Puffins at East Egg Rock, Maine
The rush of excitement, however, was followed by more disappointment. “Weeks went by and nothing,” Kress says. Finally they checked other nearby islands. On Matinicus Rock, about 26 miles east, they found what they’d hoped to see at Eastern Egg Rock — puffins with white and multicolored bands on their legs.
“It’s very common for puffins to wander around for two to three years before they breed,” Kress explains. Over the next couple of years the team set out puffin decoys and mirrors on the island’s rock formations in an effort to attract the real birds. They began an effort to attract arctic terns and other terns by playing tape recordings of bird calls. Terns breed rapidly and are especially aggressive against gulls, thus a puffin ally. Between 1977 and 1980 puffins returned to the island in increasing numbers, and the despair of the first years turned to excitement.
This didn’t necessarily mean the puffins were breeding, and that was the key to the success of the project and to the realization of Kress’s dream. Since frequent inspection of the boulders where the puffins might nest would only inhibit mating, Kress and his team depended on other evidence as proof of breeding — a puffin returning to the island with fish in its beak. The group had rarely talked about this goal, out of superstition that too much talk would undermine the dream.
On July 4, 1981, it happened. “This is the day that we have all experienced a thousand times by dream,” Kress wrote in the journal that day. Evie Weinstein was the first to spot a puffin flying overhead with a fish in its mouth. But she was alone on one end of the island while Kress was in a blind on the other. “There was nobody to tell,” she says. Then, just after 7:30 that evening while in the crow’s nest, Kress had his turn. He wrote: “While taking a random scope view of the south end of the island, I was amazed to see a puffin with its beak crammed full of fish enter the field of my scope and walk-fly-scramble into the boulders. A moment later a bird came out of the rocks, exercised, and flew off while a second stood by watching the entire show…it’s the best proof yet that after 100 years of absence and nine years of working toward this goal, puffins are again nesting at Eastern Egg Rock — a Fourth of July celebration I’ll never forget.”
Although the team no longer transplants chicks from Newfoundland, the puffin project, which is supported by private donations, continues. The population is beginning to establish itself without imports. There were 14 nesting pair at Eastern Egg Rock last summer, but it’s too early to tell for sure whether the project is a success.
“Puffins mate for life,” Kress says, “and return to the same burrow every year. But they can’t raise two chicks at once because they can’t bring home enough food. They aren’t geared up for quick reproduction.”
Thus whether they increase in numbers will depend on several factors — the supply of food and the absence of gulls among them. The next milestone in the puffin project, Kress says, is probably to see if the birds are still at Eastern Egg Rock 20 years down the road.
“It’s extremely gratifying when you see it come full circle,” Kress says. “It reinforces the kind of commitment that it takes. No matter what you’re doing, there’s value in just being persistent in what you believe in.”