Saving Puffins: A Conversation with Stephen Kress
Stephen W. Kress is the National Audubon Society’s Vice President for Bird Conservation and director of the Audubon Seabird Restoration Program and Hog Island Audubon Camp. He is the author of Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock. We recently had the chance to ask him about his more than forty years of work in bringing back puffins to the coast of Maine.
Yale University Press: When you were a young ornithology instructor at the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine, you first learned that puffins had once used some of the nearby islands as nesting places but that was no longer the case. Can you tell us a little more about that: what led to the disappearance of the puffins?
Stephen Kress: During the summers of 1967 and 1968, I held the position of naturalist at Sunbury Shores Arts and Nature Centre in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. Here, I had the opportunity to visit Machias Seal Island, then a thriving colony of puffins and terns. At the time, visitors could stay for days, living with the light keepers, becoming immersed in the comings and goings of the seabirds. This left a powerful impression.
Then, in 1969 my dream of becoming an ornithology instructor at Hog Island was realized and I began my long association with this special place. In the Hog Island library, I discovered the book Maine Birds by Ralph Palmer and found myself especially intrigued by the local avian history. I learned about seabird hunting and the trade in bird feathers that resulted in the destruction of most Maine seabird colonies—including puffins. Only one pair of puffins was known to have survived this period and only one Maine colony (on nearby Matinicus Rock) existed at the time. Fortunately that colony was growing and contained about one hundred pairs by the late 1960’s—evidence that the Gulf of Maine could still support puffins. But no new colonies had formed since the days of Maine puffin hunting.
I was very surprised to learn that puffins once nested about eight miles from Hog Island on two rocky islands—Eastern and Western Egg Rock. I had seen these islands while leading camp trips, but I had not realized how much the seabird community that I was seeing in the late 1960’s was diminished—reduced mainly to Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. Having recently experienced the colony of several thousand puffins on Machias Seal Island, I was saddened to see the Egg Rocks devoid of puffins and began thinking about the possibility of bringing them back. It seemed such a terrible loss. Yet everyone—including Palmer and my colleagues at Hog Island—accepted this degraded condition because at the time the prevailing thought about seabirds was a hands-off philosophy that amounted to ‘letting nature take its course.’
Without my recent experience of living among the Machias Seal Island puffins and learning that Egg Rock puffins disappeared from excessive hunting 100 years ago, I might have also concluded that the gull colony was normal and the proper heir to these former Maine puffin nesting islands. I concluded that since people drove the puffins from these islands, other people should bring them back. This fit my understanding of stewardship and I became obsessed with this idea.
YUP: How did you decide to take action to restore the puffin population to Eastern Egg Rock Island and begin “Project Puffin?” Can you tell us a little bit about the goals and mission of the project, as you envisioned them?
SK: My goal initially was simply to bring the puffins back to Egg Rock. I wanted to see them back on the island because I knew that other people had caused their demise. I also thought it would have great appeal for the Hog Island Audubon Camp to be able to show the puffins to the campers. It soon became apparent that there were other reasons to bring back the puffins as the lessons learned would likely apply to saving endangered seabirds that had suffered similar fates. Like many endangered seabirds, (e.g. many petrels and albatross), puffins are reluctant to start new colonies once the “culture” of nesting at a particular site is lost. Like many long-lived seabirds, puffins do not nest for the first time until they are at least five years old. Then when they do nest, they usually lay just one egg. These parallels gave me reason to hope that if I was successful at restoring a puffin colony, other seabirds would also benefit.
YUP: Once you decided on your location for the work would be Eastern Egg Rock, what did you discover about the island?
SK: Although Eastern Egg Rock and nearby Western Egg Rock were known historic breeding islands for puffins, I needed to carefully consider if either would be an appropriate location for puffin restoration. I quickly ruled out Western Egg Rock (even though it was owned by Audubon) because of the difficult landings and small amount of suitable habitat.
However, I was immediately taken by the similarities between Eastern Egg Rock and Machias Seal Island. Like Machias Seal Island, Eastern Egg Rock was lined by a perimeter of huge chunks of granite, created by great ocean storms. Like many Maine islands, Egg Rock’s center was dominated by low-growing, tough weeds such as stinging nettle, ragweed, mustards and bindweeds. The island was dominated by equally adaptive birds, especially Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls that benefitted from food at garbage dumps and fishing waste. Fortunately, it had a reasonable landing, especially at high tides, and this would prove essential moving forward.
