Interview with Dr. Stephen Kress, founder of Project Puffin, Director of the Seabird Restoration Program, and Vice president for Bird Conservation of the National Audubon Society.
Tell us a bit about yourself and Project Puffin.
I have had a life-long interest in nature which led me to teach at the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Midcoast Maine. There I learned that puffins once nested on a nearby island called Eastern Egg Rock. But they were extirpated from this and most other sites by the late 1800’s by excessive hunting for meat and feathers. Project Puffin began as an attempt to bring the puffins back to Eastern Egg Rock. Nothing like this has been done previously, so the methods needed to be invented and because the outcome was uncertain, we had to invent the methods and stay the course to see if it was possible.
How did you bring puffins back to these islands?
I arranged with the Canadian Wildlife Service to collect 10-day old puffin chicks from Great Island, Newfoundland and to rear these on Egg Rock. Between 1973 and 1989, we moved about 2,000 puffin chicks to Maine. Half went to Eastern Egg Rock (between 1973 and 1986) and the other half were reared and released at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge (also a historic puffin colony where puffins last nested in about 1887) between 1984 and 1989. On both islands, the chicks were reared in individual sod burrows by college students who served as surrogate parents for the chicks. In 1981, eight years after the first chick was moved to Egg Rock, five pairs nested and produced the first native chicks in nearly 100 years.
How many puffins have successfully nested in these formerly abandoned habitats?
The colony has grown to 150 breeding pairs by 2016; the Seal Island NWR colony now has about 500 puffin pairs.
Why is it important for puffins to nest in the Gulf of Maine?
The puffin’s life history is similar to that of many endangered seabirds. Puffins lay one egg when the adults are five or more years old. Learning how to create new colonies for puffins has helped to develop restoration methods that are now used worldwide for rare and endangered seabirds. Puffins are also sensitive indicators to climate-induced changes in the waters around their islands. They bring back whole fish for their chicks and the abundance and kinds of chicks are indicators of climate change as the chick’s growth reflects the health of surrounding waters.
How many puffins are on the islands?
There are now about 1,200 pairs of puffins nesting on Maine Islands. In 1901, only one pair of puffins lived on Maine islands. When Project Puffin began, that sole surviving pair on Matinicus Rock (Maine’s outermost seabird colony near Rockland) had increased to about 70 pairs. Today, about 500 pairs nest on Matinicus Rock.
Where does a puffin travel over the course of a year?
Until 2015, the winter home of Maine puffins was a mystery. All that was known was that they left their summer nesting islands by mid-August and then vanished until the following April. It took the development of tiny leg tags to track the puffins. The devices, known as geolocators, measured day length and time of the year and came up with a general location. The tags showed that most puffins first travel north to Canada after leaving the Maine coast and most of these travel to the western Gulf of St Lawrence or about a month. Then they head south again- this time to the outer Gulf of Maine over the George’s Bank and the edge of the continental shelf. In 2016, President Obama created the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument that will protect the puffin’s winter home and habitat for another 1000 marine animals including whales, sea turtles and the breeding stock of the puffin’s most important forage fish- white hake. The area is about the size of Connecticut and will help to protect puffins from entanglement in fishing gear and threats from energy development. This shows the important interplay between science and applied conservation policy. Such wins need ongoing protection, however, to make sure that protected areas remain safe places for wildlife.
There are many important questions remaining about puffins at sea that await the development of more advanced technology. Geolocators are not very precise when it comes to locating where puffins go to feed. This will depend on using GPS or satellite technology, but so far these devices are too large and bulky to attach to puffins. Discoveries about precisely where puffins and other marine animals go to find food is important as these can lead to protecting critical marine habitats.
What is the average lifespan of a puffin? Do they nest in the same spot every year?
Puffins can live thirty or more years and most live into their 20’s if they survive their first few years. Even young puffins are great survivors- in most years at least half of them mature to breeding age. Most return to nest at the island where they hatched- a fact that was key to establishing new colonies. But some have more wanderlust and decide to nest at a nearby colony- a fact that insures against genetic interbreeding. Once a puffin chooses a nesting island, they are not known to switch to a different island, but they can move to a new burrow on the same island. They are usually monogamous at the same burrow and we have documented regular loyalty to burrow and mate for a decade or more. If a long term mate does not return from sea, puffins usually find a new mate, though it can take a year or more before they settle down to raising a new family.
What's a surprising puffin fact you would like people to know?
A puffin can hold a dozen or more fish in their beak at once (the record is 62 tiny fish) by using their tongue to hold the first part of the catch against the room of their beak while they drop their lower mandible to snatch up the next catch of the day. While diving, they extend their wings underwater and can dive to over 100 feet, though shallower dives are more common. While pursuing fish, they close their nictitating membrane (a third eyelid that closes sideways over the eye). While most birds have a nictitating membrane to protect their eyes, puffins and some other divers have a ‘contact lens’ in the membrane that helps them see underwater!
Is it a year-round venture?
Project Puffin is a year round venture. There are nine full time employees and a summer team that expands to about 30, including many college-age biology students that live on seven Maine islands. Together, they protect about 90% of Maine’s puffins and most of the state’s rare and endangered terns, razorbills and cormorants. In the winter, we also offer school programs in Maine classrooms and recently started producing conservation decoys that are now sold worldwide to help other seabirds.
