Puffins at East Egg Rock, Maine
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.”
The next year, 1975, the team dug 100 burrows in what soil they could find on Eastern Egg Rock. Evie Weinstein, a researcher on the project, remembers the day a week or so after they had transplanted chicks into the burrows. It had rained for three days straight. Evie was out on Eastern Egg Rock; despite the rain, the feeding schedule for the chicks couldn’t be interrupted.
In the downpour one morning, she approached one burrow and found water was lapping at its mouth. It was full of water. Certain the chick had died, she bent down, held her breath, and reached her arm all the way in. “In the back corner of the burrow was an air pocket,” she said. “A puffin chick was paddling around, with just its beak sticking out.” Many chicks nearly drowned because the holes wouldn’t drain.
Finally, in 1976, they found the solution. They built burrows in blocks of sod. “They were puffin condos,” Kress says with a smile. Each burrow was L-shaped, a required feature for happy puffins, Kress learned, and because they were sod, the chicks could scratch away at the sides and shape their homes to their taste.
Kress and his four research assistants rotated two- and three-day shifts on the island and spent several hours each day feeding the chicks. “It is as if we raised these birds,” reads one entry in the daily journal the researchers have kept from the beginning of the project.
After four or five weeks the puffin chicks would get restless in their burrows, pacing back and forth and often refusing to eat. That usually meant they were ready to fledge — that is, to leave their nests to survive in the wild on their own.
Although puffins feed and are most active during the day, their young fledge at night, an unusual practice, Kress says, that protects them from the gulls. “It shows how strong the gull presence has been for them to adapt to it in such an effective way,” he says.
On several occasions Kress has crawled out on the rocks on the island after midnight to listen for the telltale scraping of plastic bands against the rocks, and, if he’s lucky, to watch the birds in the moonlight as they stumble their way to the sea. By dawn, the puffins are far enough out at sea to be free of danger of the gulls.
Once the young birds fly or stumble into the sea, the researchers await their return. In subsequent years, even while they were caring for the current year’s class of chicks, they eagerly scanned the skies and the rocks for signs that the earlier years’ classes had returned.
From this standpoint, the summers of 1974, 1975, and 1976 were long indeed. Despite hours and days of searching the horizon, they didn’t spot a single puffin.
Finally, on June 12, 1977, as Kress was rowing ashore in a dinghy, a puffin flew overhead and plopped down in the water nearby. As Kress rowed, the bird swam toward him, each as curious as the other. Kress knew in a moment he had found what he was looking for: around the bird’s left leg was a white plastic band — certain evidence that puffins had returned to Eastern Egg Rock. “Oh, what a great day,” he says.