Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock
[Stephen Kress] So I thought what might be of interest. One of the things that I enjoyed about writing this book was the opportunity to reflect on some of the lesser-known things that happened along the way of this project.
Because the basic steps have been been described in a lot of articles, and a nice one last weekend in the Boston Globe exerted, excerpted this, some things from the book. But, you mention, you may have picked up on Derrick’s reference to to lizards. And you wonder what was that about?
It actually is very important to the story, the lizard connection. And I want to read, the first little section I want to read from the book is called “Chasing Skinks.”
Long before the puffin there was the skink. This lizard was my prize of prizes when I was about ten years old living in Bexley, Ohio, a cozy village embedded within the eastern reaches of Columbus, Ohio.
It was the mid-1950s, a time when families let fourth-graders romp from house to house and disappear for hours in forested parks. Much of my childhood universe occupied what lay under the shaded canopy of Blacklick Woods Metropolitan Park, a 20 minute drive through farmland from our suburban home in Bexley.
The park was a paradise of some of the least disturbed beech maple forest and vernal swamps in central Ohio. My mom Lyna would drop me off there with a friend Mac Alban with nary the concern displayed by today’s parents.
Think about that. She dropped me off in the morning, and came back at the end of the day before dark. And the thing that got, only thing that got her upset was that I was so wet up to my waist from wading in the swamp that I got the car seat wet.
Now I had, usually, a jar of salamanders, and if I was really lucky a blue-tailed skink. That freedom to to do that, I think, has a lot to do with what I do today. And Derrick picked up on that in his interviews with the students. They too had found ways to, to play in nature.
Now when I was about 13 I was outgrowing my romping through the woods in Bexley, Ohio in the park. And I was thrilled one day when I learned that there was a gentleman who was offering to take young boys out into the countryside to show them hawks and owls. Now that’s another thing that probably wouldn’t happen these days. Imagine, a stranger picking up your kid in the morning while the parents are still sleeping and driving off with him.
Now this wasn’t just any stranger, however, this turns out was Irving Kassoy, and Irv Kassoy and Roger Tory Peterson belonged to the famous Bronx County Bird Club. It was arguably the most elite collection of amateur naturalists in the nation. Irv Kassoy grew up in the Bronx. He and Peterson, Allan Cruickshank, Joe Hickey, famous names in ornithology. Irv was not as famous as the others, he he became upholsterer, and he moved to Columbus. But he loved barn owls.
This Bronx County Bird Club was formed in 1918 by several 11 year old kids interested in earning a boy scout birdwatching merit badge. And Kassoy and Cruickshank and Peterson did just what I was doing. They played in nature, and they described birds, and they went on to be famed naturalists. And for years my friend Mac Alban and I were picked up by Irv Kassoy, and Irv Kassoy told me about his days with Roger Peterson, and there I was sitting in the car field guide. So the small world of birders was starting to close in, and I was beginning to realize that you could meet people that accomplish great things.
Now in, when I was 16, I picked up a brochure at the, one of the Audubon wildlife film series, and I read about the Audubon camps, and I applied to work at them. I was too young because the camps you needed to be 18 at that time, and I was two years too young, but I applied to work. And a fellow by the name of Duryea Morton invited me to come to Greenwich, Connecticut.
Now at the beginning of the summer in Greenwich, Dur one day pulled everybody together. And he would give ’em a pep talk before the campers would arrive. And one such gathering he explained that humans were the only species capable of destroying other species, and therefore we also have the responsibility to be caretakers. Now this was the first time I’d ever heard the concept of stewardship.
I can remember it to this day. Before that I just went through the woods and stole salamanders and ran off with them. Surprising enough the naturalists at Blacklick Woods never even said I had to let them go. I didn’t think anything was really particularly wrong with that. But Dur explained that people could destroy things, and people therefore had a stewardship. They needed, they needed to, to um, look after things.
So for the first time I started thinking less about how to take creatures out of nature, but to take care of them. Now Dur it turns out, now at 92 years old is is still alive, and and was a key player, after two years in Gre—, in my life. In two years I worked at Greenwich, I graduated from washing dishes to cleaning bathrooms. And, and in those years I heard about this place off the Maine coast called Hog Island.
I wanted to go there but the the people that worked there leave it turns out. Among them was Allan Cruickshank, one of Irv Kassoy’s childhood buddies. Peterson had gone there as the first BirdLife instructor, but the instructors wouldn’t leave and Dur said, “No, there’s no openings.”
But he found a job for me in Wisconsin, and later he found a job for me in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. And I went to St. Andrews, New Brunswick. And it was there that I had the opportunity um one day to go out to Machias Seal Island on a birding trip.
There were perhaps 2,000 puffins living on Machias Seal Island when I first landed there. I was, um that would have been about 1967. In those days Machias Seal Island was sort of run as a unofficial B&B. The lighthouse keepers would take in overnight guests, and you could stay there. And they would take you out, and you could stay there as long as you wanted, and they would feed you, feed you chowder. And you could see thousands of puffins and they would pull the chicks out it was but then there was no there was no management in particular, just a cool place to be.
And I was imprinted on puffins.
I didn’t know it at the time. But lots of people came and went out of there, but somehow I was imprinted on puffins. And now I want to tell you about when the day finally came. Every year I would approach Dur and I would say, “Any openings yet at Hog Island? You’ve sent me to Wisconsin, sent to St. Andrews.”
And finally Dur said, “Yes, it looks like there’s an opening at Hog Island.” A changing of the guard.
Now, chapter two, “Ghosts of the Gallery.”
It is impossible not to be stunned by your first view of Hog Island. I had to write that here because it’s really true.
It sits just offshore, the first of dozens of islands that pop into view as you arrive at the end of Keene Neck Road on Maine’s Midcoast, about 40 minute’s drive north of Blue, Booth Harbor. The heavenly scented spruce for a gift to Audubon of Bingham who inherited from her mother, Mabel Loomis Todd. Todd and Bingham are known for the role in editing Emily Dickinson’s poetry, some of which they brought to a rustic camp building in the flavor of Henry David Thoreau. And to advance the idea of encouraging teachers to include nature study in their classroom, and school yard lessons, Audubon founded Hog Island Camp in 1936.
