One by one, five puffin chicks scrambled over rocks in the moonlight, making their way toward the sound of crashing waves. On a tall boulder overlooking the sea, one paused and peered over the ledge. Like a nervous swimmer on a high board, the plump bird with a parrotlike bill stood, whirring its wings. Minutes passed. Finally, it leaped into the water and then paddled into the darkness. “I don’t know if I breathed that whole time,” says Kathleen Blanchard, recounting that night in August 1973 when she watched the chick she’d raised from when it was 10 days old leave for parts unknown.
Those five chicks were the first Atlantic Puffins in a century to set webbed feet on Eastern Egg Rock, a seven-acre island located six miles off the Maine coast. Inspired by reintroductions of Peregrine Falcons after DDT nearly wiped them out, Stephen Kress, a 28-year-old environmental educator, dreamed of reestablishing Maine’s lost puffin colonies. If he was successful, he hoped to provide a model for restoring seabirds elsewhere.
Remarkably, his plan did succeed, eclipsing what he envisioned. To mark the 50th anniversary of Project Puffin, today a part of Audubon’s Seabird Institute, Audubon spoke to the people who were there at the program’s daring start and those carrying forward its now-global legacy of seabird restoration.
A BOLD IDEA (1971)
While an ornithology graduate student at Cornell University, Kress worked in the summer as an educator at the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Bremen, Maine. Poking around the camp’s library, he found a book—Maine Birds, by Ralph S. Palmer—that described how puffins had once inhabited two small islands, Eastern and Western Egg Rock, less than 10 miles offshore. At the time, healthy puffin colonies remained across the North Atlantic, but decades of overhunting had decimated every population in Maine except the one on Matinicus Rock, where Audubon wardens had protected seabirds from hunters in the early 1900s. Kress couldn’t stop thinking about whether there was a way to bring them back. No one had ever successfully reestablished Atlantic Puffins—or any seabird—by moving chicks from an existing colony to another island, but Kress thought the species was ideally suited for such an experiment. Puffins lay a single egg in an underground burrow and deliver fresh fish to their chick until, at about six weeks old, it flies out to sea alone. Driven by a strong homing instinct, the grown-up chick returns one day to its natal grounds to breed and raise its own offspring. Kress believed that chicks reared in artificial burrows on Eastern Egg Rock would think of that island as home and eventually nest there. Not everyone agreed: Some seabird experts, including Palmer, said it couldn’t—and shouldn’t—be done.
Steve Kress: I wrote Ralph Palmer a letter. He wrote back to say he thought the project was a waste of time. Later he told me, “If anybody wants to see puffins, they can just go to Iceland.”
Evie Weinstein, Project Puffin field assistant and Kress’s first wife (later a biology teacher and social worker): Steve is by nature a person who does not have the ability to become jaded by negativity.
Kress: I really didn’t have any background for doing this kind of work. I was 20-something years old and unheard of, with no published papers on seabirds. I could see why people would look at that and say, “This isn’t only a person who is unproven; this is biologically a long shot.”
Kathleen Blanchard, Project Puffin’s first research assistant (later founder of Canada conservation nonprofit Intervale Associates): Steve was working long hours on his portable typewriter, typing out letters to representatives of the Canadian and U.S. governments, whether it was to seek permission for the first group of puffins to be collected or just to seek advice and support for the project.
David Nettleship, Canadian Wildlife Service seabird biologist in charge of issuing permits for activities in puffin sanctuaries: Lots of things had changed since the 1900s in terms of the oceanography in the area. There was the question of whether the waters of the Gulf of Maine, and specifically Muscongus Bay, had what was necessary to allow these puffin fledglings to survive.
Kress: One of the comments I was getting occasionally was: “How do you know ocean conditions haven’t changed such that it’s no longer suitable for puffins?” I would point to the puffins on Matinicus Rock as the reason. I’d also say, “If this works for puffins, it could be a useful technique for restoring other species.”
Nettleship: And there was the ethical question of: Should we be removing live, healthy chicks from one colony and trying to relocate them to another with unknown consequences?
