Puffins are returning to the Gulf of Maine - but for how long? (2023)

ZJames Prosec

Photos fromBriana Skerry'ego

Posted December 15, 2021

15 minutes of reading

East Egg Rock, Maine“We know the situation in the Gulf of Maine is changing becauseinflatablesthey tell us,” said Don Lyons, director of conservation sciences at the Seabird Institute of the National Audubon Society and head of the InstituteProject Puffin.We stood in front of the Egg Rock Hilton, as researchers affectionately call a small wooden cabin that is the only sign of human presence - apart from an outhouse and a few bird curtains - on Eastern Egg Rock, a tiny island in Muscongus Bay.

Project Puffin is a decades-long initiative to restore puffin, puffin, tern and petrel populations on Eastern Egg Rock and two other rocky islands in the Persian GulfMatinikosRock andStampIsland. Puffins have disappeared from these islands since the late 19th century, being targeted by hunters and egg gatherers. Restoration work began in the early 1970s with the transfer of several chicks from Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock. Today, about 180 breeding pairs live on the seven-acre island.

In August I visited Eastern Egg Rock with Lyons and photographer Brian Skerry. I was excited to see the charismatic little birds with colorful beaks and clown faces. (Puffins are alkyds, a family that includes the extinct great auk.)

Lyon suggested I bring a tent and spend the night to experience the seabirds to the fullest. Indeed, the cacophony of sounds - most recognizable being the shrill chatter of madmen and the chirping of laughing seagulls - made me wish I had brought earplugs. (The Puffins' vocals are lower and quieter, somewhere between a croak and a cow's moo.) Still, it was an experience worth savoring - the beautiful noise of a vibrant, diverse life.

But how alive? Just when terns and their companion species seemed to have made a remarkable return - three species of tern now number a thousand breeding pairs at Eastern Egg Rock - a new threat emerges.

In a typical year, two-thirds of chicks survive, but in 2021, on Eastern Egg Rock and other islands, only one-quarter to one-third survive. Lyons said the breeding performance of the puffins sighted this summer was "extremely poor". Two years ago it was "pretty good" but "2020 was marginal and this year has been relatively disastrous." He attributes this to the lack of good food as a direct result of warming waters caused byclimate changeand overfishing favored by fish-eaters.

Lack of food

Warmer conditions mean the baits have to go elsewhere. "We're seeing fewer common species like Atlantic herring, sand lance, hake, and we're starting to see more bait fish that would otherwise be rare in the Gulf of Maine," Lyon said. These include subtropical species such as butterfish and rough mackerel. The fact that the waves are turning against them is a "sign that the situation is difficult" for the birds.

Butterfish are a problem when bloated parents bring them to their chicks, Lyons explained, because they have a deep build and chicks have difficulty swallowing them. Breeding burrows can be full of uneaten fish, and chicks can sometimes starve to death even though their parents have brought them plenty of food. Other available fish, such as roughfish, "don't have these shape issues," Lyons said, "but they're not very nutritious - their caloric density isn't very high."

Other climate-related challenges have emerged this summer. Eastern Egg Rock received 18 inches of rain in July, the most in more than a century. Water flooded some bird burrows in Egg Rock and Matinicus, drowning the eggs. Then Hurricane Elsa dropped over three inches of rain shortly after the chicks hatched. "If the chicks are well fed and have enough energy to stay warm, they will do much better in these situations," Lyons said. "But the double effect of bad food, bad weather and really strong storms had a big impact."

Gulls are long-lived (pufferfish can live 30 or more years), and adults are able to withstand harsh conditions and unproductive years. "We worry about how many bad years are accumulating and if we see more bad years than good years, where is the tipping point?" Lyons said.

Inflatable dream

Recreating and preserving puffins, terns and other seabirds on these Maine islands has required the tremendous efforts of dozens of researchers. For example, vegetation should be cleared to create better nesting habitats, and the number of gulls that prey on chicks and steal food from adults should be controlled.

It all started in 1969 when Stephen Kress came to Audubon Camp on Hog ​​Island, eight miles north of Eastern Egg Rock, as an ornithology instructor. There he read about puffin colonies that once thrived on nearby islands. Ignite the dream.

In 1973, Kress brought six chicks to Eastern Egg Rock from Great Island, Newfoundland, where puffins were plentiful. He hoped they would become established on the island and resume breeding between May and August. (The puffins spend the rest of their time at sea.) In the first few years, Kress and his team raised hundreds of chicks transplanted from Canada, but no adults were seen returning to Eastern Egg Rock.

In June 1977, Kress spotted an adult pufferfish on the island. it was one of his own, identifiable by the band on his leg. But it wasn't until 1981, eight years after Project Puffin began, that a mature puffin with a fish in its beak disappeared into the rock crevices - a sure sign that the first puffin born in Eastern Egg Rock since 1885 was nursing a chick. nesting burrow.

Kress knew seabirds were social animals that lived in colonies, so he placed wooden inflatable decoys around East Eggrock. Naturally, the puffins began to come back and get closer to their wooden counterparts, confirming what became known as Kress' theory of social attraction.

In the dandelion, the presence of other follicles signals that conditions are favorable for reproduction. From a simulated colony (the lure of baits was enhanced with recordings of rumbling sounds) a real one was born. And when the gourds returned, other birds followed: three species of terns (ash, common and pink), Leach's terns, sparrows and the black harrier.

