Project Puffin: Protecting Seabird Islands in the Gulf of Maine

AubreyAlamshah | SSC Naturalist

In the summer of 2015 I started working at Project Puffin, a seabird restoration program run through the National Audubon Society. I’ve worked there in some capacity every summer since then and the things I learned there have helped me a great deal at my job at the Seacoast Science Center.

Here I am working at the Seacoast Science Center! In December, I did a lecture here about Project Puffin.

Project Puffin was started in 1973 by Steve Kress. The original goal was to re-introduce Atlantic Puffins to Eastern Egg Rock, an island in the Gulf of Maine.

Eastern Egg Rock Island

Puffins had nested on this island up until 1885, when they were completely wiped out due to overhunting. Thanks to the restoration efforts of Dr. Kress and the Project Puffin Team, there are now over 175 puffin pairs nesting on Eastern Egg Rock. The project has since expanded to 7 different islands, and the Atlantic Puffin population has grown from 1 breeding pair to over 1,000.

A Puffin gathering nesting material on Eastern Egg Rock.

A Puffin parent and Puffling chick, hiding in their rock burrow on Seal Island NWR.

Project Puffin also works to help restore other seabirds that use the Gulf of Maine islands as their breeding homes.

Black Guillemots

Arctic Tern

Originally, Atlantic Puffins were brought to the islands from Nova Scotia. Now that the Puffins are established, they no longer have to. They do use methods like decoys, mirrors, and audio recordings to encourage seabirds to nest on the protected islands.

A puffin staring suspiciously at a decoy.

One of the most important jobs at Project Puffin is the research. I spent some of my first season on Eastern Egg Rock studying the Puffins, Terns, and Guillemots there.

Me, sitting in a bird blind and watching the Puffin burrows.

Living conditions on Eastern Egg Rock.

However, there’s more to seabird conservation than just research. Over the next few seasons I helped with outreach, education, and fundraising, too.

This included leading boat tours…

…and sometimes even going to events dressed as a puffin.

Now that it’s illegal to hunt them and the populations are on the rise, you might think Puffins and other seabirds no longer need our help, but that’s definitely not the case. Every season, hundreds of pieces of marine debris end up washing onto the seabird islands. If we don’t clean it up, it could harm the seabirds that live there.

A small sample of the marine debris that washed up on Eastern Egg Rock while I was there.

By the end of the season, the shores of all the seabird islands are covered in marine debris.

A boat full of washed up marine debris (mostly lobster traps) being sent to the mainland to be disposed of.

That isn’t the only issue Puffins face. Warming oceans make it harder for Puffins to find food for their Pufflings. When Puffin parents can’t find the right fish like herring and hake, they’ll often bring back fish that are low in nutrients or too large for the Puffling to eat.

A Puffling trying to eat a Butterfish that was brought back to him.

Thankfully, this past year the Puffins have been snacking on Acadian Redfish. These fish are just as good for Puffins as herring or hake, but are more abundant thanks to strict regulations and proper management. This has been much better for Puffins and the population seems to be increasing overall in the Gulf of Maine. Hopefully we can look forward to seeing more of these loveable birds thanks to special ocean stewards like the Puffineers at Project Puffin.

To learn more, you can visit www.projectpuffin.audubon.org or visit the Project Puffin Visitor Center in Rockland, Maine.

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