As um a young ornithology instructor there, I really wanted to tell people about the birds, and I started reading the books in the library. And my eye soon went to an obvious title that that I should read, at uh called by a fellow named Ralph Palmer.
And this book was a summary of the life histories of all the birds of Maine. And I thumbed through it, and eventually, you know, just reading everything from warblers to, to nuthatches I came across a section on the Atlantic puffin.
I had just been to Machias Seal not that long ago. And I read in this book about the hunting of seabirds along the coast. And I read that um, about Machias Seal Island and I read about Matinicus Rock, which I knew about, but I was completely blindsided by this passage:
Western and Eastern Egg Rocks in Muscongus Bay, said Norton, reported that the puffin bred on these rocks prior to 1860, and that there were in considerable numbers still on both rocks in the late 1870s. He pointed out that they were much reduced by shooting in the early 1880s, leaving only five or six pairs on Western Egg Rock by 1885.
He saw birds and an egg that had been taken there that year, and during the next two years the last of the birds disappeared from the place.
That was a quote in Ralph Palmer’s book. Now, I can tell you tonight those six words “the puffin bred on these rocks” changed my life. I, you know, I didn’t, I picked the book up that day I didn’t expect that you would read something that would change your life.
But knowing that those puffins that I had seen on Machias Seal bred on rocks just eight miles from Hog Island changed my life.
These were the same islands, and this is what to me is fascinating to this day, these were the same islands that Audubon campers have circled for decades, and landed on in most years. Just eight miles away, but as far as I knew every one of those trips was conducted without the knowledge that these were former puffin colonies.
It was a secret waiting for my discovery. From that moment I ceased looking at Muscongus Bay for what it was in the nin—in 1970. Once I realized how diverse the bird community on the Egg Rocks had formerly been, and knew that puffins had nested on these islands, they suddenly transformed in my mind from vibrant gull colonies into diminished, monotonous reflections of their former selves.
The granite boulders now seemed somber without the flight of puffins and terns.
So I, and everybody else as far as I knew that had been to Hog Island for, since the camp had started in ’36 was thrilled by gulls, but now I realized what we had lost and I thought this was a diminished state. And I think I reflect on that as we go out, and we keep our bird lists, and we do eBird and we record what’s here today. Future biologists may learn that the place used to be richer than it was today. And work to restore things.
The sadness of this new vision, and the deep sense of loss triggered intense curiosity within me, almost like a tidal surge. All my youthful and collegiate tinkering with fish feeding, lights and frogs, and jets. Don’t worry about all the things I tinkered with.
I thought to myself, what if. If only there was a way to bring the puffins back. So then I’m just sort of bringing you quickly from skinks to puffins here.
If there was a way. Now at that time nobody had ever done what I was envisioning before, so it was pretty… and that was a little surprising to me, as well, but it’s true.
Now in those years I was, I was, just before I came here to Cornell in 1972, there were people beginning to do things like this with other birds, but not with seabirds, including the peregrine falcon here at Cornell.
So with, I got some encouragement from Duryea Morton, from Carl Buchheister, then the president of Audubon, to, to move this idea forward because they all agreed that they were gone, why shouldn’t people try to bring them back? On the surface it seemed pretty straightforward.
Now, I thought this was a grand idea. They were gone, people bring them back. Who would have a problem with that? So one of the first people that I decided to write a letter to was Ralph Palmer, the guy that wrote the book. He’s the one that documented they were gone. He knew what year they disappeared, he knew why they disappeared .
Ironically he lived just a few miles away in Tenants Harbor. He would certainly get behind this, and with somebody like Ralph Palmer at my side this was going to cruise through, and be a snap, and I’d be done with this puffin project in just a few years.
That was what I thought at 20-something years old.
So I wrote him a letter. And I, in my enthusiastic way, I explained my sort of the kernel of my beginning idea, that I would get a sympathetic ear from an ornithologist as sage as Ralph Palmer. And so it wasn’t too much longer, I was very pleased to receive a letter from Tenants Harbor with his um return address on it from Ralph Palmer. The Ralph Palmer was writing to me.
I opened the letter expecting, you know, like, to see that he would be thrilled with this, but I was actually shocked to read that he thought my idea was a stunt.
A stunt. And a waste of time. And that anyone who wanted to see puffins should go to Iceland. Oh boy.
Talk about popping a balloon.
At first I thought he must be joking, but he was serious. If this was the response from the man who had the most detailed knowledge of Maine puffins I had to consider whether my idea was hopelessly flawed. Fortunately, I had the encouragement of my men—of my mentors within Audubon.
Still, um I wondered how many others would share Palmer’s view. And so I set out to talk to other ornithologists. Now all at that time led to another ornithologist in New England. His name was um William Holland Drury Junior. He was the director of research for the Massachusetts Audubon. And I wrote to him a similar letter, explaining the idea. Puffins were gone, what do you think about bringing them back?
Oh he wrote back a very different letter, he said come see me. So I traveled to a Drumlin Farm, we sat down, and we talked. And I walked out of that meeting different. That I actually had someone that was interested in this idea. I didn’t realize at the time how important that would be.
But here’s some of Drury’s philosophy, that to me today is really brought home. And this touches on what Derrick alluded to about the balance of nature. Drury was more than an ornithologist, he was a philosopher, he was an ecologist. Uh with, with graduate degrees from Harvard, and a real intellectual.
Drury was worried that both environmentalists and developers in their own way tend to separate humans from nature. This attitude implies the humans and their habits, habitats are not nat— because they have consistently created imbalances.
He believed that environmentalists continually assert that humans and their technological society have destroyed nature. They argue that before humans appeared on the scene all was peaceful and harmonious. He held that this is a distorted view at the dichotomy between human-influenced systems and natural systems is not realistic or helpful, because it leads to an unjustified pessimism among environmentalists.
The idea that humans are separate from nature, he observed, relieves us of any responsibility for nature. [Pause] The separation relieves us from responsibility. The separatist view leads people to believe it is possible to protect nature by creating nature preserves, and that these can function without human intervention.
Drury was among the first to see that human influence was affecting nature everywhere. Regarding the need for human action to save wildlife he wrote, as to the philosophical issues of nature’s order and playing God we now know that laissez-faire ecology like laissez-faire economics doesn’t lead to balanced systems. It leads to monopolies. Unless we believe there is a natural order established at the creation we should acknowledge that when we won’t play God someone will.