Kress: What turned the tide was a marine biologist named Bill Drury, research director at Massachusetts Audubon Society, who knew David Nettleship.
Nettleship: Drury said, “David, we’ve all been graduate students. It’s a learning process.” That’s when I had to do some soul searching and a little head scratching to say, well, we could give him a methodology and test to see if he was up to it.
Kress: To my surprise, David said, “Okay, we’ll go along with this long-shot idea. You can move six puffins, no more, from Newfoundland.” That was very exciting news.
TRIAL AND ERROR (1973)
Kress organized two trips to Newfoundland. The first was a scouting mission to locate collection sites on Great Island, North America’s largest puffin colony, and measure the temperature inside natural burrows. The second was to collect the six chicks. Bob Noyce, cofounder of Intel, offered to fly the researchers and birds in his plane. Uncertainty loomed: How would they safely transport the chicks 1,000 miles from Newfoundland to Maine? What would they feed them? What kind of artificial burrows would best simulate the conditions on their nesting grounds? As they neared Great Island on those trips, Kress and Blanchard gazed at cliffs covered in guano and swallowed any doubts that they could pull this thing off.
Blanchard: When you approach Great Island, there are birds swirling around in great elliptical flights—not just puffins, but also Razorbills and murres. It’s a spectacle of life.
Kress: Newfoundland was like the promised land for puffins. There are hundreds of thousands of puffins on Great Island.
Blanchard: There was a vertical rope hanging from the cliffs on the island. We were told that when the boat captain said “Go!” you would jump from the bow of the dory to the cliff and grab hold of that rope, and then use it to scale the steep slope until you reached a level area.
Kress: I also had to figure out what to put the puffins in to get them back to Maine. If they died in transit, that would be the end of this whole thing.
Blanchard: Steve designed these ingenious carrying cases, rectangular with burlap walls for ventilation. They were made from rows of juice cans turned on their sides with the ends removed, so each became an individual burrow for a chick.
Kevin Bell, Project Puffin employee (later president of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago): You reached into the burrow and grabbed a puffin chick. Then you put it into this carrier, and immediately it was like it was in another burrow.
Kress: We started raising the puffins on the shore of Hog Island in little cement caves. But much to our dismay, one of the chicks disappeared almost immediately. We later figured out a raccoon had sniffed it out.
Blanchard: There was no textbook in existence about how to reestablish a seabird colony that had been wiped out decades before.
Tom French, Project Puffin research assistant (later assistant director, natural heritage and endangered species program, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife): They moved the chicks to burrows on Eastern Egg Rock, so they would fledge from there.
Kress: We didn’t want them to return to Hog Island when they grew up; we wanted them to come back to Egg Rock.
Blanchard: They came out of the burrows, looked up, and fluttered their wings, exercising. Sometimes they would go back in the burrow or walk around a bit. It was gripping.
Bell: You were never quite sure when they were going to fledge. All of a sudden, they would just take off and go, and then you wouldn’t see them again.
Kress: We went back to the Canadian Wildlife Service and said, “Hey, we fledged five of the six birds. How about more?”
Nettleship: The test results were good. Steve and his team were capable of rearing chicks in captivity to fledgling. So that was a giant step forward, in terms of what was possible in the future.
ISLAND LIVING (1974–1976)
In preparation for the arrival of dozens of chicks, Kress and his small team fine-tuned their techniques. They decided to raise the birds entirely on Eastern Egg Rock, which didn’t have predators such as raccoons and would increase the likelihood that the puffins would recognize it as their home. This meant the surrogate parents would have to live on the island all summer. A long line of early-career researchers eagerly joined the project. The days were long and laborious: They constructed artificial burrows, trimmed thawed fish into finger-size bites for the chicks, cleaned burrows, shuttled supplies from the mainland, surveyed the island’s birdlife and plants, and dealt with inclement weather. They were having the time of their lives.
Blanchard: Bob Noyce flew us again for the collection trip, enabling it to take place in the space of one day. That was an amazing journey. We had the birds tucked into their new burrows on Eastern Egg Rock by midnight.
