Ornithologist uses bird decoys to lure puffins

By Will Slater

“Puffins are important because of hope,” says Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. naturalist Hugo Navarro. “They are proof that extinction can be reversed.”

Passengers on the Puffin and Lighthouse Cruise, leaving from Bar Harbor at 9:30 a.m., see and learn about the orange-and-gray-beaked seabirds themselves, but also the scientific efforts they represent. Reintroduced to parts of Maine by ornithologist Steve Kress and his team in the 1970s, puffins now inhabit five Maine islands and ledges, including today’s primary destination, the Petit Manan Wildlife Refuge. Though perhaps not as famous as lobster or blueberries, puffins are popular among Mainers and visitors alike. It is a success story, but still a fragile one, as the birds are increasingly threatened by climate change.

The cruise’s first stop is Egg Rock in Frenchman Bay, to see its lighthouse, built in 1875, and its main inhabitants, seals and gulls. The red-flashing Egg Rock Light is built on top of the lightkeeper’s quarters. The distinctive design was not always appreciated.

“[This] used to be considered Maine’s ugliest lighthouse,” Navarro says. 

From Egg Rock, the cruise picks up speed, riding up and down ever-larger swells toward Petit Manan Island. The treeless isle is home to a diverse seabird population, including Arctic and common terns, black guillemot, razorbills, murres and, of course, an island-record of 90 pairs of breeding Atlantic puffins.

Puffins came to Petit Manan on their own over the course of the 1990s. Many gulls eat puffin eggs, so the species is less likely to breed in gull-dominant areas. Scientists attracted terns, which are aggressive but not puffin predators. Terns and scientists drove away most of the gulls, and puffins soon arrived. 

This use of terns is just one chapter in a larger story of scientific problem-solving. Puffins are native to many Maine islands, but as of 1973, only two colonies remained. Kress, then still a fledging ornithologist, had an audacious idea. He transported hundreds of young puffins, 10-14 days old, from Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock, where puffins had been hunted to extermination in 1885.

“Puffins generally are really faithful to a given nesting island,” says Don Lyons, director of conservation science at the Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute, also known as “Project Puffin.”

Kress knew this and suspected that his relocated puffins would one day return to Eastern Egg Rock as adults to breed. They did not, at first, just as his many doubters assumed. But returnees appeared in 1977, likely drawn in part by the wooden puffins and broadcasted audio Kress used to lure them. 

Reintroduction efforts spread to other rocks off Maine. Today, about 1,000 nesting pairs return to Eastern Egg Rock, Matinicus Rock, Seal Island, Big Duck Island or Petit Manan Island. That number grows to 6,000 if including Machias Seal Island, located between the Gulf of Maine and Canada’s Bay of Fundy, which both the U.S. and Canada claim to own. The contested waters are in the northeast Gulf of Maine about 10 miles from far-eastern Maine town of Cutler and 12 miles from Grand Manan Island in Canada’s New Brunswick province.

Since then, Kress’s methods have been adapted to support struggling seabird populations around the world, such as Chinese crested terns.

Puffins are easily identifiable from the cruise deck by their bright beaks and penguin-like bodies. They float in small groups, or stand on the rocks, occasionally flying short distances. On the island, a team of three scientists works in the shadow of the 123-foot granite Petit Manan Light. They briefly radio in, telling passengers that they began mapping tern nests today at 4:20 a.m. 

Maine’s puffins are a study in hope, perhaps, but their story did not end happily ever after in 1977. 

“Right now, puffins are doing well,” Lyons says, “but there are some warning signs.”

The Gulf of Maine is one of the most rapidly warming bodies of water in the world, due to its relative shallowness and melting farther north, which is changing the currents feeding into the Gulf. Puffins mostly eat small fish like herring, hake and cod. As waters warm, Lyons says, puffins’ food supply is at risk. Fish accustomed to Maine’s historically cold waters have moved and will move north, while other species flee even warmer waters farther south along the Atlantic Coast for the now-habitable Maine waters.

“[The new fish are] not as nutritious or as ideal for puffins or other seabirds,” Lyons warns. 

Beyond reducing one’s carbon footprint, there are concrete ways people can help puffins. When possible, Lyons says, research and buy fish from providers committed to responsible population management and try not to eat the same fish puffins eat if those populations are stressed. With this approach, consumers can avoid placing an unnecessary burden on already shrinking puffin food supplies. Lyons also advises limiting plastic usage, which often ends up in oceans and can be toxic and undigestible for wildlife. 

Bidding farewell to the puffins, the cruise turns back, eventually reaching calmer waters. Passengers emerge from the cabin to photograph the Schoodic Peninsula, taking in bald eagles, an osprey nest, and the allegedly haunted Winter Harbor Light. Cutting across Frenchman Bay, the air warms first in pockets and then altogether as Bar Harbor nears. 

The Puffin and Lighthouse Cruise can be enjoyed simply as a scenic experience. But it also offers an opportunity to learn about and appreciate a locally important seabird endangered by human behavior. 

The cruise is from 9:30 a.m. to 12/12:30 p.m. through mid-August. Even on hot days, the wind is strong and the air is cold out on the water. Bring a sweater and windbreaker, even gloves and a hat. The sunlight reflecting off the water is potent, too, so sunscreen and sunglasses are recommended. Cookies, chips, coffee and hot chocolate are available for purchase. While much can be seen with the naked eye, a pair of binoculars or a camera with zoom will allow for more in-depth viewing. Make sure to arrive early to secure a good seat. Face masks are required.

Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. is located at 1 West St., Bar Harbor. For more information, call 288-2386 or visit https://www.barharborwhales.com/ or Facebook. Learn more about Project Puffin at https://projectpuffin.audubon.org/.