Steve Kress, the Trailblazer of Seabird Conservation, Proved All His Critics Wrong

In his twenties the ornithologist had an audacious idea: to restore puffins to the Maine coast. Upon his retirement he reflects on how he pulled it off.

When Steve Kress set out in 1973 to reintroduce Atlantic Puffins to an island that had last hosted them a century ago, he did not fully comprehend the potential magnitude of this single project. His idea was to translocate chicks from Canada to Eastern Egg Rock, an island off Maine's coast, and raise them himself, feeding and caring for them by hand—a strategy that had never been tested. His studies on puffin behavior convinced him that the chicks would imprint on the island and return as adults to raise their own young.

Although he was successful in fledging chicks, birds did not return to the island until years later, when he developed his groundbreaking strategy—"social attraction," which uses decoys, sound recordings, and mirrors to attract seabirds and establish new breeding colonies. One improbable success followed another, and today, nearly five decades later, Kress's methods have been used to restore nesting colonies for at least 42,000 seabirds in Maine alone, and inspired similar conservation projects around the world.

Under his leadership, Audubon's Project Puffin and Seabird Restoration Program have also developed conservation techniques for terns and storm-petrels, focused efforts on protecting the forage fish seabirds need, and managed operations at Hog Island Audubon Camp, the site of naturalist educational programs for children and adults for more than 80 years.

At the end of this month, Kress will retire from his roles as executive director of the Seabird Restoration Program and vice president of bird conservation at the National Audubon Society. Audubon magazine asked Kress to reflect on his career highlights and the future of conservation. This interview has been edited and condensed.

You started Project Puffin on Eastern Egg Rock back in 1973. What was going through your mind when you decided to try to attract seabirds to long-abandoned nesting colonies, something no one had done before?

People had extirpated these puffin colonies and were doing nothing to bring them back, so for me it seemed like an opportunity to do something. I had no idea how complicated or long it would take, and how many obstacles would be in my path, but I set out on that course because I thought it would be great for the area’s ecology—and I could learn about seabirds along the way. It seemed to me if we could bring puffins back to an isolated island off the coast of Maine, that model would be useful for albatross, petrels, and other rare seabirds elsewhere. 

What was your first sign of success in Project Puffin?

The first restored puffins that came back were at Eastern Egg Rock on June 12, 1977. I was at Egg Rock in our little research boat, and I saw this bird flying in. I didn’t even recognize it! At this point I hadn’t seen an adult puffin in years, only chicks, so when I saw one come flying in and it landed right next to my boat, that was extremely exciting. It sat on the water playing with the water buoy, picking at the stem of it. I raced back to the mainland, grabbed my camera, went back out, and it was still there and we were able to photograph it. 

What were some of those obstacles you faced, especially during the first five years of the project when no puffins returned?

There was a lot of criticism that the project was not likely to succeed, that it was some sort of a publicity stunt or a waste of money. Some of it was pretty intense, like trying to take away permits and backing from Audubon. I had to offer some hope, but there wasn’t much to talk about in the beginning years. By 1977, I began to worry that we would never see a puffin return. I was concerned, no doubt, but I also wasn’t ready to quit.

The criticism just made me want to be successful and prove those naysayers wrong, because I felt like if we failed with this project, other people wouldn’t try things like this. These are the stories that are really important for young researchers to keep in mind—it can be difficult to break into a field with new ideas. 

Prior to your project, puffins last nested on Eastern Egg Rock in 1885 and terns in 1936. Now, through the use of decoys, there are 188 puffin pairs and about 1,000 tern pairs nesting on the island. Where did this idea of using decoys to attract birds come from? 

I saw an article in National Geographic about puffin hunting in Iceland. In the picture, a hunter was surrounded by dead puffins propped up on the ground. He was standing there in the middle with a long net and snagging birds out of the air. Well, I thought, if he could lure them in for catching, maybe we could lure them in for nesting.

I knew that Audubon had a board member, Donal O’Brien, who was a famed decoy carver, so we asked if he would carve a puffin decoy for us, and later he carved the original tern decoys as well. Now we manufacture our own decoys in a little shop in Bremen, Maine, and ship them everywhere, including South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

You have been working with seabirds for nearly half a century. What first inspired your interest in this group of birds?

It goes back to my conversations with Carl Buchheister, the president of Audubon back in the 1960s when I was a student assistant at Greenwich Audubon Camp. At the time he was spending parts of his summers out on Matinicus Rock as a seabird steward volunteer, and he would tell me about the storm-petrels and puffins on Matinicus Rock and what he knew about them. His stories sort of sparked my first interest in seabirds. Eventually that inspired me to go to Hog Island Audubon Camp in 1969 to teach about them.

You taught at the Hog Island Audubon Camp as an ornithology instructor for more than a decade, and you still regularly take part in sessions as a guest speaker. What motivates you to keep returning? 

This is the fiftieth summer of my own migration back to this special location on Maine's coast. Here you meet a wide range of people, whether it’s Audubon leaders or visionaries in their own communities. They all have a story of how they got into nature and how they’re rejuvenated by this camp. Being around all that energy I find very satisfying. What’s rewarding is helping these people regain and strengthen their values about nature, and about conservation, because those two things go hand in hand. 

What do you expect for the future of seabird conservation? 

One-third of seabirds around the world are now globally threatened; it’s gotten worse since Project Puffin started. However, there are promising signs and Project Puffin is only one of them. We know there are at least 17 other countries that are using techniques developed on Egg Rock on at least 64 species. Now I see opportunities to find out where the birds go at sea, to protect the oceans and islands, to learn about climate change and fisheries management, and to relate all of this to the bigger picture of conservation.

Seabirds are now being recognized as indicators of the health of the planet, and if we listen to them and take care of them, we’ll solve problems that we’ll all face together. That’s a message that I think people need to hear.

Correction (September 14, 2019): The original story stated that there are at least 172 puffin pairs on Eastern Egg Rock today; this year's record high was 188. Audubon regrets the error.