I could see Bill Drury’s point at the Egg Rocks. Without direct action to help the displaced species such as puffins and terns, the island was occupied by a monopoly of adaptive gulls that were thriving from the largesse of our throwaway lifestyle. The gulls were playing God.
[Pause] So during this time, my plan, uh to bring the puffins back, so it bubbled along. I was um starting my graduate uh career here at Cornell in 1972. I’d left Antioch College where I was teaching. And my plan uh for bringing the puffins back uh was starting to take shape.
I figured I’d need some puffin eggs, maybe some chicks, and I’d hand rear them, and release them. Uh they’d head off, and then maybe come back. And that would be it.
[Audio cuts] learn that Maine was their home. But I needed a source. And I needed a place to go. I thought about Matinicus Rock, but no not enough puffins there. It was close, but not enough puffins. I thought about Machias Seal Island. And I wrote to, um. I wrote to the Canadian Wildlife Service, a fellow there uh who was in charge of Machias Seal Island and who issued the permits, um was a fella by the name of David Nettleship.
I would need his sign on. And I wrote to him with a letter, not that different really. Still the same idea. I wrote to him, I said, um could, would you consider and would you comment on an idea about moving puffins?
But his response, dated February 18th, ’72, seemed to sh—slam the gate in my face even more firmly than Ralph Palmer did. He, it was a naysaying letter. He agreed it was a great idea to reestablish the lost puffin colonies of Maine. And that I had put a lot of thought and careful planning into my proposal, which may or may not have been so,
however he believed that Maine’s location, the southernmost end of the puffin’s North American range, made it a peripheral, marginal place. And the puffins wouldn’t come back there. And if you moved them there, they would just turn around and go right back wherever they came from. And therefore it would be a waste of time.
He bluntly concluded this behavior would make any attempt to reintroduce puffins to Maine futile because my plan just had too many possibles of, of error. Now, I think that um, David Nettleship thought he would never hear from me again,
after slamming the door so soundly. So I put down this reply. It was a sting, just like the one from Ralph Palmer. So I started thinking what now? Do I give up on this idea, just sort of leave the island to the gulls. I thought, no. I’m going to go back to Bill Drury, he seemed to get it.
And so I pushed Bill Drury, and he thought about it. And he wrote a letter in my defense to Nettleship. And he wrote a very convincing letter, and explained why he thought the puffin project was worthwhile. He explained to Nettleship the puffin colonies on both Machias Seal and Matinicus Rock were recovering, that’s a good thing. And that owing to the small number of puffins, new colonies needed some help.
And Bill concluded his letter to David by, Nettleship, saying he hoped we could all work together. And by saying that he hoped we could all work together to create a program with a maximum promise of success, and I especially appreciated his appeal when he said not to close the door on a young man’s immature plans. That was me.
And Nettleship, respecting Bill Drury, agreed, and began thinking how we could move forward. So we’re moving forward here. Now, we were about four years into this. I had experimented with black guillemots, trying to raise them with some poor success. They lost their waterproofing, they drowned. You can read about that in the book. It was very sad.
And here I was worried about um making a long, difficult trip with six—it take me four years to get a permit from Nettleship to move the first six puffins. And I was talk, thinking about driving all the way to Newfoundland, bouncing up and down the roads with little chicks. And I explained to Peggy Morton, Dur Morton’s wife, about this and she said there’s somebody you should meet. And she introduced me to Bob Noyce.
Now you may know the name, um because this is, this is the Robert Norton Noyce, the co-founder of Intel Corporation, who happened to have a house right next to the Audubon camp on the mainland.
Along with Jack Kilby, he invented the integrated circuit microchip that fueled the personal computer revolution, with Gordon Meade he founded Intel. Bob Noyce eventually held 15 patents for computer chips. He offered to fly me and my first research assistant Kathy Blanchard to Newfoundland in his private jet, along with a couple of neighbors that he rounded up to help collect the puffin chicks. Wow.
Bing, bing. We were on our way, with a little carrying case to hold first six puffin chicks, we flew up the Maine coast. What a beautiful sight it was, flying over the great forests of northern Maine, and in lake country, and all the way up to Newfoundland.
Viewing the coast as a migratory bird from a small plane. We flew in, we collected the first puffin chicks. And we brought them back to Maine. Without a hitch, it was so smooth on perfect, beautiful weather.
We put them in little burrows on East—on Hog Island, but our excitement was short-lived. The day after the transplant one of our three puffins that we put in a rock burrow was missing, gone.
After four years one of them, poof gone. We couldn’t imagine what happened. At first we suspected that our own shoddy handwork building this rock crevice that we put the precious puffin chick in. We discovered a crack in the burrow large enough for a chick to escape. We immediately applied cement to the crack, checked every nearby crevice. We were sober with regret after losing a precious puffin and we decided to entomb the remaining ones in concrete with just a little tiny hole to pass as a fish into. We weren’t going to lose another one, no matter what.
Kept them there, and finally we took them to Eastern Egg Rock and released them.
[Pause] So the puffin chicks had headed off to sea. [Audio cuts] And at the end of that first summer I reported to Nettleship the successful fledging of the chicks, and my greater appreciation for the stamina of the puffins. I was fearful that the sometimes chaotic nature of our seat-of-the-pants approach might have a negative impression.
I neglected to mention the drowning guillemots that we had tried to raise, the raccoons which we later figured out was the thief of our puffin chick, the lack of waterproofing of the guillemots, the collapsed fish weir that we’d built to try to capture live fish for the chicks, and several near disasters on small boats that summer.
But the key thing was the fledging of the chicks from Eastern Egg Rock. It was the high point to the summer, and it set our path, and our vision. And I needed Nettleship’s endorsement for the future, and I remembered Bill Drury’s wisdom—ask for advice. Ask for advice, said Bill. And I did Nettleship for advice. And he gave me puffins as a result.
And it was, and became a partner. 2,000 puffins worth followed those first six puffin chicks. Four years passed, waiting. There’s a chapter called “Waiting”. We’re up to chapter 7 now. We’re really moving here through this.
passed, and the, of sitting out there, waiting. Without seeing anything, no puffins at all. We’d raise them, we’d bring them, we’d feed them, we’d band them, we’d take good care. They were worse than college students going off and never writing.