Kress: I was constantly thinking about how to create some kind of natural burrow to replicate the rock crevice habitat the puffins historically used in Maine. My first idea was to create ceramic burrows out of chimney tiles. But they didn’t work very well.
French: Chimney tiles sweat. As the humidity builds up, water drips off the ceiling, and the puffin chicks get wet, and that really messes up their waterproofing.
Kress: We abandoned the ceramic burrows and hand-dug burrows into the soil. That was going super well until it rained and some of the burrows flooded because the soil was sitting on bedrock. None of the chicks drowned, which was totally amazing. We extracted those chicks, dried them off, and turned them loose inside a tent while we quickly dug new burrows.
French: Out of desperation, they started building burrows with bricks of soil, or sod.
Kress: We realized that we needed to work with sod and get higher up. Each burrow had an L-shaped ground floor to provide a toilet area and a place for the chicks to hide from predators. Rainwater would pass through the sod into the ground.
French: In 1976 Hurricane Belle had dropped down to a tropical storm, with nearly 70-mile-per-hour sustained winds. We started talking about the logistics of evacuating. The birds would be out there unfed until we could get back. We knew there would be a storm surge, but it wouldn’t be enough to cover the whole island. We decided to stay.
F. Robert Wesley, Project Puffin research assistant (later Cornell University botanist): We would have to stay on the island until it was done because nobody was going to come get us.
French: We couldn’t just stay in the tent; it was too exciting. Our skin was raw from the water pounding against our faces. We could hardly stand up at times. But we didn’t miss a minute.
Wesley: The wind was so loud. Everything was quickly coated with a film of salt from the sea spray.
French: The plan was to check the burrows every 30 minutes, and if flooding started to threaten them, we’d go around as fast as we could and fill five-gallon buckets with chicks, then run back to the tent. That was our backup plan. It wouldn’t have been perfect, but the chicks would have been protected and safe. Fortunately, we didn’t have to do anything. Our burrows didn’t flood.
THINKING LIKE A PUFFIN (1977)
The biologists were now raising 100 puffins each summer. Even so, some critics said the project wasn’t working because no adults had returned to Eastern Egg Rock to breed. Kress spent long hours pondering the possible reasons why they weren’t nesting, and it finally dawned on him that an island without adult puffins might not be attractive for the social birds. They decided to stage Eastern Egg Rock as a popular puffin hangout by setting up dozens of decoys carved from wood by Donal O’Brien, then chairman of the National Audubon Society.
Kress: The Canadian Wildlife Service was really questioning whether this was going to work or not. We didn’t have a very clear idea how long the puffins stay at sea or how long it would be until they came back. Maybe that’s why people didn’t do seabird translocations previously; there’s a big time gap before the birds even have a chance of coming back.
Nettleship: In the back of your mind is always the ethical question: Is this having an impact on the Newfoundland donor population? Once you get up into hundreds of chicks being removed, you’ve got to make sure it’s all working correctly.
Kress: Decoys had been used previously for hunting, of course, for many species. I recalled seeing an article in National Geographic about people in Iceland snagging puffins in nets as they flew over decoys. That helped give me the notion.
French: The coolest-looking puffin decoys were built to swim on the water; they had an anchor with a rope coming to the surface and kind of waved in the current. And then there were standing decoys up on the rocks. The puffins were very interested in those.
Kress: On June 12, 1977, I saw the first puffin that I’d ever seen at Eastern Egg Rock. It circled the island and landed right next to my boat.
French: Steve was frantically trying to look for the bands with his binoculars and trying to take pictures. He was pretty excited. I could see the white band on the leg in the water. That told us it was a bird from two years earlier.
Kress: It was the first hint that this project might work.
Blanchard: I was on the mainland at the time. Steve came running up the hill. I remember he was short of breath and smiling very broadly. I knew in an instant it had to be good news.
