Puffins come home
Eastern Egg Rock, Maine
For the first time in 100 years, there are once again Atlantic puffin chicks here on Eastern Egg Rock, a tiny, treeless thimble of an eight miles off the rocky coast of Maine.
On our hands and knees, our whispered voices fallen into silence, we waited and watched as Dr. Stephen W. Kress thrust an arm deep into man-made burrow No. 16, reached sharply around the corner at the far end into its dark, sanctum, tenderly grasped a black and gray ball of town, and drew forth into the late afternoon sunshine a blinking, baby puffin.
Like all his seafaring species, this little creature seemed docile, unafraid, and as curious about his human visitpors as we were about him.
He was only three weeks old but already his white, juvenile breast feathers -- his waterproof plumage -- could be seen taking form beneath his pearl-gray vest. Later, the soft, black fluff covering head and back would also give way to the sleek, streamlined look of the gown bird's black-and-white formal attire. His wee, webbed feet straignht up in the air. The small, black beak gave no hint of the flamboyant orange, blue, and yellow outsize beak he would develop as an adult.
Dr. Kress, a research affiliate of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, who planned and and his eating up the National Audubon Society's "Bring a puffin a Puffin Home" It opened out like a delicate fan."See his little wing feathers forming? They'll be powering him around the island someday." This is the high aim of Audubon's Project Puffin: to reestablish the lost colony of these sea birds, which, for perhaps hundreds of years before Europeans colonized the Maine coast, had nested on this storm-battered islet. It range, which extends in a sweeping arc all the way up the Canadian coast and across the Atlantic Ocean to islands off the coasts of Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, and France.
By 1880, the puffins here on Eastern Egg Rock were completely wiped out by human predators, who shot adult birds for their meat. Puffinns' tameness and approchability made them easy targets. Eggers, seeking out the nests of gulls and find so that, on a return trip two days later, they would be assured of finding fresh eggs.
The broader purpose of the puffin experiment, now in its seventh year, is to develop techniques and procedures to help save endangered sea birds, threatened as are the puffins by oil spills, toxic waste, and man's overfishing of their food supplies.
The Audobon's research program is cosponsored by the Canadian Wildlife Service, which provides the nestlings for the project and is very much interestedin the outcome of the program.
To view a puffin chick at close range and then watch him waddle back into his burrow is to be slightly awestruck when one learns of his spectacularly independent, brave, rugged, and somewhat comical life style.
No. 61, like the 99 other puffin chicks transplanted here this summer from nesting grounds in Newfoundland, is lulled by the sounds of the sea: the clanging of a nearby bell buoy, the alpping and dashing of waves on the rocks, the whine of the wind, the occasional screech of an Arctic tern cruising by.
Like his fellow, chick No. 61 will gobble up 28 small smelts a day -- about a quarter pound of fish -- laboriously served him in two daily feedings by Dr. Kress and his four staff members, who take turns living on the island, three at a time.
Instinctively aware of gull predators, the chicks never venture outside their individual burrows until they are five weeks old. Then, and only at night, they step outside and exercise, flapping their wings to strengthen their breast muscles for the incredibly taxing life ahead. It is at this stage that the Audobon staff color-codes the fledgings with bands that show the year they were "launched."
Even when they are in the wild their parents, puffins fledge themselves completely alone.At only six weeks, in the dark of night, the birds waddle out their burrows, one by one, clamber over the boulders down to the water's edge, and ship out to sea. They just disappear into the vastness of the wild North Atlantic, and are never seen for two years.
I've sat down there and seen them do it a few times, "Dr. Kress says "You can hear them coming. Their bands tinkle on the rocks. No matter what the weather is like, whether a ragin storm or a flat sea, they just walk down to the shoreline, get in the water, and paddle out. Nobody knows where they go. They are all on their own. They have to learn how to catch their own food -- small fish, crustaceans like shrimp, little bits of marine life."
At age 2, like clockwork, these young birds come barreling back to this one small rocky island they once called home, a home in which they never spent one hour outside their buring back to this one small rocky island they once called home, a home in which they never spent one hour outside their burrows in daylight. So they have never really seenm this place.
Dr. Kress shook his head. "No one knows how they do it," he says. "Navigation and homing are two of the biggest mysteries of ornithology. However they do it, and is a very refined system. It works under a variety of situations, because they come flying right here on the thickest, foggiest day of the summer. They know right where this place is!"
