Puffins at East Egg Rock, Maine
“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.
There were some lessons in it for Kress and his team as well. “It took a couple of years to clear the island of most of the gulls. It was a sobering realization of how much easier it is to break up a colony of seabirds than it is to create one.”
Indeed, just getting puffin chicks to the island was a ticklish problem. Each June for eight years, Kress packed crates specially made for transporting the chicks onto a chartered plane and flew to Newfoundland. He picked up about 100 week-old chicks (except for 1973 and 1974 when he got six and 54 respectively) and raced to make the 1,000 mile journey by plane, truck, and boat, back to Eastern Egg Rock within a day.
But that was the easy part. Kress and his research assistants — mostly Cornell graduate students — had to make nests for these puffins. “The puffin in Maine is a rock nester,” Kress explains. “Throughout most of its range, it’s a soil nester. It digs a nice burrow in the soil.”
Partly because Eastern Egg Rock is predominantly rock, and partly because the researchers were to be parents to these chicks and needed access to them, Kress decided to make rock burrows from cement blocks. But when the 1,000 cement blocks he ordered were stacked at the loading pier near the Audubon Camp, he had second thoughts. Ferrying all that cement to the island would be a lot harder than carrying the birds ashore.
So for the first year he tried ceramic chimney tiles, which seemed like natural rock crevices. But they heated up like ovens, and they provided no place for the chicks’ droppings to run. When the chicks fledged, their feathers were soiled. “It makes them vulnerable to cold water shock,” Kress says. “We’ve never seen one of the 54 birds we reared in the damn things.”