All of this takes funds. Most of our funding comes from private gifts, foundations and businesses. Our adopt a puffin program is a popular way to support our work and give a unique gift to someone that cares about wildlife. Annually, we raise more than one million dollars to help protect puffins in Maine and work to protect them and the oceans that support them and all life on earth.
Are there other types of birds you are concerned about in the Gulf of Maine?
The islands where the puffins nest are home to many other seabirds and Project Puffin has helped to rebuild these populations. For example, all of the Roseate Terns in Maine breed on Project Puffin islands where they are protected from predators and where nesting habitat is improved for successful nesting. Least Terns, Common Terns, Arctic Terns, Razorbills and Great Cormorants are other rare and endangered seabirds protected by Project Puffin. Most important- the methods used to help puffins and other rare birds- such as the use of decoys and audio recordings and translocation of young seabirds are not used worldwide in at least 14 countries and have helped 50 seabird species.
What do you enjoy most about Egg Rock? What's a favorite memory on the island?
Eastern Egg Rock is only seven acres in size, but it supports more than 7,000 nesting seabirds during the summer. All of the species that were ever known to nest on Egg Rock have been brought back to the island. So, when I sit in a bird blind surrounded by all of these birds, I feel like I am on an arc that has helped carry the birds. An arc that has inspired hundreds of college age biologists to dedicate their lives to conservation. None of this was happening before we brought our energies to the task of restoring seabirds.
I have to ask: how did the Puffins cereal partnership originate? Has it been helpful to the project?
Project Puffin depends on people and partnerships to succeed. One of the best is the ongoing relationship with Barbara’s Bakery that produces Puffin Cereals. Each year, Barbara’s helps make new friends for puffins by sharing interesting facts on their packaging and each year makes a generous gift to Project Puffin so that we can hire the students to live on the puffin islands to protect the birds during the summer nesting season.
In what way do you see the effects of climate change and pollution in your work?
The Gulf of Maine where puffins nest is becoming warmer as a result of human-induced climate change. Similar changes are happening throughout the world, but faster in the Gulf of Maine than most other places. This is forcing wildlife to adapt or move to new locations. Fish are more mobile than puffins and we are seeing changes in the numbers and kinds of fish in puffin diets. Oceans are also rising as polar ice melts and this, combined with more rain and greater storms also threatens puffin nesting habitat- especially on small islands such as Eastern Egg Rock where the highest point is only seven feet above the high tide!
What do you see in the future for Project Puffin?
Project Puffin has shown that people can bring back lost populations of animals and even expand ranges. This provides resilience to threats by reducing the risk of having ‘all the eggs in one basket.’ It also is a different way of thinking about our relationship with animals. When Project Puffin began, the usual way of thinking about seabird conservation was to ‘let nature take its course’, but we have helped to show that hands-on proactive management can not only hold the line, but help birds to recover lost habitat- and to colonize new habitat that might otherwise not have been used for nesting. In my view, this stewardship model is increasingly necessary as the impact of humans has now reached the most remote regions of the planet. There is nowhere for wildlife to go, but to co-exist with us and therefore, the future of nature as we know it today depends on intelligent tinkering, remaining humble and trying our best for wildlife. This will require doing a much better job getting people to care about the health of the planet, connecting people to how they are impacting life and making convincing demonstrations of why we should not only care, but take real actions by supporting conservation with donations and voting for those who see the connections.
What is the biggest threat to the environment?
The biggest threat to life on earth (including our own) is apathy about human connections between degrading development and diminished quality of air, water, soil and habitats- on land and in our oceans. It is tragic that too many people are disconnected from their own impact and think stewardship is someone else’s responsibility.
What are some steps people can take to protect the earth?
Protection and stewardship can start at home with family and local community. There are many small things that people can do that collectively can make a huge difference. Avoiding use of yard pesticides and toxic home cleaners is a place to start as these quickly leave our homes and damage nearby habitats. Eating locally grown foods, eating more plants, and especially organic foods helps to reduce waste and pollution. Support conservation groups and vote for people that care about the environments. Write letters to elected officials and those that seek election to let them know that the environment matters. Remind them that wildlife needs our help more than ever. And that protecting wildlife also protects people, especially children, because we share the air and water and suffer when it is degraded. If you have property or live near a park, plant native trees, shrubs and flowers to encourage birds and pollinators. These are solid investments not only for your life but for future generations of people and wildlife.
Have you noticed any positive trends in environmentalism?
There are many positive accomplishments- achievements of conservation heroes like Rachel Carson who brought recognition to the devastation caused by pesticides and Teddy Roosevelt for creating our National Wildlife Refuge System are reminders that ultimately individual people can make huge difference both on the side of life and against it. Remember than only one pair of puffins existed in Maine at the beginning of the 20th century. That was a time without protective laws for wildlife. Now there are 1,200 pairs. In part because we have laws that protect puffins and all of our other native birds- and because we have learned that it is possible to make a difference when people care.
Project Puffin Links:
Learn more about Project Puffin.
More about National Audubon Society.
Support Project Puffin and puffin adoptions.
Read the Book.
See puffins and attend Hog Island Audubon Camp.
Visit Project Puffin Visitor Center and order puffin gifts that help seabirds.