Project Puffin: Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Project in Maine

By Dessi Sieburth | Western Tanager, Vol. 84 No. 1, Sep/Oct 2017

1AtlanticPuffin byDessi Sieburth

An Atlantic Puffin prepares to bring fish to its young at Eastern Egg Rock. Photo by Dessi Sieburth

From June 18th to June 23rd, I attended the Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens, a young birder Audubon Camp located at Hog Island, Maine. I received scholarships to attend this camp from the National Audubon Society and the American Birding Association. Hog Island is 330-acre island located in the Muscongus Bay off the coast of central Maine. At the camp, I had the unique opportunity to learn about Project Puffin, a seabird restoration program, and I was able to observe a breeding colony of Atlantic Puffins at Eastern Egg Rock Island.

2Drawing Atlantic Puffin by Dessi Sieburth

Drawing of the Atlantic Puffin by Dessi Sieburth

At camp, Steven Kress, the founder of Project Puffin, gave a presentation about the history of the project. In the 19th Century, Maine’s Atlantic Puffin population was rapidly declining. Hunters killed puffins for meat and feathers and poachers took puffin eggs for food. By the late nineteenth century, puffins were only found on two islands in Maine. On Machias Seal Island, thirty pairs remained, and on Matinicus Rock, only one breeding pair remained. Puffins were extirpated from Eastern Egg Rock in 1885, when egg poachers had taken the last eggs. Puffins were not the only seabirds that experienced such rapid declines. Terns, gulls, and razorbills had also become very scarce in the state due to hunting and egg poaching. In 1918, egg poaching was banned in the United States through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and measures were taken to prevent hunting of the puffins. However, the puffins did not return to the islands to nest, and nor did the terns and Razorbills. Only the Herring and Great Black- backed Gulls returned to the islands of Maine and thrived.

3Atlantic Puffin at Egg Rock byDessi Sieburth

Atlantic Puffin at Eastern Egg Rock. The “3” sprayed on the rock helps biologists to keep track of where the puffins nest. Photo by Dessi Sieburth

In 1969, biologist Steven Kress visited Eastern Egg Rock and was disappointed that there were no puffins. He had read about the history of Eastern Egg Rock and learned about the large breeding colony that used to be there. He had the idea to bring back the puffins to Eastern Egg Rock, and in 1973, he started Project Puffin. Kress brought nearly 1000 puffin chicks from Newfoundland, where the puffins were doing well. He introduced them to several islands off the Maine coast, where they had previously bred.

4Transport case for puffin chicks byBeatrix Schwarz

Steven Kress transported the Puffin chicks from Newfoundland to Maine in this case. Photo by Beatrix Schwarz

Kress hoped that the puffins would start breeding colonies. It takes three to five years for puffins to mature and breed. For the first few years of the project, no puffins returned. In 1977, a few birds returned to Eastern Egg Rock, but they did not breed. Kress believed that the puffins were not breeding mainly because of the large number of gulls present the island. Gulls eat puffin eggs and chicks, and they compete with puffins for fish. To control the number of gulls, Kress re-established a breeding colony of terns on Eastern Egg Rock. Terns are highly territorial and drive gulls away from their breeding territory. Also, Kress placed puffin decoys and mirrors on the island to simulate an active colony.

5Original Kress Decoy Project Puffin Visitor Center by Beatrix Schwarz

One of the original decoys used by Kress, now displayed in the Project Puffin Visitor Center. Photo by Beatrix Schwarz

He hoped puffins would see the decoys and stay on the island to breed. On July 4th, 1981, after over eight years of dedication, Kress’s dream of having puffins breeding again on Eastern Egg Rock came true. He saw a puffin land on the island with a bill full of fish, disappear under a rock, and emerge soon after with an empty bill. This meant there were chicks on the island. Today, there are over 120 breeding pairs of Atlantic Puffins on the island. Other seabirds have also made a recovery, including three species of terns—Common, Arctic, and Roseate. Today, Eastern Egg Rock is home to nearly 70% of Maine’s Roseate Terns. Razorbills have also made a comeback on several islands in Maine, though they have not been documented to breed on Eastern Egg Rock. Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls no longer breed at Egg Rock and no longer pose threats to the island’s seabirds. The techniques that Kress used on Eastern Egg Rock are being used to restore seabird colonies throughout the world. Common Murres, the endangered Bermuda Petrels, and the critically endangered Chinese Crested Terns, which were once thought to be extinct, as well as 39 other species of seabirds, have benefited using Kress’s methods.

6Atlantic Puffinflies over ocean Muscongus BayMaine by Beatrix Schwarz

An Atlantic Puffin flies over the ocean in the Muscongus Bay of Maine. Photo by Beatrix Schwarz

At Camp, I had the special opportunity to visit Eastern Egg Rock to see the Atlantic Puffins and other seabirds. It took an hour by boat to get to Eastern Egg Rock. From the boat, I could see small groups of puffins swimming near the shore. At the island, we met several biologists who were studying the island’s seabirds. They lead us to bird blinds, where we could closely observe puffins, Black Guillemots, Common Eiders, and Common, Arctic, and Roseate Terns. Often, the puffins would fly in with fish in their mouth and disappear under rocks, where their nests were. After a few hours in the blind, I observed about 40 puffins, 250 Common Terns, 40 Arctic Terns, 40 Roseate Terns, and 45 Black Guillemots. It was interesting to see how aggressive the Common Terns were. They dove at peoples’ heads, sometimes even knocking off their hats. At the end of the day, I saw one pair of Razorbills flying over the ocean.

Visiting Eastern Egg Rock was an experience I will always remember. I was very fortunate to learn about Project Puffin and see the success of the seabird restoration program at Eastern Egg Rock. Steven Kress succeeded because he persevered and overcame challenges. It is important to learn about successful conservation projects like Project Puffin because it gives us hope that we can be successful in our efforts to help bird populations.

Special thanks to National Audubon and the American Birding Association for providing me with scholarships for the camp at Hog Island.

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