermen who, in search of meat and eggs, stretched huge herring nets over the rocks at night on such islands as Eastern Egg Rock, covering the crevices where puffins made their nests and cared for their young.
By 1900 the birds were so scarce that both federal and state legislation was passed to protect them and other birds from excessive hunting. But it was too late for the puffin along Maine’s coastline. The state’s entire puffin population was reduced to a couple of breeding pair on Matinicus Rock. By 1970 that island’s population had increased to about 50, but no new puffin colonies had been established along the coast.
Steve Kress decided to change that. “It was simply a conscious desire to increase the diversity of Maine seabirds,” says Kress, who was then a bird instructor at the Maine Audubon Camp which he now directs. “Without some conscious effort to manage some of these species, we could lose them.”
Kress is a stocky, round-faced man whose even temperament masks the intensity of his commitment to wildlife. He chose puffins because their story most dramatically illustrated the plight of seabirds, especially their conservation along the Maine coast. It was a bird that had not recovered and was clearly unable to recover from the abuse it suffered from humans when it was avidly hunted in the 19th century. Then there’s just the bird’s special appeal.
“The puffin looks like a little clown,” he says, “a little caricature of human form. Any caricature of human form is sort of innately appealing. Most people view wildlife through human eyes.”
Kress’s puffin project is keyed to this fact: young puffins, after spending two to three years at sea, generally return to the place where they were born to find a mate. Since no puffins were on Eastern Egg Rock in 1970, Kress would have to transplant puffin chicks from Newfoundland, Canada, where they thrived on the steep, jagged shoreline.
Kress selected Eastern Egg Rock Island — one of the outermost of dozens of islands in Muscongus Bay — as the real-life laboratory where techniques to restore the bird would be tested.
While it had once been home to puffins, the island’s most recent dominant inhabitants were seagulls, black-backed and herring gulls in particular.
These thriving gull colonies were a major hindrance to Kress because gulls are among the puffins’ predators. So when Kress decided to reestablish a puffin colony on Eastern Egg Rock, he also decided to destroy the seagull population there — or at least drive it off the island. Using “gull control practices,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service broke up the nests, and poisoned and shot some of the adults. “The gulls learned quickly. They’re intelligent,” Kress explains.
There were some lessons in it for Kress and his team as well. “It took a couple of years to clear the island of most of the gulls. It was a sobering realization of how much easier it is to break up a colony of seabirds than it is to create one.”
Indeed, just getting puffin chicks to the island was a ticklish problem. Each June for eight years, Kress packed crates specially made for transporting the chicks onto a chartered plane and flew to Newfoundland. He picked up about 100 week-old chicks (except for 1973 and 1974 when he got six and 54 respectively) and raced to make the 1,000 mile journey by plane, truck, and boat, back to Eastern Egg Rock within a day.
But that was the easy part. Kress and his research assistants — mostly Cornell graduate students — had to make nests for these puffins. “The puffin in Maine is a rock nester,” Kress explains. “Throughout most of its range, it’s a soil nester. It digs a nice burrow in the soil.”
Partly because Eastern Egg Rock is predominantly rock, and partly because the researchers were to be parents to these chicks and needed access to them, Kress decided to make rock burrows from cement blocks. But when the 1,000 cement blocks he ordered were stacked at the loading pier near the Audubon Camp, he had second thoughts. Ferrying all that cement to the island would be a lot harder than carrying the birds ashore.
So for the first year he tried ceramic chimney tiles, which seemed like natural rock crevices. But they heated up like ovens, and they provided no place for the chicks’ droppings to run. When the chicks fledged, their feathers were soiled. “It makes them vulnerable to cold water shock,” Kress says. “We’ve never seen one of the 54 birds we reared in the damn things.”
The next year, 1975, the team dug 100 burrows in what soil they could find on Eastern Egg Rock. Evie Weinstein, a researcher on the project, remembers the day a week or so after they had transplanted chicks into the burrows. It had rained for three days straight. Evie was out on Eastern Egg Rock; despite the rain, the feeding schedule for the chicks couldn’t be interrupted.
In the downpour one morning, she approached one burrow and found water was lapping at its mouth. It was full of water. Certain the chick had died, she bent down, held her breath, and reached her arm all the way in. “In the back corner of the burrow was an air pocket,” she said. “A puffin chick was paddling around, with just its beak sticking out.” Many chicks nearly drowned because the holes wouldn’t drain.
