This Art Show Captures the Magic of the World’s First Restored Seabird Colony

An immersive exhibit in Maine transports viewers to Eastern Egg Rock, where Project Puffin began.

Welcome to Egg Rock: 50 Years of Seabird Conservation is a multimedia art installation that’s designed as a realistic reproduction of the world’s first restored seabird colony on Eastern Egg Rock in Midcoast Maine. A collaboration between Audubon, Maine-raised artist and printmaker Pippin Frisbie-Calder, and her mother and fellow artist Terrie Frisbie, the show is currently on display at Waterfall Arts in Belfast, Maine. Surrounded by the sights and sounds of this small six-acre island, participants are invited to peek into puffin burrows, explore the Egg Rock field station, and take home their very own handmade puffin print.

The exhibit celebrates the 50th anniversary of Project Puffin, which began in 1973 when Dr. Steve Kress first set out to bring Atlantic Puffins back to Eastern Egg Rock after being over-hunted in the late 19th century. With only a small number of puffins remaining in Maine at the time, Kress hoped to restore puffins to their historic nesting sites by bringing puffin chicks--known as pufflings—from a thriving colony in Newfoundland to Maine. For years, he and other researchers carefully hand-fed these pufflings on Eastern Egg Rock until they fledged, hoping they’d imprint on that island and eventually return when they’re old enough to reproduce, thus reestablishing the historic nesting colony. The gamble paid off, and today over 1,000 pairs of Atlantic Puffins nest off the coast of Maine each summer.

“This is an exhibit of hope, where the actions of a few scientists changed the outcomes of seabirds forever,” said Pippin Frisbie-Calder. “Art can communicate to people of all ages and backgrounds enabling them to understand this powerful story and contemplate their own actions for the future of seabirds."

It took many years before the project was deemed a success, though. It wasn’t until Kress and team added decoys and mirrors to the island, with bird calls broadcast over a loudspeaker, that the birds began to see the island as a safe place to nest. These techniques, known as social attraction, have been replicated for other endangered and threatened seabirds around the globe.

“The entire conservation project around puffins starts with a piece of art, because it was not working until that decoy was made,” observes Amy Tingle, Program Director for Waterfall Arts. “And that decoy is a piece of art that someone handcrafted, so the art actually drew the puffins back to the island. It’s kind of mind-blowing and magical when you think about it.”

When I visited the installation in May, I myself was blown away by the floor-to-ceiling murals Pippin and Terrie painted to look like a panoramic view of Muscongus Bay as seen from Eastern Egg Rock. I could get lost in the smallest details Terrie added, like lighthouses, lobster boats, buoys, rafts of floating puffins out at sea.

“My mom spends a lot of time water coloring the Maine Coast, and so she just understands the color temperature here,” Pippin explains. “It has that feeling largely because of her.”

“Every time you walk in there, you see something new,” says Kimberly Faux, Development and Communications Associate for the Seabird Institute and Audubon’s project manager for the exhibit.

Hundreds of puffins dot the walls, flying, landing, and loafing around the rocks. Pippin created these paper puffins from woodcuts, screen-printed them, and attached them to the wall with a magnet, where they wait to be plucked from the exhibit, taken home, and placed on a fridge in their new owner’s home.

Sitting in the center of the gallery is a recreation of Egg Rock’s only permanent structure, a field station affectionately known as the Egg Rock Hilton. Inside, Pippin filled the shack top to bottom with notebooks, flashlights, binoculars, a coffee pot, a radio, boots, a camp stove, and of course photos of past “puffineers”—everything a team of researchers needs to rough it for three months on an uninhabited island.

Terrie even recreated Eastern Egg Rock’s granite boulders with handmade, printed pillows, which surround a video screen showing a puffling in its burrow nest from I watched more than one visitor do a double take, thinking a real bird was hiding amongst the fake boulders. To top it all off, the gallery is filled with the sounds of terns crying overhead—an accurate and intimidating sound, as on the real Egg Rock, nesting terns will often divebomb and poop on visiting researchers in defense of their nests nearby.

The overall effect is a full, three-dimensional feeling of landing on Egg Rock itself. I had the privilege of visiting the island later that week, and the exhibit does convey what it’s like to be there—without the blustery, 30-minute boat ride or the smell of bird poop of course.

The only price of taking home a puffin is signing an action card to Congress, urging them to pass the Forage Fish Conservation Act to protect the food that puffins and other seabirds rely on. Currently, our federal fisheries law does not yet account for the huge role that tiny fish like herring, known collectively as forage fish, play in feeding seabirds, dolphins, whales, and even larger fish. Without this conservation measure, these small fish are vulnerable to overfishing—caught to be used as bait or even processed into fish oil pills and other products. If passed, this bill will ensure for the first time in U.S. history there are plenty of little fish in the ocean for seabirds and other ocean predators to eat. To date, around 800 people have already signed cards to support this bill and taken home a puffin.

A visitor takes home a printed puffin at the exhibit opening. Photo: Waterfall Arts
Filling out a seabird action card allows visitors to take home their own printed puffin. Photo: Preeti Desai/Audubon
Waterfall Arts led a puffin printmaking demonstration at the Arts in the Park festival in Belfast, Maine. Photo: Waterfall Arts
Inspired by the exhibit, local middle-schoolers drew studies of puffins and created their own mini exhibit using recycled cardboard. Photo: Kathleen E. Gass
Inspired by the exhibit, local middle-schoolers drew studies of puffins and created their own mini exhibit using recycled cardboard. Photo: Kathleen E. Gass

The Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest-warming bodies of water on earth, and seabirds are now struggling to find the fish they rely on for food as a result. This exhibit highlights the triumph of puffins’ return to their historic nesting range on Eastern Egg Rock, as well as the care and collective action needed to ensure their long-term success in the face of climate change.

Welcome to Egg Rock is on view at Waterfall Arts in Belfast, Maine, now through the end of August.