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On A Rocky Maine Island, Puffins Are Making A Tenuous Comeback

Stephen Kress walks through tall vegetation on Eastern Egg Rock. He led the effort to recolonize puffins on the 7-acre island.

Project Puffin staffers "grub" for puffin chicks beneath boulders.

Rocky, windswept Eastern Egg Rock, about 6 miles off the coast of Maine, was once a haven for a hugely diverse bird population. But in the 1800s, fishermen decimated the birds' ranks -- for food and for feathers.

When ornithologist Stephen Kress first visited 40 years ago, the 7-acre island was nearly barren, with only grass and gulls left. Not a puffin in sight. Not even an old puffin bone.

"But it had great habitat because there were great boulders on the island, and I could imagine the puffins standing on top of them," Kress says.

No imagination is needed now. Thanks to a relocation experiment pioneered by Kress and his co-workers in the Audubon Society's Project Puffin, this treeless little island is now kind of a bird tornado.

In peak years, more than 200 of the orange-and black-beaked puffins nest here. Ten other bird species -- including the endangered roseate tern -- have been tempted into the island habitat, with an assist from handmade burrows, decoys and recorded bird calls. In nesting season, humans are posted to wave off predators such as black-backed gulls and eagles.

Kress heads to a bird blind out on the perimeter of the island. He's surrounded by a whirl of laughing gulls and terns -- they're mostly what's heard here since puffins are silent above ground.

But a dozen or so puffin are loafing -- that's the scientific term -- on a jutting rock nearby. The group of little bird-faced jesters in tucked-back tuxedos all seem to ponder the sea and the sky.

"They keep their distance," Kress says. "[When] one goes, the others think maybe it's time to leave too." Kress snaps pictures of puffins on the wing, as they bring staples like herring and hake to chicks nesting deep inside the rocks.

"There's two puffins flying around, coming in with food," he says. "You see the fish, shiny in their beak -- two or three herring, which is good news."

Herring are good news now because last year they never arrived in local waters.

Their absence coincided with the warmest water temperatures ever recorded in the Gulf of Maine, part of a general warming trend documented over the last decade.

Instead, a more southerly species called butterfish showed up. Butterfish are fine, even nutritious, for adult puffins. But they're too big for the babies' gullets.

"Last year the puffin chicks were surrounded by big butterfish that they couldn't swallow, and about half of the chicks starved," Kress says.

The herring are back now and there are fewer butterfish around. And after last year's hard winter, the numbers of birds, nests and surviving chicks are low. Kress says it's too soon to tell if this is a long-term trend.

"I think the seabirds will tell us about the changes," Kress says. "If the oceans are changing so that the seabirds can't survive here, this is not good news for humans either."

Island workers do get depressed about it all, but they have a pick-me-up -- it's called "grubbing" for chicks. Maggie Post and resident intern Kate MacNamee worm their way far down in a jumble of boulders.

MacNamee emerges with a 10-inch beaked bundle of gray and white fluff. It has a distinctive crown, a little like a bald-headed friar.

"He's got male-pattern feathers," MacNamee says.

"He's got a friar's haircut," says Post.

MacNamee names him "Friar Tuck."

Friar Tuck is banded, measured, weighed and returned to his burrow. With luck, in a few weeks this new Maine native will fledge and take on the mature puffin's distinctive colors. And after dark, one night soon, he'll head out onto uncertain seas.

Copyright 2013 WBUR. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

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