Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Project Puffin: Truly Inspirational

Those eyes, that beak-- it's no surprise that people flock to purchase puffin-inspired merchandise in the quaint shops along the coast of Maine. What is a surprise, however, is that their presence on the coast is due to the vision of one man, ornithologist Dr. Stephen Kress.

37 years ago, Dr. Kress started Project Puffin, an ambitious and creative program intended to reintroduce puffin colonies to the area. With permission from the Canadian government, Dr. Kress transported puffin chicks to Eastern Egg Rock, handraising them until they were grown enough to take to the water and disappear for several years. By using decoys normally employed in hunting, Dr. Kress was able to encourage these social creatures to return to Eastern Egg Rock and establish a thriving colony. Through a combination of persistence and ingenuity, a puffin colony took form, but was under constant threat by the predatory gull population. Gulls, who have become overpopulated by living off of food discarded in landfills, crowd the rock and other coastal areas. Dr. Kress then introduced terns to the rock, a species threatened by loss of habitat, to keep the gulls at bay as well as increase in numbers. Although the terns have had some success in breeding, the gulls remain a threat to both puffin and tern. To combat the threat of gulls eating puffin and tern chicks, a mighty army of summer interns set up camp on the remote island, accessible only by dory when the tide is right. Their presence reduces the opportunity for gulls to raid the nests. Once nesting season is over and the birds begin their winter migration, the interns depart, leaving the area's eagles and gulls to duke it out.

We had the honor of visiting Dr. Kress and his team at Audubon's Bremen location in Maine. Despite a torrential rainstorm this past Sunday morning, the weather cleared and a group of 15 were taken to see Project Puffin up close. On the ride to and from Eastern Egg Rock, we caught glimpses of a bald eagle, osprey, great blue herons, and a field of a hundred seals, sunning themselves on a rock. Once we dropped anchor, visitors were rowed in groups out to Eastern Egg Rock, landing on the boulders where many terns had made their nests. Olivia and Jackson were able to hold a couple of chicks, some only a day or two old, another, a two week old tern. As we made our way out to the 'blind', a stand to watch the puffins, the laughing gulls circled overhead, their sound practically deafening. Once in the blind, we were treated to a great view of the puffins; two of them even swooped in to feed fish to their young. It is a delicately balanced system of birds on Eastern Egg Rock, but its success is testament that one person can certainly make a difference in our world.

This miraculous project, featured in last month's Smithsonian Magazine, has inspired many others around the globe. By employing similar techniques, birds have been encouraged to take up safer habitats. What is most astounding is that a project this significant is funded by private donations. Barbara's cereal has been a big supporter, with a portion of its Puffin Cereal sales going to the project, so our family decided to follow their lead and offer Jackson's puffin drawing, which he gave to Dr. Kress, on a variety of items (tee-shirts, totes, mugs) on Olivia's Birds, Olivia's online store, to support Project Puffin. Another way to help is to Adopt a Puffin, a great gift for someone, I think.
Puffin watching tours are available, as is an Audubon ornithology camp on Hogg Island with programs for adults and for teens.

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