My son Ben writes.
More of. Or calls at least. Texts me, actually.
Four years of living Rock. I was getting worried that these highly social birds might be returning to the vicinity of Egg Rock, but if they did not see other puffins on the island they might not stay long enough for us to see them. And if they landed on the water, maybe they wouldn’t even come ashore. And we might be so close to, to a success but not know it because there were no other puffins. Because remember, puffins usually come back and join an existing colony, they go home. But here they’ve been gone for a hundred years.
The urgency for success led to the genesis of our use of decoys. And I’ve got a whole collection of them up here you can come and look at afterwards.
Uh waterfowl hunters have long used decoys to lure ducks and geese into hunting range. As did shorebird market hunters. I recalled a geographic article, a National Geographic article, of a puffin hunter who was netting puffins with a, with a net in Iceland. He was surrounded by puffins, dead ones, that he propped up on the ground like decoys.
And again thinking, you know, I’m not going to put dead puffins there, but what about decoys? What about hunter-like decoys? Maybe that would bring them ashore. And so I got some decoys. And on June 3rd, 1977 one of my great heroes in this project Joe Johansen, a Norwegian man of great skill, strength um rowed me out to Eastern Egg Rock with 44 floating design decoys.
[Stephen Kress walks away from the podium, picks up a wooden puffin decoy, and carries it back to the podium]
show you one of these. Um… these are very rare because of what what follows.
[Audience] Can you hold it higher?
[Stephen Kress, holding it up high] Yes, there you go.
On June 7th, excuse me June 3rd, 1977 Joe Johansen, [Stephen Kress puts the puffin decoy down on the podium] assistant boatman John Ryan, Kathy Blanchard and I headed out to open the camp on Egg Rock. All was going well as we set these floating decoys out in the water, until the wind came up,
interfering with decoy deployment. Only about half of the floating decoys were in the water when Joe said, “We have to go back. The wind is coming up.” He knew by the color the sky a storm was coming. Joe rowed with difficulty now back to the island. He dropped us off with camping gear and the standing decoys, there was upright ones as well.
He then transferred the remaining floating decoys into the Lunda, our, our boat, left it on the mooring. It was tossing wildly on the mooring. Kathy and I, with great difficulty put up a tent.
And after the tent was up I walked back to the landing to check on the Lunda, our 21-foot outboard boat. And I was shocked to find the boat had capsized. It was now floating belly-up. And all the decoys were scattered over the ocean.
The boat was still on the mooring. Some of our gear and a few of the puffins decoys were floating towards shore. Uh we hustled to salvage what we could, but most of the decoys and lots of other gear sank to the bottom.
Uh as was our custom when an emergency happened I would run back to the tent, I would break into somebody’s CB conversation. Remember CBs?
Citizen band that was before cell phones. And I broke in there, and I said will you please call this phone number and tell Joe Johansen we’ve got a problem? [Laughs]
[Laughter] So they did. That person called Joe, Joe realized this was really beyond what anything he could do, and so he called the Coast Guard. Um and he said they would be out in the morning, thank you.
They weren’t going to get out in that mess. Um and as promised the Coast Guard boat arrived early the next morning, but their attempts to flip the Lunda upright with a grappling hook only ripped off the rails and made a bigger mess.
And then they got a call for an even greater emergency and they left us.
Before leaving they shouted back, saying someone would come back.
And we were resigned to staying on the island hoping the next Coast Guard boat would be better equipped than the one that just damaged our boat even worse. And by late morning yet another Coast Guard boat arrived with a more powerful boat. They tied a line to the Lunda and they pulled so hard the boat flipped right-side up. And um, and then um, we rode out in our little landing boat, got on it, and they towed us back uh, looking very sheepishly, back to Hog Island with a wrecked boat, without any decoys.
It was not a good day for Project Puffin.
At about, um, on June 10th, uh we returned, and we found uh the water much calmer. And it was a relief, uh to land. And as, while Tom was rowing, Tom French was rowing back to the Lunda, I spotted a quick-winged bird flying over the water.
Soon my curiosity was displaced by disbelief. It was a puffin. [Pause] I shouted at Tom, who barely broke his stride rowing to lift his ever-present binoculars. Tom didn’t seem particularly moved, but I was beside myself with excitement. Four years we’d waited for this moment.
And later Tom explained that he and the others on the project had just assumed the project was going to work because I said it would, so they were not especially surprised.
Okay. The bird circled. It was so tame, we were probably the first people it had ever seen after years at sea. And it plopped down right in the water, and I was able to bring the Lunda, our boat, right up to it. And I could see, much to my amazement, there were bands on its leg. It was the first returning puffin.
It had followed the path that I had predicted. It remembered Egg Rock. It had not gone home at least not that we knew about. [Pause]
[Audio skips] Four years, uh three years later, I had two immediate, uh concerns. One was whether I would be able to procure more chicks. David Nettleship after, for all of his support and backing over all those years, seven years, had really was about done with this. No puffins had come back to nest. Seven years we’ve been at this, still no puffins.
So that was a problem. I didn’t know whether he was going to stop giving me puffins to bring from Canada. Clearly the importance of the project was not obvious to most people. Especially with the national background of politics, and I’m not going to get into that, but, right now, Derrick, through his great knowledge of American history has woven uh major events that were happening in this country and laid them over the story. Um but as you may remember, 1980, that was the Reagan years. And there was a lot of uh, down, um, background politics against conservation.
The other thing, second. Not only was I afraid that was the end of my supply of puffins, but I was surprised to find that Ralph Palmer had resurfaced and had become an even greater nemesis for the project
and behind my back he was writing to everybody he could think about continuing to call this project a stunt, a publicity stunt. He was writing to the president of the Audubon Society, he was writing to the president of, the head of the Canadian Wildlife Service.
He was very busy in his retirement trying to torpedo this project. He had nothing better to do.
Ralph Palmer, the guy that inspired the whole thing.
He was not only a cynic about the value of puffin restoration, but he was quietly fuming about the publicity and the press received about Project Puffin in recent years. I had not heard directly from him since he denounced the original idea a decade before.
