A Suitcase Full of Puffins

Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

On a chilly, overcast night in mid-June more than 30 years ago I rode down Maine’s Muscongus Bay in a small boat with a suitcase full of puffins. I was along to write an article for Audubon about Steve Kress, a staff member at the Audubon Camp in Maine, who was fulfilling his science-based dream-the restoration of Atlantic puffins to Eastern Egg Rock at the bay’s mouth where they had been extirpated by excessive hunting many decades earlier.

Kress hadn’t worked out all the wrinkles yet, but hope was in the air. That day he had rushed 100 puffin chicks by boat, plane, and truck from a thriving island colony in Newfoundland to the dock at the Audubon camp. Each chick occupied a large juice can, which in turn Kress had fastened with about 20 others to the inside of one of several capacious suitcases. Primitive accommodations, sure, but the puffins were on their way to a new nesting island. There, Kress and his aides had prepared artificial burrows, one for each chick. The puffin team would remain on Egg Rock 24/7, playing mother puffin, feeding herring to the chicks and shooing away marauding gulls. The idea was to imprint the island on the birds’ “memory” so that in future years those maturing seabirds might return to the island and kick-start a new colony.

Kress kept bringing chicks, courtesy of the Canadian Wildlife Service, to Egg Rock over a number of years, refining his rearing techniques. He also designed decoys, recordings of puffin calls, and other devices to lure passing birds to the little island’s rocks and burrows. After seven years, the first birds displaying the bands affixed to their legs as chicks began to appear and nest. There were ups and downs over time, but the numbers have slowly increased as puffins from elsewhere joined birds banded and released on Egg Rock.

The Seabird Restoration Program celebrated its 35th year in 2008. During the interval, Kress’s team has developed programs that restored seabirds of many species to their historic ranges all over the world. Recently he issued his annual report. Researchers counted a record 101 pairs of puffins on Egg Rock and another 375 pairs on nearby Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, where Kress worked with refuge staffers to restore its ancient colony. Nearly all the pairs produced “pufflings.” This is still another sign that Steve Kress has spent his career producing glad tidings for the long-suffering conservation community.

For more information about the Seabird Restoration Program, click on www.projectpuffin.org.


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