Puffins at East Egg Rock, Maine
Yankee Classic from August 1983 by Ron Winslow
It was 5:55, just before sunrise, when I ducked into an upside-down plywood box that served as a bird blind on an island outpost at the mouth of Muscongus Bay. I perched on an inverted garbage can and peered through the small windows that were protected with strips of burlap. I had binoculars and a camera. I scanned the nearby boulders, hoping to see a puffin. By 6:30 I was restless and impatient. Then I caught myself. Steve Kress has spent the better part of the last ten summers trying to recognize Maine’s East Egg Rock Island with puffins, the species that dominated it a century ago. The project is a monument to patience, and I had come here to spend the day expecting to see a puffin on demand.
Entitled or not, at 6:40 a small puffin with a band on each leg landed on a rock about 20 feet in front of me. I lunged for my binoculars, rattling the garbage can underneath me, then stopped, holding my breath, afraid I’d scare the bird away. The puffin preened itself and finally walked down the side of the rock and disappeared. Within five minutes, the puffin returned. Two minutes later a second puffin appeared. Another minute and a third landed on a rock. Ten years ago I would not have been treated to this show. I was watching the results of a nine-year project replete with patience, disappointment, dedication, and love.
A Puffin is a small seabird with a black back, snow-white breast, short orange legs, and webbed feet. Its most striking feature is its oversized beak, a rainbow of red-orange, yellow, and gray. The puffin’s most appealing characteristic, however, is its eyes. Small and dark against the bird’s gray-white face, they are highlighted by markings that give the puffin an innocent, vulnerable expression that looks just plain friendly.
As early as the 1880s, puffins were virtually extinct along the northern New England coast, the southern frontier of their range. They were the victims of fishermen who, in search of meat and eggs, stretched huge herring nets over the rocks at night on such islands as Eastern Egg Rock, covering the crevices where puffins made their nests and cared for their young.
By 1900 the birds were so scarce that both federal and state legislation was passed to protect them and other birds from excessive hunting. But it was too late for the puffin along Maine’s coastline. The state’s entire puffin population was reduced to a couple of breeding pair on Matinicus Rock. By 1970 that island’s population had increased to about 50, but no new puffin colonies had been established along the coast.
Steve Kress decided to change that. “It was simply a conscious desire to increase the diversity of Maine seabirds,” says Kress, who was then a bird instructor at the Maine Audubon Camp which he now directs. “Without some conscious effort to manage some of these species, we could lose them.”
Kress is a stocky, round-faced man whose even temperament masks the intensity of his commitment to wildlife. He chose puffins because their story most dramatically illustrated the plight of seabirds, especially their conservation along the Maine coast. It was a bird that had not recovered and was clearly unable to recover from the abuse it suffered from humans when it was avidly hunted in the 19th century. Then there’s just the bird’s special appeal.
“The puffin looks like a little clown,” he says, “a little caricature of human form. Any caricature of human form is sort of innately appealing. Most people view wildlife through human eyes.”
Kress’s puffin project is keyed to this fact: young puffins, after spending two to three years at sea, generally return to the place where they were born to find a mate. Since no puffins were on Eastern Egg Rock in 1970, Kress would have to transplant puffin chicks from Newfoundland, Canada, where they thrived on the steep, jagged shoreline.
Kress selected Eastern Egg Rock Island — one of the outermost of dozens of islands in Muscongus Bay — as the real-life laboratory where techniques to restore the bird would be tested.
While it had once been home to puffins, the island’s most recent dominant inhabitants were seagulls, black-backed and herring gulls in particular.
These thriving gull colonies were a major hindrance to Kress because gulls are among the puffins’ predators. So when Kress decided to reestablish a puffin colony on Eastern Egg Rock, he also decided to destroy the seagull population there — or at least drive it off the island. Using “gull control practices,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service broke up the nests, and poisoned and shot some of the adults. “The gulls learned quickly. They’re intelligent,” Kress explains.
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