A Crazy Idea to Bring Back Atlantic Puffins Is a Success
Ornithologist Steve Kress’s once-controversial methods are the gold standard for saving seabirds around the world.
Terns are one of the most vocal bird families, so to attract them to Egg Rock Kress devised a combination of decoys and audio recordings of their cries. It worked remarkably well. Within a few years common and Arctic terns returned. Endangered roseate terns came, too—they often find safety by nesting within common tern colonies.
The technique’s success is evident as Kress, Post, and I delicately make our way to the island’s center. Arctic terns claim the bare rock along the shoreline. Puffins nest in the cracks and crevices of broken bedrock thrown up by winter storms. Farther inland, common terns arrange twig-size bits of flotsam into little cupped nests where rock meets soil. Laughing gulls sit on their spotted eggs in the waist-high grass at island center. Underneath the grass, storm-petrels hide their eggs inside underground burrows.
The terns came back, but Post and three summer interns are here watching over the menagerie because Kress’s tern-based exit strategy didn’t work. “The tern colony is helpful, but eventually we realized it wasn’t enough,” Kress says. On the seven islands the project actively manages, supervisors like Post work sunup to sundown monitoring tern nests and puffin burrows; warding off predators; and removing the weeds that choke out tern nests. “If we weren’t here, the black-backed gulls would return and absolutely take over,” Kress says.
The terns and puffins live in such a thin band of survival that a single event can wipe out an entire breeding cycle. Last year a severe high-tide storm destroyed least tern nests on the Maine coast and Stratton Island. “It came early enough in the season that the birds were able to lay again,” says John Gorey, who notes that many coastal birds relocated to the island after the storm. “The problem was, they laid them below the high-tide line.”
After talking it over with Kress and Shannon on the mainland, Gorey and Pollom painstakingly moved each nest six inches every day. “We had to trick them,” Pollom explains. “If you move them too far at once, the terns become confused and abandon the nest.” It took two weeks to transfer the colony to safety.
Even a win can create its own problems. As black-backed gulls were driven off, the smaller laughing gull, a native but rare Maine species, returned to nest in the tall grass. That positive development came at a price. “You put two thousand laughing gulls on an island like this, it’s like a rain of high-nitrogen fertilizer,” Kress says, holding a guano-splotched grass blade. That led to the boom in mustard weeds, and the carpet experiment.
“We tried all sorts of things on the mustard,” Kress recalls. “Rock salt. Gravel. We did controlled burns.” Nothing worked. Three years ago, after landscaping fabric proved too thin and weak, a trip to Home Depot turned up a rock-colored outdoor carpet that’s been a hit with the terns and so far impenetrable to the mustard. It blends in so well that I had difficulty picking it out—even when I was nearly on top of it.
Kress’s next challenge may take more than carpets to solve. Last winter a series of storms deposited 3,500 dead puffins onto the shores of Scotland, and at least 35 puffins washed ashore on Cape Cod.
Kress and others believe that climate change may be driving the severe storms, along with shifting patterns of fish availability, in the North Atlantic. “Once they leave the nest and head out to sea, predators aren’t the issue—it’s food. The dead puffins that washed up on Cape Cod were emaciated, in bad shape,” he says. “That was the concerning thing.”