[Pause while Stephen Kress turns pages in the book] Now, it was 1981, eight years after the project had started. It was on the Fourth of July. I was in a blind that we had nicknamed flagpole because, near this location, we had hoisted a puffin flag, which Derrick had a picture of in his slideshow. Um, in the earliest years of the project.
And Evie Weinstein, who is here tonight, was at the Egg Rock Hilton. She was catching up on the journal notes before taking a turn in a bird blind, as we tended to do. And as those on the mainland celebrated the independence of the Fourth of July we were, as we did on most other days, just sitting there, hoping to see puffins.
Eight years of it. I had sat in a blind for five hours on that day. From nine in the morning to two in the afternoon. I was ready for a break. All I had to show for my time was strained eyes. Nothing emerged on that foggy day, as most other days. As if to amplify this was another fruitless stint it was raining, and it was a chilling wind blowing in from the Northeast, um.
So I tucked the weathered seat cushion under the bucket that we traditionally sit on in the tent, in the blind. And I slipped out of the tent, walked back toward the cabin thinking about what kind of uh canned food I might throw together for a Fourth of July lunch.
When Evie exploded out of the fog toward me, from her end of the island. She was waving her arms in the contortions of a cartoon traffic cop signaling everyone to proceed simultaneously in all directions. What?
Her whirling limbs prevented her from talking, let alone shouting. What could this be about? On this otherwise grim, almost lifeless day. What could she have seen that shattered the tedium, shocked her into the pandemonium?
Finally she got the words out. Puffin! With fish!
Where? When? I stammered. Breathless with excitement, Evie explained that she had been collecting sea water for washing dishes when, like an apparition, a puffin emerged out of the fog and buzzed past her, carrying the loveliest fish she had ever seen.
She noted with precision in her field journal that this had occurred three and a half hours before at exactly 10:36 a.m. She went on to explain the puffin was flying directly toward my blind and I had missed it.
The site of the puffin with fish draped out of its beak was so surprising she has dropped the bucket of water and was torn between dashing to tell me and not wanting to disturb my stint or the puffins flight, so she raced back to our tiny camp with the urge to tell someone about her most amazing vision.
She had thought to wave down the first lobster boat to come, but of course it was the Fourth of July and nobody was out fishing for lobsters. Desperate to share her news, she called Camden marine radio operator urge.
Now, if you’re not a, not a sailor you might not get this, but Camden, before the days of cell phone, there were people that were marine radio operators, and they just stood by for emergencies. And you weren’t supposed to call them unless your boat was sinking
and you know, it was all very serious, very serious. Marge was very serious woman. There she was, wishing she was probably at a Fourth of July party, when Evie broke in. And shouted out it just seems as impossible. I had to tell someone. And so she told Marge.
“I was so hysterical that when I got Marge on the radio she asked if it was an emergency. I said no no no, and then I launched into one word sentences. Puffin with fish in beak. Puffin with fish on Eastern Egg Rock.”
“I got to tell someone. Called you first.”
Marge responded patiently. “That must have been cool.”
After she ended the call with Marge, Evie said, “After I got off with Marge I was hopping around like a goofy kid.” So, Evie and I rushed to the cabin and we focused our telescope on the south end um and we watched. And we watched. But then, it happened again at 7:40 p.m. The apparition returned, a puffin sliced through the fog with his beak packed full of silvery fish. It scrambled over the rocks and disappeared into crevice. 15 minutes later it popped up from the crevice with no fish. And I saw it this time.
Both of us had been there for the special day. We took eight years to get there, and I have to say Evie’s three words, “puffin with fish” were the three most important words of my career.
That Atlantic puffin, with those fish, represented something that had never been accomplished before. For the first time a seabird was restored to an island where humans had wiped it out.
[Pause] Now I was pleased about all of this. And another four years, though, went by. And the puffins, we had a few pairs breeding. It went up to about fifteen pairs. But every year it was still fifteen pairs, the colony was not growing. Years went by, the colony was not growing.
I was worried that if a predator happened that this little, all this work might kind of blink out. But that didn’t slow down the interest from the press. This was a good news story, and people liked it. CBS News came out, uh many others came out, including National Geographic did a, did a show.
And so I was pleased when um two photographers that I knew well from the Geographic movie, Mike Male and Judy Fieth, contacted me in 1989 to tell me about a new hour-long documentary they were producing on Roger Tory Peterson titled The Celebration of Birds for the well-known PBS series Nature.
They started filming at the Ding Darling Refuge in Florida, and they followed Peterson up the Atlantic coast visiting important places to him. Showing how habitats were being managed, and good things were happening. The ospreys were coming back by then in the Connecticut area.
And they wanted him to return to Hog Island and to, and to show the changes in, in Eastern Egg Rock with the puffins. At 81 years of age and recovering from prostate cancer, and surgery, Roger seemed frail to me.
Our paths had crossed many times over the years. Ever since Irv Kassoy first introduced us in Columbus years ago. Now he was decorated by presidents and widely recognized as the father of modern birdwatching.
He walked with the aid of a monopod, which gave me pause as I considered the slippery landings and irregular terrain at Eastern Egg Rock, but he was undaunted by the less than ideal weather, and the thick fog that greeted him at the top of the hill as we looked over Muscongus Bay, planning our trip to Egg Rock.
At that point in his life he was fascinated by butterflies, which were abundant at the Audubon property. And he was just so interested in everything. And on Tuesday, July 24th the fog cleared, and we move forward with the plan to film Roger returning to Eastern Egg Rock where he had taken campers there in 1936.
More than 50 years had passed since he’d been there before. Mike and Judy and I, we headed out to Eastern Egg Rock on the Lunda, and we were accompanied with, uh by Joe Johansen. And we towed a dory to row Roger in.
We wanted to be careful because we’re remembering his wife Ginny’s words, “Take care of Roger. He’s a national treasure.”
To help with the landings, Joe Johansen, with his great skill at rowing managed to get Roger ashore, and to row Mike and Judy’s equipment ashore, including Mike’s $50,000 camera.
After tents were up, Mike and Judy filmed an interview between Roger and myself, and I headed back to the mainland. And they were out there for several days together.
Two days later I went back to the island to retrieve Roger, Mike, and Judy, um for a, what was to be a celebrity evening on Hog Island. His grand return after so many years. And he was going to give the campers a lecture. And of course everybody was thrilled that Roger Tory Peterson was coming back to Hog Island.