YUP: What special techniques did you develop to entice the puffins back?
SK: It took several years to hatch my plan and obtain the necessary permissions that involved bringing puffin chicks from a large colony in Newfoundland and hand-rearing them in Maine. I would need a dedicated team to live on the island to become surrogate parents to the chicks, hand-feeding them for a month.
It was necessary to house the chicks in artificial burrows and coming up with a design for burrows took several years of trial and error. The burrows needed to be easily built, repairable and just the right size so that each chick would have an adequate home. After testing burrows built of granite slabs and ceramic chimney liners, I came on the idea of using sod burrows. Appropriate food, necessary vitamin supplements, cases for transporting chicks, bands for future recognition and coping with predators were all challenges to the project—and at each step we moved forward, often blundering our way to a solution. All the time, gaining respect for the “little brothers”—an endearing name for puffins that recalled their Latin name “Fratercula.”
After four years of rearing and releasing Newfoundland puffin chicks, we had not seen any return for our effort. I worried that if puffins were remembering Egg Rock, they might not come ashore without the sight of other puffins, as typically young puffins return to their natal colony and socialize with other puffins. The presence of adults on the rocks gives the shy birds encouragement to come ashore and prospect for a nest site. This represents a big change in behavior after spending the previous two to three years floating at sea. In our situation, however, puffin adults were unknown and were missing for nearly the past 100 years. To encourage chicks to return to the release site, we began using hand-painted wooden puffins in 1977 and were immediately rewarded by sightings of our first returning puffins, recognized by their leg bands. Later, we set out decoys of terns, razorbills, and gannets and played audio recordings to encourage seabirds to land on the island. This method worked with amazing success, giving rise to our most important recolonization method: “social attraction.” This is now used worldwide and is one of the most important restoration methods in the toolbox of seabird managers.
YUP: One of the additional challenges you seemed to face was cultural: there was an attitude that if the puffins or other species didn’t survive it was merely a matter of nature taking its course. Some encouraged you to resist the temptation to “play God.” How did you address and overcome that attitude to win enough resources and support to move Project Puffin forward?
SK: When Project Puffin began, I had no idea how long puffins lived or what the obstacles would be to achieve success. Eventually, we learned that puffins can live to be 35 years old and do not breed until they are at least five years old. The time scale of the project had to be consistent with this reality. Indeed, we would need to wait until the birds were old enough to breed and this would take patience on the part of my donors. Since this was the first seabird restoration program, I could not point to other projects as successful models. In fact, two previous seabird chick translocation projects that were conducted (Short-tailed Shearwater and Laysan Albatross) had failed, likely because the chicks were moved when too old. I felt that if Project Puffin also failed, it would be the last time that someone would attempt to restore a seabird colony and that our project would also be remembered as a failure.
So, I did everything with great care from building transport cases and burrows, to documenting my rearing techniques. While I had many critics who said that the Project was money wasted because puffins were still common elsewhere, I reasoned that I needed to give the project every chance for success and that would mean going the distance for as long as I could. To make my case, I celebrated the first signs of success to my donors: the return of the first puffins, and each year noted that more birds were returning.
Clearly, with any species less charismatic than a puffin, I would have had a challenge keeping interest. There were also critics who called the Project a publicity stunt and actively tried to torpedo my support within Audubon. Fortunately, I had good support from the top down at Audubon when I needed it and whenever I had a chance, I reminded the critics to give the project a chance because the rewards would be great if I met with success!
YUP: You, Audubon, and Project Puffin just celebrated the project’s 40th anniversary in July 2013. What is the current status of the puffin population in the Eastern Egg Rock vicinity? What are the project’s accomplishments of which you are most proud?
SK: The three Maine puffin colonies managed by Audubon have increased to about 1,000 pairs—a heartening increase in the 41 year history of Project Puffin.
However, in Project Puffin’s 40th year (2013), sea conditions in the Gulf of Maine were compromised by warmer than usual sea surface temperature, leading to many of the puffin pairs taking a year off from breeding. Most of those that tried, failed. So far, such a breeding failure is an anomaly, but it points to the vulnerability of puffins to climate change. In 2014, sea surfaces returned to the high range of normal and the restored puffin colonies at Egg Rock and Seal Island returned to their normal high nesting success. In 2014, the puffin colony at Egg Rock increased by 25% to 148 breeding pairs.