PUFFIN WITH FISH (1978–1981)
Believing it was only a temporary setup, the crew built a small cabin they called the Egg Rock Hilton. Once the birds began raising their own young, they figured they would pack up and let nature take the reins. There was a major hurdle, however: the predatory gulls still circling the island. Sharp-shooting field assistants and government experts who deployed avicides had reduced the gull numbers in the past, but the aggressive birds would gobble the puffin chicks if the biologists stepped away. At one point, Kress had even deployed a robot to scare the birds off, though they quickly caught on. Eventually, he wondered if it might be possible to restore some semblance of the natural balance by reintroducing Arctic and Common Terns, which had previously nested on Egg Rock, to chase away the gulls. They used tern decoys and added the sound of a bustling tern colony broadcast over speakers. Within days, terns started hovering over the island. Soon they were landing, breeding, and raising chicks. But the puffins still weren’t nesting. By the summer of 1981, they’d successfully fledged some 630 puffins, but the only bird that had returned to breed headed to Matinicus Rock, 34 miles away. They waited and watched, eagerly anticipating the long-awaited sight of a baby chick nestled beneath the boulders.
Weinstein: It was the Fourth of July, 1981. We were out at Egg Rock, doing what we had been doing for years: periodic stints in a blind looking for returning puffins, trying to identify the birds’ leg bands.
Kress: We’d been seeing increasing numbers of puffins starting in 1980, and this cohort with yellow leg bands from 1977 was behaving a little differently than the previous puffins that just sat on top of the rocks with decoys and flew away. They were going under the boulders.
Weinstein: We were all anticipating with great excitement the possibility that there would be breeding.
French: The first translocated bird to nest went to Matinicus Rock, so a big fear was that we would just enhance the size of the existing colonies.
Weinstein: I was back at the cabin—the Hilton, as we called it. I was going out to do some dishes in the tidal pools. Out of the fog came sweeping by—maybe 20, 30 feet in front of me—a puffin carrying a beak-load of fish.
Kress: I had just finished a long stint in the blind, and I was coming back to the cabin for some lunch. Evie could barely get the words out that she’d seen a puffin with fish.
Weinstein: There’s no way I can really capture that moment. If you’ve had children, you know that moment when your child appears, and there’s no words in the world that describe your joy and excitement. You’re just bursting. It was like that.
Kress: Looking through a telescope from the cabin, I saw a puffin fly in with fish and go under the boulders and come out without it. That was the proof that we were waiting for.
Weinstein: We were just on cloud nine. It was incredible. We were calling everyone on the radio and telling other islands. It was a really big day.
Richard Podolsky, Maine ecologist and early Project Puffin field assistant: We had waited years, literally years, for the puffins that we transplanted from Newfoundland to come back and begin breeding. Most scientists don’t have that kind of patience. Steve believed in this project enough to carry on, even when many other people would have packed it in.
GROWING THE FLOCK (1982–present)
Energized by the success on Eastern Egg Rock, Kress set out to replicate the experiment on Seal Island. Previously the site of Maine’s largest puffin colony, the 65-acre island is located 21 miles off the coast of Rockland, Maine. Nettleship granted permission for more puffins from Newfoundland to be translocated, and from 1984 to 1989 biologists fledged 950 puffins from Seal Island. Again, it took eight years before the first fledglings returned to breed, but the colony was soon flourishing. Today Seal Island hosts about 600 puffin pairs. In total, there are now about 1,300 breeding pairs on five Maine Islands. What’s more, Kress’s social attraction techniques have been used on seabird nesting islands around the world. Lifelike decoys have been central to the success of those programs. When Vermont conservation decoy specialists Jim and Nancy Henry retired in 2016, the Seabird Institute took over their business and renamed it Mad River Decoy by Audubon, which today replicates more than two dozen bird species.
Kress: Social attraction is the greatest contribution that we’ve made to seabird conservation. It’s a similar recipe every time: decoys, sound recordings, and habitat management.
Susan Schubel, Project Puffin seabird biologist and decoy maker: The birds seem to be pretty flexible. You can have a decoy that is a rudimentary tern shape painted the right color, not even that close to the real thing, and the birds respond, even sometimes offering a courtship fish to a block-head decoy.
French: Sometimes, if you can’t protect birds where they are, the next best thing is to find a place you can protect them and attract them there.