We couldn’t have, if it’d been, you know, a great emperor he wouldn’t have gotten a better welcome. Jerry Skinner, a marine life instructor on Hog Island, and Captain Bob Bowman, a Bar Harbor whale researcher and captain.
Because everybody wanted a chance to spend a little time with Roger. Now ever since Marlin Perkins had refused to be photographed in our little orange rubber boat called the Geezer
we had been using inflatables, much like Jacques Cousteau used for his endeavors. And so we rode in, we got Roger on board the um, the Lunda, we had a little landing boat for that, and we headed back to Hog Island.
On the way we took a swing around Western Egg Rock, which was a historic site for puffins as well, but one that was never restored. We use that as a control. No management, no change in birds. It was just a gull nesting island still. It was treeless, 10-acre island, and I had scouted it years before.
I had not visited in many years, but I thought the Western would be a good control to show Roger and to film. So we approached the south end of the island, we could see the nesting gulls and cormorants. The island look just as I remembered it 20 years earlier. Mike was filming Roger while Judy asked questions about his memories of the place in the 1930s. And she recorded what he had to say.
I was doing my best to position the boat so the island and birds were, made a backdrop behind Roger while keeping an eye on the waves, which had kicked up a bit. When they had completed filming we circled to the north end of the island. “Would you like to make another pass around the island?” I asked.
The filming resumed as we began our second pass close along the eastern shore, where dozens of eiders were bobbing in the surf under a large granite knob. Then I brought the Lunda a second time around the south end, keeping her several hundred yards offshore, away from the rollers that were now pounding the shore.
We were in about 30 feet of water. Mike and Judy continued to film and record, Judy with microphone in hand, and Mike with his huge camera on his shoulder powered by the heavy lead battery belt he wore tight to his waist.
[Chuckles. Stephen Kress looks up at the audience. More laughter]
I was the first to see the wave coming,
a huge wall of green water was rushing at us. I shouted, “Here comes a big one!”
In that blurry instant I was looking up at an angry crest, just before it curled down and crashed into the Lunda with such force the port side of the boat where Michael was standing was pushed down, flipping the Lunda completely over.
I recall thinking, this can’t be happening.
This has never happened before. But it was happening, and we were all thrown into the frigid water with all of our equipment sinking and floating around us. Somehow my binoculars remained around my neck.
Mike went straight to the bottom, weighted down by his lead battery belt, tangled in cables and still clutching his camera, he probably would not have made it back to the surface without uh Judy diving down to free him of the weight, the $50,000 ruined.
Miraculously we were all near the boat, and keeping our heads above water, terrified as more water rolled over us, getting weaker by the instant as the 50 degree water sapped our energy.
We couldn’t find Roger, but much to our relief he soon bobbed to the surface near the capsized boat. We mustered our strength to pull ourselves up onto the slick belly of the Lunda. Together we hauled Roger out of the foaming water onto the top of the capsized boat, but before we could catch our breath another great wave broke over us, washing us back into the frigid water.
Now we were drifting closer to crashing on Western Egg Rock. I was afraid the boat would crush us against the granite. So we began swimming as best we could toward land. Eventually we started finding welcome rock beneath our feet as we neared the shore.
Roger was completely spent. Bob Bowman, a sea captain and probably the best in shape of anybody in the group did most of the heavy lifting to keep Roger afloat while everyone helped.
Finally in the shallows we dragged ourselves ashore over the rocks like slippery sea so many drunks, we were soaked, exhausted, and chilled to the bone but every be okay except Roger.
He was bleeding from scrapes, and holding his ribs, in pain. Hypothermia was setting in, and he was shivering. He could barely stagger forward with our help. He was 81 years old. We laid Roger down and Mike huddled next to him to keep, share his body heat. The Lunda still belly up was drifting ashore on the high tide. Its propeller out of the water.
I knew that our luck was turning when I noticed that some of our equipment was floating ashore. The best prize was a tent, which we promptly set up to create a windbreak for Roger. The sun warmed the tent’s interior and we all took turns lying next to our birding hero.
This was Roger Tory Peterson. Talking to him, afraid that if he fell asleep he might not wake again. His quiet voice was rambling now. I feared he was becoming delusional.
Now butterflies were migrating that day, and even in his stupor Roger noticed the red admirals and the monarchs alighting on the tent, backlit by the afternoon sun. While I lay next to him I heard him ask if these were .
[Stephen Kress laughs] Much later, he recounted that he actually said they were anglewings,
a type of butterfly. Which may have been the case as I have seen this beautiful orange butterfly with mau— in late summer, just about that time. But perhaps he did meet angels, for he went on to tell me that while he was under water he thought that he had seen Mildred, his first wife.
I later learned his first wife had met a tragic, mysterious end by drowning in this same bay.
[Audience makes “aww” sound]
Our fortune improved further when Bob Bowman discovered that his cigarette lighter could muster a few sparks. Quickly, we began gathering combustibles. These great piles of driftwood, lobster buoys, and other junk were set ablaze. I was never so pleased to find such abundant trash on a seabird island.
Or to be in the company of a smoker.
The blaze grew large and black with acrid smoke , which we hoped would attract the attention of a passing boat. But it was now approaching 5 p.m. Lobster boats were long off the water, no recreation boats were passing within sight, and fog was on the distance rolling in.
It was getting dark. I knew that as the air temperature dropped the fog would return and our chance of rescue would be slim. I thought how in this dangerous hour we had completely abandoned our bird protection roles. The cormorants that were along this shore were now scattered. The gull chicks were hiding from us in the dense vegetation in the middle of the island.
Somehow even the thought of protect seemed absurd. In the distance we could see Eastern Egg Rock. At this hour I knew that Barbara Debbie were probably daily bird tallies. How trivial that all seemed.
Nothing seemed important except to get some help for Roger, and find a way off this barren rock. But just as birding seemed the least important thing it became our salvation. It was about 5:30 p.m. In the distance we spotted the Hardy III making its regular evening puffin watching run from New Harbor to Eastern Egg Rock.
We stoked up the fire and started wildly waving a blue tarp. Fortunately another bit of equipment, Mike’s light reflector, had washed up, and we were flashing this. At the Hardy boat, which was about a half a mile away.