When fledgings go to sea, their appearance is still somber. But on their first homecoming, their "teen-age" coloring is in full flower. Their small, black beak has grown into the big, showy, trinagular-shaped schnozzle for which they are noted. Even the inside of their mouth is brilliant orange, and their legs and feet are a matching hue.
From this point on, puffins are a fantastic combination of loner and social butterfly: Eight months of the year they bob on the ocean, while summers are spent fraterninzing with other puffins at their home base.
Like tee-agers who like hanging around some street corner with their peers, young puffins enjoy loafting around together, standing, sitting, lolling in the sun.
They are pretty curious, too," Dr. Kress says. "They spend a lot of time walking around, pecking at one another. And rubbing beaks. They do a lot of that. It's one of their favorite activities. It's called 'biling.'
"A male and a female will rub their beaks back and forth. Then you often get a lot of others sort of watching. They are very interested in these billing affairs. They lean in closer and closer.They can actually interrupt tge billing if they get too close. They stick their beaks right in there and break it up.That goes on as long as they are on the island."
Their daily summer routine is to show up on Egg Rock first thing in the morning to begin the day's socializing. Some early birds zoom in by 6 o' clock. But the biggest numbers -- 23 is the maximum count on any one day so far -- arrive between 9 and 10. After catching up on news, so to speak, they begin drifting off, getting down to the serious business of fishing. By 5 in the afternoon, hardly a puffin is still around. they just disappear and don't return until the next morning.
The question is whether a puffin is a bird, a fish, or a mammal.
Dr. Kress points out that this versatile species is "built for all systems." It waddles well on the ground. It uses its flat beak to break open the soil and its hooked toes and webbed feet to dig burrows when it can't find the nesting places under big rocks. In th air, its stubby tail, fat body, short wingspan, and rapid wing beat give it the appearance of a fighter bomber. It not only floats on the water's surface, but also dives as deep as 50 feet underwater to forage for its food. Like some other sea birds, it can stat underwater for several minutes.
And when adults are nesting they think nothing of flying a 200-mile round trip per day to collect food for their young. An adult puffin can carry up to 40 fish at a time, the whole catch dangling from its monumental beak.
A pair lays only one egg a year, and puffin populations are dwendling. Confined to fewer and fewer undisturbed areas, the majority of Atalantic puffins in this part of the world breed on a single island only one mile long and half a mile wide in Witless Bay, south of St. John's, Newfoundland. There are about 148,000 pairs on Great Island. Together with puffins on nearby Gull and Green Islands, these birds constitute 75 percent of all nesting puffins in North America.
Offshore oil drilling near the Grand Banks of Newfoundland is now going on within their 100-mile fishing range.
A second threat is that the puffins' principal food, a type of smelt called the capelin, has begun to disappear.
"For the last two years, adults have brought back very few capelin to the nests," reports Dr. Kress." "They are using probably less desirable food such as squid and other small fish. The suspected reason for that is that there are in the factory ships from Russia, Japan, and Portugal."
Canada is supervising the size of these catches. But Dr. Kress says he has found a difference of opinion anong Canadian authorities over what the size should be.
"The Canadian Wildlife Service wants a much reduced catch. The Canadian Fisheries Board, which is supervising the factory ship operations, wants a much higher catch. In the meantime, we believe that the puffin population has declined as much as 20 to 30 percent in the last 10 years."
If some disaster should be strike this concentration of puffins, their population in North America wiould be dratically reduced. Hence the desirability of dispersing some of their numbers to former nesting sites.
It was this extreme vulnerability of the puffins that led Dr. Kress to try what one can be used elsewhere.
The program is funded entirely by the Nonprofit National Audubon Society, helped by tax-deductible contributions, and operates out of the Audobon Camp at Medomak, Maine.
Estern Egg Rock is leased to Audobon by the Maine Bureau of Public Lands. Since 1976, the island also has been known as the Allan D. Cruickshank Wildlife Sanctuary.
The transplant system Dr. Kress has worked out demands all the tender, loving care of parent birds, plus hard, manual work, long-term patience, and a lot of hope.
For the past few summers, he and his staff have flown 1,000 miles up to Great Island and gathered 100 10-day-old chicks from their burrows, delivering them in individual carrying cases by plane and boat to Eastern Egg Rock. Here each chick is in its own burrow and painstakingly fed and cared for until that marvelous mement when the birds yield to the call of the sea.