Finally, in 1976, they found the solution. They built burrows in blocks of sod. “They were puffin condos,” Kress says with a smile. Each burrow was L-shaped, a required feature for happy puffins, Kress learned, and because they were sod, the chicks could scratch away at the sides and shape their homes to their taste.
Kress and his four research assistants rotated two- and three-day shifts on the island and spent several hours each day feeding the chicks. “It is as if we raised these birds,” reads one entry in the daily journal the researchers have kept from the beginning of the project.
After four or five weeks the puffin chicks would get restless in their burrows, pacing back and forth and often refusing to eat. That usually meant they were ready to fledge — that is, to leave their nests to survive in the wild on their own.
Although puffins feed and are most active during the day, their young fledge at night, an unusual practice, Kress says, that protects them from the gulls. “It shows how strong the gull presence has been for them to adapt to it in such an effective way,” he says.
On several occasions Kress has crawled out on the rocks on the island after midnight to listen for the telltale scraping of plastic bands against the rocks, and, if he’s lucky, to watch the birds in the moonlight as they stumble their way to the sea. By dawn, the puffins are far enough out at sea to be free of danger of the gulls.
Once the young birds fly or stumble into the sea, the researchers await their return. In subsequent years, even while they were caring for the current year’s class of chicks, they eagerly scanned the skies and the rocks for signs that the earlier years’ classes had returned.
From this standpoint, the summers of 1974, 1975, and 1976 were long indeed. Despite hours and days of searching the horizon, they didn’t spot a single puffin.
Finally, on June 12, 1977, as Kress was rowing ashore in a dinghy, a puffin flew overhead and plopped down in the water nearby. As Kress rowed, the bird swam toward him, each as curious as the other. Kress knew in a moment he had found what he was looking for: around the bird’s left leg was a white plastic band — certain evidence that puffins had returned to Eastern Egg Rock. “Oh, what a great day,” he says.
The rush of excitement, however, was followed by more disappointment. “Weeks went by and nothing,” Kress says. Finally they checked other nearby islands. On Matinicus Rock, about 26 miles east, they found what they’d hoped to see at Eastern Egg Rock — puffins with white and multicolored bands on their legs.
“It’s very common for puffins to wander around for two to three years before they breed,” Kress explains. Over the next couple of years the team set out puffin decoys and mirrors on the island’s rock formations in an effort to attract the real birds. They began an effort to attract arctic terns and other terns by playing tape recordings of bird calls. Terns breed rapidly and are especially aggressive against gulls, thus a puffin ally. Between 1977 and 1980 puffins returned to the island in increasing numbers, and the despair of the first years turned to excitement.
This didn’t necessarily mean the puffins were breeding, and that was the key to the success of the project and to the realization of Kress’s dream. Since frequent inspection of the boulders where the puffins might nest would only inhibit mating, Kress and his team depended on other evidence as proof of breeding — a puffin returning to the island with fish in its beak. The group had rarely talked about this goal, out of superstition that too much talk would undermine the dream.
On July 4, 1981, it happened. “This is the day that we have all experienced a thousand times by dream,” Kress wrote in the journal that day. Evie Weinstein was the first to spot a puffin flying overhead with a fish in its mouth. But she was alone on one end of the island while Kress was in a blind on the other. “There was nobody to tell,” she says. Then, just after 7:30 that evening while in the crow’s nest, Kress had his turn. He wrote: “While taking a random scope view of the south end of the island, I was amazed to see a puffin with its beak crammed full of fish enter the field of my scope and walk-fly-scramble into the boulders. A moment later a bird came out of the rocks, exercised, and flew off while a second stood by watching the entire show…it’s the best proof yet that after 100 years of absence and nine years of working toward this goal, puffins are again nesting at Eastern Egg Rock — a Fourth of July celebration I’ll never forget.”
Although the team no longer transplants chicks from Newfoundland, the puffin project, which is supported by private donations, continues. The population is beginning to establish itself without imports. There were 14 nesting pair at Eastern Egg Rock last summer, but it’s too early to tell for sure whether the project is a success.
“Puffins mate for life,” Kress says, “and return to the same burrow every year. But they can’t raise two chicks at once because they can’t bring home enough food. They aren’t geared up for quick reproduction.”
Thus whether they increase in numbers will depend on several factors — the supply of food and the absence of gulls among them. The next milestone in the puffin project, Kress says, is probably to see if the birds are still at Eastern Egg Rock 20 years down the road.
“It’s extremely gratifying when you see it come full circle,” Kress says. “It reinforces the kind of commitment that it takes. No matter what you’re doing, there’s value in just being persistent in what you believe in.”