And much to our amazement and delight the boat shifted course and came toward Western Egg Rock. Captain Leonard Duffy was at the helm, and later recounted his teenaged deckhand Matthew Samson had spotted Mike’s flashing signal, and recognized it as a distress.
And Captain Duffy approached close enough to see the Lunda’s belly up, people shaking a blue tarp. They also knew the huge rollers that were breaking on the shore, and he wisely backed off. The Hardy radioed the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard came to our attention.
Fog had rolled back in and it was nearly dark when the Coast Guard cutter Rango appeared. We had been on Western Egg Rock about four hours, but the ordeal seemed to go on for days. The Coast Guard crew promptly sent a zodiac inflatable ashore, bearing four capable young men with blankets and a stretcher, all business.
They put Roger on the stretcher and carried him to the shore as we trailed along in the near darkness. Relieved at our rescue, I reflected on Ginny Peterson’s caution before the trip, “Take care of Roger.”
“He’s a national treasure.”
There’s more to the chapter, but I’m gonna, I’ll leave the rest for you to read when you buy the book.
Now, Derrick brought this idea up about the balance of nature. It is, I think, one of the important things that comes out of this, this work. And, the concept really comes down to what is sustainability.
If sustainability means getting the puffins in Maine to a certain population where it can survive on its own as it did before European settlement, the prospect likely cannot ever fit that definition.
That in turn begs obvious questions that I must answer for skeptics. Is there any lasting importance in a project where if I ever stopped it the gulls and eagles would come back and wipe everything out?
There are several answers. One is that humans have altered the landscape to such an extent the small islands such as Eastern Egg Rock cannot escape the effects of humanity, even in a relatively sparsely populated state as Maine.
Egg Rock is an island connected to the mainland, not a bridge, but by a web of creatures from plankton to predator. The most obvious such connections are the large garbage landfills and the fishing waste of passing lobsters.
Another connection to burgeoning coastal humanity is that the very success of coastal wildlife conservation recovery of eagles and ospreys and mink is now one of the greatest threats.
I’ve come to believe that the increased human presence and associate enterprise not only gives advantage to some species over others, but usually leads to a simple biological communities with fewer species dominated by generalists and scavengers.
We see it on land with gulls, crows, vultures, raccoons, pigeons, and rats replacing habitats such as wood thrush and meadowlarks.
Likewise, the ocean forward around Egg Rock is also a simpler habitat than in centuries past. Commercial fisheries have emptied nearby waters of fish such as cod and halibut.
Even, even invertebrates like urchins and starfish are now largely replaced by crabs and lobsters. Scavengers thrive around people. Even during my time I have seen the demise of giant cod all with remorse. I, too, caught them.
So here we were attempting to restore a bird community that had been missing for a hundred years into a bottom-up modified marine community with no knowledge of where the puffins spend most of the year. Sometimes I reflect the initial idea of bringing the puffins back, and wonder whether, if I knew then about the resurgence of predators, the complex relationships with prey, and the need for ongoing management, would I have launched the project in the first place?
The importance of human presence to guard against predators was underscored recently when students at the DeWitt Middle School, aided by David Buchner here in the front row, a technology teacher, built a robot.
The idea was that that robot would guard the island, and we could take the people off. Well, perhaps it could have worked better with time, and later versions. It didn’t work, but we were left with the reality that people are the best protectors of the island, not machinery. Not, not equipment, but people have to be there for the foreseeable future.
Future seabird conservation will have not only to focus on defending existing but find ways to move birds to safer habitat in the coming years. This will become increasingly urgent because they’re already about three times more people living within 70 miles of the coastline than the global average density.
Here seabirds and conservation must contend not only with old challenges and predators, but, such as poachers, and toxic spills, and development, but they also need to anticipate the broad effects from climate change.
Seabirds are the sentinels of the ocean. They are messengers about climate change, the health of fish populations, because the number, size, and kinds of prey delivered to the chicks inform us about the changes in the abundance, the diversity, distribution of coastal fish.
Overfishing and climate change are altering the world’s fish. We see it happening in a frightening speed.
This brings me back to the concept of stewardship. A good place to start thinking about stewardship, which Dur Morton told me about many years ago, is to reject the idea of the balance of nature. Something that was echoed by Bill Drury.
This enduring myth suggests that nature has purpose, that each species has a rightful place, and on balance will come back. That’s a myth. It’s really never been proved. Balance will decide which species survive and which will disappear.
In contrast, a belief in active stewardship leads to rejecting the balance of nature paradigm, replacing it with the idea that each species is just doing its best to survive. Not because it is part of a great plan, but because it simply can.
Bill Drury believed that the only constraints in nature were change and chance. Everything changes, and chance events usually determine outcomes.
I picked the puffin for my life pursuit more than 40 years ago because it captured my imagination, just as it continues to lure thousands aboard puffin watching tours along the Maine coast.
Although there are still more puffins on t-shirts and trinkets than on nesting islands, rare seabirds are coming back because we have done some of the right things, with ample patience, and enough perseverance.
Saving puffins means protecting nesting habitat, and saving their forage fish, and the entire food web that supports the fish throughout their year, and throughout their range.
It also means protecting oceans, from pollution and rapid climate change, allowing for species to adapt to the inevitable changes.
I hope the restored puffin colonies in Maine represent something much more important than the opportunity of viewing this picturesque bird. I hope that Maine puffins will help people to look at places where animals once were, and realize that we don’t have to accept the diminished condition.
People can bring back lost species, and I hope that somewhere out there even Ralph Palmer
is finally nodding his head in approval. Perhaps now he might agree that Eastern Egg Rock and its puffins represent a touchstone for people on a planet with very wobbly legs.
I’m going to stop with that um thought, and if we have time, Hugh, do we have time for some questions?
Okay let’s do a few questions from this group. Okay. Thank you very much.
Anybody have a question? Yes?
[Stephen Kress] Most of what we have to do is just to be there. The that it’s safer to be somewhere. The predators learn it’s safer to be somewhere else. The gulls will leave if we are there, but we have to be there just the right season when they’re setting up their nests. And we have a permit to take eggs from gulls, and the gull will usually re-nest when we start doing that.
Eagles, the, the latest threat which greatly increase [cough], increasing on the coast, uh will not land as long as we are there. But the day we leave the islands in the fall the eagles come, often by the dozen or more. And they started sitting on the roof of our cabins, and on the rocks all around the island.
