Finding My Footing in the Seabird Community

A newcomer dives into the world of Pacific seabird science to help Tufted Puffins.
Tufted Puffin. Photo: Mick Thompson/Audubon Photography Awards

Last month I found myself anxiously wondering what to pack for four days in Seattle. It’s not a long trip from my home in Portland, Oregon, but it was my first Pacific Seabird Group Conference – heck, it was my first bird conference of any kind. This conference is the annual meeting of a society of professional seabird researchers and managers, formed in 1972, who are dedicated to the study and conservation of seabirds.  

I’ve been in my position as the Seabird Institute’s Senior Coordinator for Tufted Puffins for only six months, and my skill set is not as a scientist (luckily, I work among some brilliant scientific minds), but as a conservation organizer. I was worried—would I even be able to have conservation-focused conversations with what I anticipate being a highly research-minded crowd? 

Once I arrived at the conference, Audubon’s Mad River Decoys table in the main foyer of the hotel was a welcoming site. On display were dozens of hand-painted decoys that Sue Schubel – known affectionately as “Seabird Sue” – brought with her to sell. Made as working decoys to be used outdoors for social attraction experiments, their beauty means that some will land indoors displayed as art. I gravitated to the species with which I am most familiar, the Tufted Puffins, standing alongside Atlantic Puffins, Horned Puffins, and their close relative, the Rhinoceros Auklet. I looked to the flock of terns at the other end of the table and decided to use this opportunity to increase my seabird identification knowledge. At first glance they all looked similar, but a closer look revealed subtle differences: a black crest, a yellow-tipped bill, a darker tail. I googled “number of tern species” and learn that there are “about 40.” Mildly daunted, I quietly shifted back towards the puffins (for now).  

The Audubon Seabird Institute's decoys on display at the Pacific Seabird Group conference, including Tufted Puffin, Atlantic Puffin, Horned Puffin, and Rhinoceros Auklet. Photo: Katherine Luscher/Audubon

Over the last century, the Tufted Puffin’s population along the West Coast has experienced a significant decline. To tackle this crisis, a group of dedicated individuals representing agencies, academia, and nonprofit organizations known as the Tufted Puffin Technical Committee was meeting at the conference to better coordinate Tufted Puffin conservation throughout its entire range, from northern California to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. I did my best to take the meeting notes  - jotting down various acronyms to look up later - as Committee members shared updates of recent and planned projects, including tagging puffins in British Columbia and Alaska to determine foraging areas, photography of the fish in puffins’ bills in Oregon and Washington to better understand their role in the marine food web, social attraction and nest box experiments to enhance populations, invasive species management, and habitat analyses.  

The room was buzzing with hope, a collaborative mindset, and the awareness that while we do not yet have all the answers, if we want to help the species, we can’t let the fear of an imperfect result prevent us from learning how to create better outcomes. We ended with a list of next steps to facilitate future coordination: compiling a comprehensive list of conservation actions, identifying areas of co-dependencies between projects, developing criteria for project selection and prioritization, and exploring ways to garner more support for our work. 

The following three days of the conference were packed with plenary speakers, poster sessions, awards, networking opportunities, and oral presentations led by seabird conservationists from across the globe. I moved from presentation to presentation learning about a range of topics: the use of aerial photography to assess habitat changes, volunteer engagement, the non-breeding ecologies of puffins in Alaska, the creation and restoration of seabird habitat, and equitable hiring practices in seabird conservation. I channeled my somewhat dusty pre-pandemic people skills and sought out individuals with whom I have emailed, but not yet met in person. Everyone was friendly, encouraging, and willing to offer support and advice. Contact information was exchanged, invitations to continue conversations were offered, and introductions to other potential conservation partners were made. Everyone seemed open to learning and to sharing; the big egos I have experienced at other conferences were thankfully absent. 

Audubon staff and past puffineers reunited during the Pacific Seabird Group conference. Photo: Sue Schubel/Audubon


Later, I saw Project Puffin founder, Stephen Kress, for once not flocked by friends and colleagues – many of whom hold the title of ‘Puffineer’ as past seabird island researchers – eager to congratulate him for the Pacific Seabird Group’s Lifetime Achievement Award that was presented to him earlier in the day (by Audubon’s own Don Lyons on behalf of many admiring peers). I introduced myself using my usual caveat: “I’m not a scientist.” He was wonderfully welcoming and told me that while science is important, so is community education and outreach; in fact, he himself started out as an environmental educator. My imposter syndrome continued to fade. Though I do not have a scientific background, and while I can’t (yet) identify all the 40 tern species, attending this conference reinforced for me that successful seabird restoration requires many people representing myriad skills.  

When I’m asked about my experience at my first Pacific Seabird Group Conference, I find myself repeatedly using three words: inspiring, educational, and celebratory. I already know that the connections I made and the knowledge I gathered will help me be better at helping puffins. And if you ever find yourself wondering – like I was – what to pack for a future Pacific Seabird Group Conference, the answer is flannel, anything with a bird on it, and a desire to be immersed in a wonderful group of passionate people who are making a positive difference in the world of seabird conservation.  


National Audubon Society's work on Tufted Puffins is done in partnership with Friends of Haystack Rock and other partners.