Every step of this project has been explanatory, breaking new ground. At first, hollow ceramic chimney tiles were tired as burrows. But they heated up in the sun and were abandoned in favor of burrows made of blocks of sod, laid on the surface of the soil and covered over with more soil.
Capitalizing on the puffins' highly sociable and curious Arctic Terns. Terns had not nested here for nearly half a century. These decoys he grouped on the rocks of the island, hoping to lure the birds back. It worked, when the first two- tury. These decoys he grouped on the rocks of the island, hoping to lure the birds backed back. It worked. When the first two- year-old puffin teen-agers returned to their foster home in June 1977, they were immediately attracted to their dummy likeness.
Now, by peering through a spyglass from the small wooden hut that serves as a blind on the island, we can see real puffins and real terns standing around passing the time together and lookin things over.
The friendly association of these two species is the key to the success of the puffin transplant projects.Tern nest on the ground in the lush grass that grows at the center of the isand, while puffins must boulders near the water's edge. So the two species do not compete for nesting areas. Nor do terns attack for any other reason.
In fact, whenever gulls or any of the other predators that feed on puffins and tern chicks fly over the isalnd, a swarm of terns will instantly arise and chase them off the premises. Thus puffins enjoy the protective umbrella which the terns provide for their youngs. It is this protection that makes it feasible for puffins to return to their old home base.
In the 1950s, when men first begun egging on Egg Rock (and gave it its name), the population of birds was harmoniously balanced. The primary species were the puffins and terns, nesting in large colonies. then there wer also eider ducks, black guillemots, Leach's storm-petrels, and small numbers of herring gulls and great black-backed gulls (the world's largest gull, with a wingspan of nearly six feet).
In addition to egging and shooting, fisherfolk of the area put sheep on the island (which disrupted the birds), spread nets over boulders to catch the puffins, and sold the pearl- gray terns with their brilliant red beaks and black caps to be stuffed and mounted whole on womer's hats.
Dr. Kress reports that by 1880, puffins here were extinct and what was happening was typical of other islands in the area. By the turn of the country, he says, few sea birds were breeding anywhere along the entire New England Coast and even up into eht Maritime Provinces of canada. Finally, the 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty Act was signed by Canada and the United States. Terns, no longer shot for their beautiful feathers, began to increase in numbers. But gulls were increasing much faster. Fed by open trash and garbage dumps, their population exploded. The balance of nature was lost. And terns were squeezed off most of their original breeding sites. With the terns gone from Eastern Egg Rock, there was no hope of recolonizing the puffin population here.
Hence, the Audobon's first task was to readjust that imbalance by ridding the island of the predatory gulls. With the aid of the US Fish and Wildlife Service , gulls' eggs were removed. This lead to disruption of the gull population. Today, there are no gulls nesting here, though a few do light on the tumbled boulders that rim the island.
At first, in 1977, terns only cruised by Eastern Egg Rock, as if prospecting for new nesting areas. But they were quickly lured by the decoys and tape-recorded nesting sounds provided by dr. Kress and his young assistants.
Today there are at least 75 pairs of nesting terns here. And only last month , the first tern chick was hatched on Eastern Egg Rock in 43 years. It was an exciting and rewarding event for all the Puffin Project team. It seems that the protection from predators that the tern provide the puffins is now assured.
"So far as we know," Dr. Kress says, "no one has ever tried before to piece back together again an association of birds like this."
Puffins, who may live 20 years of more and usually mate for life, are 5 before they reach adulthood and begin reproducing. Most of the puffins now on Egg Rock are three-and four-year olds. This year, for the first time, they have been seen poking around the boulders as if apartment hunting. It will be 1981 before the first of the breeding-age puffins are
One can only imagine the high drama of next summer. when, as is hoped by the Audobon foster parents, the fledglings of five years ago come back to raise their young.
Dr. Kress and his team have been about 98 percent successful in rearing to fledging age the chicks they have brought from Great Island. But perhaps as many as 80 percent of all puffins who launch so bravely into the night may never make it back. So re-establing a lost colony is long range project.
As Dr. Kress says, "It shows that if people really commit themselves to something and stick with it long enough, they can have an effect and undo some of the damage that was done before. But it also reminds us how long-term the commitment must be. It is humbling how difficult is to try to reesatablish something like this, when all people had to do to eliminate it was just to put nets over the rocks or shoot the birds."
(The address of the Puffin Project is: c/o the National Aububon Society, 950 Third Avenue, New Ykork, n. Y. New York, NY 10022.