Seabird Stewards: Bringing Back Atlantic Puffins of Maine

Seabird

From far away, Eastern Egg Rock – a small island about six miles off the coast of Maine – isn’t much to look at. The island is the length of about two football fields, has no trees, is covered in low and scrubby vegetation, and is surrounded by a rocky shoreline. Getting a boat close to the island, let alone finding a beach on which to sunbathe, would be hard.

Out of the corner of your eye you spot a black-and-white blur. Something about the shape and size of a small football zooms past you. The blur lands in the water. When you focus your binoculars on a colorful bill, you realize that you have spotted an Atlantic Puffin!

Atlantic Puffins were once killed on many islands off of Maine during the 1800s. Fishermen and hunters sold puffin meat for food and fishing bait. When puffin chicks were brought back to this island by biologists in the 1970s, the scientists realized that the birds would need to be protected from human activity and predators if they were going to survive for future generations.

Birds like puffins depend on Egg Rock as a summer home for raising their chicks, and it takes the hard work of young seabird stewards to keep the birds safe.

A day in the life of a seabird biologist

Imagine living in a tent for three months on an island without internet or running water – that means no showers or flushing toilets! You are living amongst thousands of birds. They are sitting on nests, soaring through the air with fish in their bills, or hopping along rocks and wiggling into rocky burrows. That is what life was like for four biologists – Laura, Coco, Audrey, and Kay – who called Eastern Egg Rock home this summer.

A normal day on the island started early. The seabird biologists scattered across the colony to sit in observation blinds and watch for Atlantic Puffins with metal bands on their legs. These bands were placed on puffins when they were small, fluffy chicks and don’t harm the birds at all. Once biologists spotted a metal band, they read it with their spotting scope and recorded the information. Entering this data in the computer lets scientists see who else had spotted that puffin and where it traveled over time. This important tool helps ornithologists make decisions about how to protect birds like the Atlantic Puffin.

Banding the Puffling – Biologist Audrey Holstead uses pliers to put a metal band on a recently-hatched puffin, called a puffling for short. Seabird biologists are specially trained to handle and band birds as safely as possible. Image credit: Kay Garlick-Ott
Data Collection
Weighing the Puffling - Biologist Coco Faber carefully puts the puffling in a cloth bag in order to record its weight with a scale. Biologists will weigh pufflings several times through the nesting season to track how well they are being fed by their parents. Image credit: Kay Garlick-Ott
Data Collection
Data Collection – Biologist Laura Brazier collects data for a recently-banded puffin. Recording data – such as weight, bill measurements, wingspan, and band number – is an important tool that helps seabird biologists to track specific puffins over time. Image credit: Kay Garlick-Ott
Seabird Selfie
Seabird Selfie – The Eastern Egg Rock field crew poses with their newly-banded puffin chick. From left to right: Lyanne Pierina Ampuerto Merino, Kay Garlick-Ott, Laura Brazier, Audrey Holstead, and Coco Faber. Image credit: Lyanne Pierina Ampuerto Merino

What can I do to help birds in my neighborhood?

Many people who work as seabird biologists have gone to college, which might be a little far in the future for some readers of Smore Magazine. But there are some things that you and your family can do to help the birds in your own backyard:

• Plant bird-friendly native plants. Find out more at: https://www.audubon.org/news/10-plants-bird-friendly-yard

• Volunteer with your local Audubon Society chapter. Find out more at: https://www.audubon.org/about/chapters

• Become a citizen scientist! Find out more at: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/

Fun Facts about Atlantic Puffins

Puffins

•  Atlantic Puffins are known as the “clowns of the sea,” because of their big, brightly colored bills.

•  During the summer months, puffins make their nests in burrows underground, where they will raise one chick per year.

•  During the rest of the year, puffins fly and swim off to the sea, eating and sleeping on the open ocean.

•  Puffins can dive up to 200 feet underwater to hunt for fish, their favorite food.

•  Puffins can fly through the air at 55 miles per hour (88 kilometers per hour) by beating their wings 300 times per minute!

•  Young puffins, commonly called “pufflings,” will stay in the burrow for only six weeks. Then they make their way to the ocean with out their parents. They will spend three to five years on the water before returning to the island to have their own chicks.

Glossary

Citizen Scientist – Someone who volunteers their time toward scientific research, like bird counts or invasive species removal. A citizen scientist does not have to be a scientist by training; they just need to be someone who cares about the cause!

Binoculars – A piece of equipment that uses two separate lenses to view far-away objects. Some people like to call them “bigger-makers.”

Biologist – A scientist who studies and works with living things. There are lots of different kinds of biologists, and they can study everything from marine mammals in Antarctica to insect colonies in the tropics to bird behavior in cities.

Spotting Scope – A small telescope that can be used to magnify objects from far away. Seabird biologists use spotting scopes to read the metal bands on birds like puffins.

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