Podolsky: The Galápagos was one of the first places we took the Project Puffin methods to another species outside of the United States. The goal was to establish several artificial colonies of Galápagos petrels that were fenced off and purged of rats. The idea was to have these islands of rat-free areas, where the birds could safely nest. In the first year, we attracted birds into the artificial burrows. It was successful right away.
Mike Parker, executive director, California Institute of Environmental Studies: The Devil’s Slide project to restore a Common Murre colony wiped out by a 1986 oil spill was very controversial among seabird biologists. Some people thought it was going to be a huge waste of money. Today, it’s a thriving colony functioning on its own, without any need for intervention.
Don Lyons, director of conservation science for Audubon’s Seabird Institute: The Chinese Crested Tern wasn’t seen for over 60 years. It was called the bird of mystery, the bird of legend. In 2000, it was rediscovered. A handful of birds were observed in a colony of closely related tern species.
Dan Roby, U.S. Geological Survey and Oregon State University (retired): We worked closely with the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History to put the Chinese Crested Tern decoys and audio playback systems out in late April, early May 2013. By July, when the colonies hadn’t formed, the managers were ready to pull the plug and go home. We went out to the island and found that the audio playback system wasn’t working. That’s a really important component of social attraction. We got one of the systems operational, and literally within 15 minutes, there were crested terns circling overhead.
Lyons: The restoration of Chinese Crested Terns is a testament to the ability of these techniques to make a difference in the most dire of situations—starting from almost nothing and rebuilding a population so it has a real chance in the future.
THE NEXT 50 YEARS (2023 AND BEYOND)
Today Atlantic Puffins are once again deep-diving for fish off Maine’s shores, but their future remains uncertain. Seabirds everywhere are facing a threat that was unnamed 50 years ago: climate change. Oceans are rising and washing over nesting islands, requiring conservationists to move birds to higher ground. And as waters warm, there are serious concerns about whether marine-dwelling birds will be able to find enough prey to feed themselves—and their chicks. At the same time, researchers have made important discoveries that are helping to protect key marine areas. Tiny geotags helped solve a longstanding mystery: where Maine's puffins go when they head off to sea for months. That discovery, in turn, helped spur the U.S. government to establish the first marine protected area off the Atlantic Coast in 2016. Safeguarded from overfishing, pollution, and ship traffic, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument provides a refuge for wintering puffins and the fish they eat. Today a new generation of conservationists is following in the footsteps of Kress, who is now retired. More than 700 interns from around the world have spent summers raising wild puffins in Maine. Many have gone on to careers in environmental protections, resource management, and wildlife research, ensuring that a 50-year legacy of conservation carries on.
Lyons: We don’t live in a world where restoring seabird populations, or really any species of wildlife, guarantees their persistence in the future.
Nettleship: Today’s ever-changing marine world is fraught with human-induced assaults on systems through ocean pollution, toxic chemicals, commercial fisheries, hunting, climate change, and other disturbances. Species that are highly vulnerable to change have declined.
Lyons: Seabirds also face threats from plastics in the ocean, avian influenza, and the development of offshore wind generation. These are new challenges that no one envisioned when Project Puffin was started.
Schubel: Everything we do impacts the survival of these colonies.
Weinstein: No matter how depressing the news is, no matter how rapidly the Greenland ice sheet is melting, there are still opportunities to take heart and say, “Look, we have turned things around in the past, when there wasn’t a groundswell of energy to support these things. Somehow diligent people were able to make a difference.” I hold on to that.
Lyons: We’ll work very hard to address threats using the model that’s already evident with Project Puffin: working on a local problem, developing groundbreaking techniques, sharing those techniques widely, and supporting their application in new locations with new species.
Weinstein: It’s rare that you feel like action by humans, in a positive way, really changes a geographic region. The work that Steve and all of the other folks who’ve worked on this project have done over the years—it really changed the world.
Lyons: The next generation is ready to stand up and take the helm of this work, in part because the people who’ve done it these last few decades have been so inspiring.
Audio editing by Zoe Grueskin. This story originally ran in the Summer 2023 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.