So they are the great new threat. But gulls remain a serious problem. So presence, and that’s where the Robo Ranger robot idea came in. Maybe we could fool the birds, but we quickly learned, and I’ve learned this many times over, never underestimate a predator.
They are very smart, very good at what they do.
Any other questions? Yes.
[Audience] In um one of the photographs you showed the marine version of the windmill, which is probably going to become more and more prevalent. Um as also we’re finding out in, you know, looking green is not always as green as it seems. We’re finding out more and more they’re taking a larger percentage of bird life than we think. Have you given any thought to that? Since eventually somebody’s gonna wanna put windmills.
[Stephen Kress] So yeah, I have a lot of thought on that. And that is that um, while birds do collide with windmills and, and so do bats, and that’s not to, not to be denied, um those, those threats can be minimized a lot by location. So location, some places are worse than others to put them. And so that’s the first consideration. The other that the even greater problem is climate change.
Um rising oceans, melting oceans, changes in productivity of the oceans, acidification of the oceans. These are, these are threats that are affecting not just individual birds that, that collide, but whole species.
314 species of North American birds are moving further north, or up mountains as response, these are enormous changes. And seabirds are gravely threatened, whole species. So, we need to minimize the effects of wind, and solar, which have negative effects. But um, compare that to the bigger issues of climate change.
Yeah. Derrick. Yeah.
[Derrick Jackson] Um, I’ve had the opportunity to um actually um be at a win—wind farm in Denmark. And also have talked with researchers in Scotland and um Germany um who have studied the impact of offshore wind farms on birds.
And so far it’s actually quite interesting. Um do blades occasionally kill birds? Yes. But what they have also found, which is quite fascinating is that um, ducks, and other kinds of marine life. They’ve done studies of the patterns that they swim and fly around turbines. They had a before, as part of the permitting process. You know, what was the before patterns of ducks, and what’s the after patterns.
And they’ve found that they go in and around and through, and, and haven’t declined at all.
[Stephen Kress] Any other questions? Yes?
[Stephen Kress] The question is how is the population doing? Um, since the project started the puffin population has increased from, in the United States, from maybe about 70 pairs of puffins that were breeding on Matinicus Rock to about a thousand uh pairs on four, on four islands.
[Audience] So it’s pretty much gone, it’s grown quite a bit.
[Stephen Kress] It’s grown quite a bit. Yes?
[Audience] Uh, years ago, at a bird uh club meeting, you explained that, um the gulls that were on open garbage area on the lands close were harassing the, and eating the, the puffins. And you persuaded them to close those uh garbage, open garbage areas. Is that still going on?
[Stephen Kress] The question is are there still uh open landfills near the coast. Um, no, the local landfills have been closed. And the garbage is now transported inland, and it’s covered over.
Has that affected the gull population? Perhaps, somewhat. Gull populations are declining, so that’s a good, that’s a good thing. But gulls still, I mean, they still eat a lot of garbage. It’s still important food source. Gull populations are declining, but they, in part from that, but also because the eagles eat a lot of gulls.
And for those reasons, and we’ve overfished the big fish that that gulls used to feed on. Uh fish offal. So there’s lots of things that have caused the gull population to drop. There’s still enough gulls around to keep puffins and terns from recolonizing islands on their own without our active management. Um. Yes?
[Stephen Kress] The question are there other projects that are sort of modeled after this work, and the answer’s yes, there, there are many. There’s a chapter on this in the book, which I didn’t get into at all called “Project Puffin Goes Global.”And, and we did.
And we have documented that at least 14 countries with about of seabirds, which is about twenty percent of all seabirds now, they’re using these methods. So that’s, that makes me very pleased that regardless of what happens in Maine, these other projects, and and some of them run by former interns from our own project, are already making a difference out there for rare and endangered seabirds.
That was part of the challenge, uh part of the answer I put to Ralph Palmer when he questioned, why do you want to bother? I’d say well, the puffin is common in Iceland, yes. It’s not an endangered species, happily never has been. But we can learn a lot from this bird that we can apply to endangered birds.
And there wasn’t time to get into this tonight, but the book has a whole chapter about the use of this method for the um short-tailed albatross in Japan, and now the Chinese crested tern in China.
This summer we have two Chinese biologists coming to Maine to learn more about how to do this kind of work. And that’s very important product of this program.
Okay, one last question from the room here. Yes?
[Stephen Kress] The question is can you attract terns that will then protect the puffins? Yes, that was the initial idea with our tern attraction project. It does work, in fact it works really well. With with, more with. Every time we’ve tried that method, chasing off gulls, then uh trying to attract terns with decoys and audio recordings, they will breed. And that’s the method called social attraction that’s used most widely, as a result.
Hugh was there a call in question, maybe? From someone that you want me to try to answer.
[Audience] Just applauding.
[Stephen Kress] Yeah, oh, good. Thank you. Thank you.
[Audience] Um, yeah, the um caller from Acadia um is interested in uh whether wilderness protection will be extended to some of Maine’s puffin islands um after this, having been opposed several years ago?
[Stephen Kress] Uh the question is will wilderness um protection be passed to Maine puffin islands. All of the puffin islands in Maine are now under conservation ownership. [Audio cuts] technical wilderness, but they are in conservation ownership. Some are owned by, owned and protected with Audubon at national wildlife refuges, which is an important partner of ours, the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Uh broader protections through wilderness designations are another possibility, and I would think that’s something to consider.
So I think um we’re going to end with that, with that question. Derrick and I will be out at the table. If you would like to buy a Project Puffin book, the way that works is to go to the bookstore, buy the book, and we’ll sign it for you. And thank you all very much.
[Applause]End of transcript
After 42 years, Project Puffin has achieved international acclaim for pioneering methods that are helping endangered seabirds worldwide. But there is much to this story that has never been told. Project founder Dr. Stephen Kress recounts how his childhood experiences in landlocked Columbus, Ohio, ignited his lifelong passion for puffins on the Maine coast. Hear about the challenges of working on remote islands, and how persistence helped him succeed when a nemesis almost halted the project in its infancy, and join us for the first public debut of Kress’s new autographical book, Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock, co-written with Derrick Z. Jackson.