A friend and I are just back from a magical trip to Eastern Egg Rock in Maine. That’s where a lively colony of puffins now lives, though 40 years ago, almost all the little brightly colored shore birds had essentially vanished from their home. Between using feathers for ladies’ hats and gentlemen’s fishing lures and eating the birds, the population was down to single digits. Meanwhile a young graduate student named Steve Kress was at Cornell working in their famous ornithology program. One of his professors was helping try to restore the peregrine falcon, so young Steve had a dream: if his professor could try with the falcons, maybe he could work to restore puffins to Maine’s coastal region. Now, forty summers later, there are over 150 banded mating pairs on Eastern Egg Rock, located about eight off shore from New Harbor, a quiet fishing village along the coast.
About 30 years ago, my then partner and I began vacationing in Maine most summers, staying at a lovely old lodge built early in the 20th century. Among its brochures of things to do while in Northeast Harbor was an invitation to go see puffins. Attracted to the famous image of an adult puffin holding four or five tiny fish in its bill, I suggested we make the trip. It involved arising about 4:30 and my partner was a late sleeper, so we didn’t pursue the option. But I carried the little picture back to Minneapolis and decided to sign up for a program conducted through the Maine Audubon Society. Called “Adopt a Puffin,” it meant I sent them $100 a year to take care of a puffin assigned to me. She had a number though I called her “Priscilla.” Every summer I received a new photograph of her and it was “my” puffin because I could see the band on her leg. Eventually she died (they life span can easily get into the 30s if nothing happens at sea) and I now am sponsoring a new female. Over the years I’ve learned that they only lay one egg per season, so if the egg doesn’t hatch and survive, they miss a year of reproduction. Both my puffins have been successful except for 2 or 3 times, so I feel happy to have helped carry on two family lines.
About eight years ago I traveled to Iceland, hired a marvelous guide who knew all about puffins and geology. Mike drove me up the western edge of the island to the fjords where there is a large puffin colony with burrows dug under the ground at cliff’s edge. Arriving just at dawn, I saw for well over an hour, alone with my binoculars, watching one after another adult puffin peek out from her/his burrow, preen or flap wings, fly in a wide circle just to stretch before returning to move slowly into another day of going out to get fish for their young safely tucked inside the burrows. That was a soul-feeding experience, so when the Project Puffin staff offered me a chance to be in a blind on Eastern Egg Rock where I could observe individual puffins quite close to home, I accepted. Happily my friend, a serious birder, eagerly agreed to accompany me.
The night before out trip out to the rock, Steve Kress, the graduate student now in his 60s, gave an illustrated talk about the history or the project ending with his deep concerns about the potentially disastrous effect of ocean warming. It seems the tiny fish essential to pufflings (the name for baby puffins) are sinking deeper to get to cooler water and some larger fishes are too big for tiny stomachs to digest. But parents seem intent on finding slightly larger varieties so they can continue to produce new generations, at least into the near future. Time on the rock was like entering another world: there are no human inhabitants on this small island, though from May to late August several students planning to become shore bird scientists or naturalists live in tiny tents and bathe in the Atlantic Ocean while doing the essential and daily charting of life patterns among the puffin pairs. In addition to puffins, there are hundreds of terns and various kinds of gulls, all of whom make a loud racket all the time, with the terns diving for our heads because we were very near their chicks still inside or just outside of their eggs. Once it was our turn in a blind, we nestled into a tiny wooden box, sitting on 2 large overturned plastic buckets softened a little by very old cushions doled out before we set off for our roost. For about half an hour we were shut inside, disturbing terns and gulls just a little, and able to watch adult puffins going about their mid-morning lives, singly or in pairs/triplets or large gatherings.
Puffins are exceptionally social birds it seems, so when Steve Kress first was trying to attract adults from Canada, he figured out to have a Maine – make wooden puffins that he installed strategically around the barren rocks of the island. This worked well and fairly quickly, so he began thinking of it as a possible strategy for restoration efforts for other endangered populations. The term has stuck and become known through the entire world of ornithologists. We heard that just recently Project Puffin was visited by Japanese naturalists eager to restore colonies of birds equally decimated over the years. So this kindly man not only has brought his beloved puffins back to the Maine coast but he has taught others a highly successful way to do the same in their own environments. I was moved by the name he chose: SOCIAL ATTRACTION. It tells me nature depends on what we humans too often refuse to acknowledge, i.e., it really does take a village to sustain individual lives, and none of us makes it “alone,” never mind various myths of individualism foisted upon us by philosophers or politicians. Communities are our safeguards against all sorts of ills–internal and external. We’d be wise to watch the puffins as my friend and I did the other morning. Even if they spent some time in the sun just fluffing their own feathers, eventually they hooked up with others and seemed more active for doing so.