Puffin researchers

“I often refer to puffins as our researchers,” said Lyons, who took over from Kress as head of Project Puffin in 2018. “Every day, many times a day, they go out and sample the ocean in ways we wouldn't. we could ever reach her." (Puffins can dive up to 50 feet to fish.) He then added that they are "reporting to Kay, Jasmine and Emily" information about how their food sources are changing.

Lyon was referring to three young scientists working at Eastern Egg Rock from May to August 2021. Kay Garlick-Ott, Chinese-American PhD student. student of behavioral ecology at the University of California, Davis was spending her fourth summer at Project Puffin. Emily Sandly, who majored in wildlife biology at Keystone College in Pennsylvania, was in her second term. Jasmine Eason, an African-American student at Florida A&M University studying animal science "hoping to become a veterinarian one day," enjoyed her first Project Puffin vacation.

These human researchers work nine hours a day - or more during "peak hatching" in late June - on a variety of tasks ranging from conducting censuses of bird nests across the island to recording the types of food the adult chicks bring to the coops for inspection. invasive red mulberry and other vegetation that blocks terns and petrels from nesting and protects gourds from predatory seagulls. They catch and attach identification strips to the legs of adult pufferfish. They also gently pull the chicks out of their burrows, using a long piece of wire bent into a hook, which they wrap around their legs to measure and weigh them and to check their growth rate. Garlick-Ott said they focus mainly on puffins, but "we're working with six different species, so there's a lot to reconcile."

As the sun went down, I sat with her and Skerry in one of the blinds - in a gray plywood hut on the rocks near the thundering shore - and watched the fleets of dinghies glide across the water. Some landed on the rocks near us and then grew in the cracks between the boulders. Soon we heard birds "talking" on the rocks surrounding us, where their fluffy offspring were waiting for dinner.

Nutrition research takes a long time, explained Garlick-Ott. "We're trying to figure out what fish the chicks eat, how often and what size the fish are." Armed with binoculars, a glove box and a camera, they work three-hour shifts at the blinds that "have names like Heaven, Hell, Pru and Arizona," he said. "Sit back, draw the curtains and watch the streams flow in." Adult pufferfish fall into their burrows so quickly that it is difficult to identify the fish in their beaks unless you have a photo to study. “You signal every time one of the chicks they are examining gets food. You record which chick it went to and identify the type of fish that goes there. To advance the science around the bulges requires painstaking work, and it can take years to reveal trends from the data collected.

Plague of kleptoparasitism

Puffin and tern colonies at Eastern Egg Rock are "dependant on conservation," said Garlick-Ott. In part, he means that people should intervene in the plundering of seagulls. "Laughing seagulls steal and eat baby chicks and eggs," he said. “Herring gulls will take medium to large chicks. "Perhaps the biggest pressure is that laughing gulls steal food from adult puffins and terns as they transfer it to chicks." The biological term for food theft is kleptoparasitism. "Any fish caught is one that doesn't end up in the chick's mouth," he said.

“Kleptoparasitism [via] laughing seagulls is terrible to watch,” Sandley told me. “They nail the waves to the rocks and get food. Seagulls are tyrants."

For researchers, fighting seagulls is an inevitable and unwanted activity. One way they do this is by smearing gull eggs, Garlick-Ott said. The oil prevents air exchange in and out of the egg, clogging the pores in the egg shell, effectively suffocating the embryo. Sometimes, he said, they shoot seagulls too.

Lyons told me that without such drastic measures, the gourds and terns would not have survived. "We will take care of them because we changed the system in which they evolved, especially after colonization here in North America, and we continue to do so." Without these conservation efforts, "we will lose these species."

"If you keep removing more and more populations or species from an ecosystem, even if it's just a small piece," Garlick-Ott said, "it still weakens the overall structure or foundation." If the fundamentals are weak, it's more likely that "something like climate change could come along and wipe out a species or an entire ecosystem." He acknowledged that taking drastic measures to protect biodiversity, such as eliminating some seagulls at Eastern Egg Rock, "could be morally difficult, not to mention irritating. It's an endless battle... worth fighting, but very uncertain.

For Eason, who grew up in downtown Miami, caring for puffins goes beyond supporting biodiversity - it's a source of joy. "I've seen bulges in TV and movies before," she said with a laugh. "I've always been interested in: 'Oh my God, does this bird exist?' This bird is so beautiful. And when I first came here and saw one, you put it together. It was amazing."

All three researchers agreed that there is something fascinating about delving into the daily lives of inflatable families by carefully observing individuals. "They let you have this little piece of land and everything else is theirs," Sandley said. You can really be a part of it."

However, he added that this year has been difficult. “A lot of people I know think this job is sad because we are on the front lines of the fight against climate change. This summer was definitely more emotional."

Garlick-Ott described watching malnourished chickens that never hatch as "gut splitting." Still, she remains optimistic, quoting Stephen Kress (whom researchers call her "pumpkin dad"). "You can't get any work done or create a hopeful and positive future if you don't have a vision of what the future should be like," he said.

The Egg Rock Hilton has a small library with a shelf dedicated to facsimiles of Kress' handwritten journals from the early days of Project Puffin. Garlick-Ott rescinded the entry for July 4, 1981, the day Kress saw the first puffin returning with a fish.

"The puffins are nesting again at Eastern Egg Rock," he wrote, "I will never forget the 4th of July celebration."


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