The accomplishments that I am most proud of are the development of techniques for seabird restoration that are now used worldwide. And equally important the hundreds of young biologist who have given their selfless, dedicated work to restore and protect Maine seabirds and in turn received inspiration for a career in conservation biology.
YUP: You are a great supporter of new generations of conservation biologists and other naturalists looking to provide stewardship to our natural world. What do you hope Project Puffin imparts to them?
SK: I hope that Project Puffin inspires people of all ages to learn that individuals can make a real difference for wildlife. We are fortunate to live at a time when we can still create change: the species that our generation passes on to the next generation are in many cases the species that we decide to help. Future generations will probably ask why we did not do more. We should not rely on the “balance of nature” to determine which species will survive, when the fallout from humanity touches every corner of Earth and usually results in degraded habitat where increasingly few species can survive. It is not enough to let nature take its own course and stand by as observers because inaction too often leads to dwindling populations and extinction from chance events. This is a time for bold stewardship and commitment by government and individuals in the precious commodities of species. If we do not “play god” then the adaptive species such as gulls that shadow humanity will continue to eclipse specialist species such as puffins. We live in the age of human-caused extinction, and inaction will leave a progressively depleted planet for future generations.
I hope that the students that work for Project Puffin not only learn the methods for becoming seabird stewards and educators, but that they also develop a sense of humility about their wildlife management skills. The lives of wild birds are so full of mystery and interplay with the weather, season, prey and predators that best of intentions will probably take many years to tweak the system and favor LIFE. Clearly, much remains to be learned from the species that we are trying to save and these lessons will help both seabirds and the legions of young biologists that will continue to be inspired by these Maine colonies.
YUP: When you first started out, eminent ornithologists posed the question to you: why bother bringing puffins back to Maine since people could go see puffins in Iceland where they are still very abundant? Now that you have re-established the puffins, what is the most important reason for people to still pay attention to the bird, other from the fact they are colorful and charismatic?
SK: The threats that affect birds such as puffins today are far greater than the gunner’s bullets that nearly wiped out Maine puffins one hundred years ago. Because puffins are at the absolute southernmost end of their known breeding range in North America, it is likely to be one of the birds to best gauge climate change in our oceans. Because the forage fish which puffins rely on to raise their chicks are sensitive to ocean temperatures, we can learn about climate change by observing the foods which puffins feed their chicks. These observations can also inform us about the state of many ocean fish that are important to people as well as puffins. Many of these species are now vulnerable to commercial overfishing.
We already know that lobsters as a species have moved more than forty miles north in the last decade with warming waters. Puffins can’t move with the changing ocean temperatures because they are linked to land where they must nest on just a few islands that provide for their special needs. It is no surprise that in recent years we are also seeing puffins bring in fish for the chicks more known in mid-Atlantic waters. The concern is that while some species are edible, nutritious and the right shape for chicks, other species are not. The same fish are also used for livestock feed, fish farming, and even nutritional supplements in unsustainable ways. Puffin adults are amazingly adaptable to catch whatever is available. The big question is what will be available in the coming decades.
Because puffins are so charismatic, they capture the plight of other seabirds and the health of the seas. I believe that they can help to engage more people with protecting oceans from climate change, pollution and overfishing. Puffins are the pandas of the sea and among our best hopes for saving oceans for ourselves and future generations.
YUP: Do you have any remaining goals for Project Puffin: any dreams or goals that you hope to realize with it?
SK: It is clear that ongoing management is necessary for puffins, terns, and the other rare species to continue living on the Maine coast. Even though their nesting islands are owned by conservation groups, without management, they will eventually disappear displaced by adaptive species such as gulls, eagles, owls and mink that benefit in meaningful ways from humans. The restored seabird colonies of the Maine coast demonstrate the possibilities of proactive management and they can inspire future generations about what is possible. But ongoing management requires a reliable stream of funds well into the future that is dedicated to active management. My hope is to create a Seabird Institute that will look after Maine seabirds and advance the accomplishments of Project Puffin worldwide. The seabirds will pay us back by informing us of the health of the oceans. Sustainable seabird management that favors puffins and other rare species on Maine islands comes down to building a culture of caring people that understand the value of seabirds and who are willing to support conservation projects like Project Puffin.