Just prior to our first-ever trip to Maine this summer, we heard we’d have a chance to meet up with Puffins.
“You know — the bird with the clown bill that’s on the cereal box,” said my friend Peter, a Maine native.
You have to travel to a remote island to see the Puffins, he told me, but they’re amazing. Not to mention cute. The kind of amazingly cute that made me crazy for birding in the first place.
Early one morning, Anders and I boarded a boat along with a couple dozen other tourists for the 20-mile trek out to sea. The destination was Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, a nesting site for 500 pairs of Atlantic Puffins monitored by The National Audubon Society.
Guaranteed close-up views of Puffins and seals are the main reason to pay $75 each for the five-hour trip – but some of us hoped to spy other birds that, like the Puffin, live far out at sea: Shearwaters, Storm-Petrels, Jeagers, Razorbills and Guillemots. (Thank heaven for a self-identified “bird nerd” who stood in the stern pointing out each species as they came along.)
Going ashore at Seal Island isn’t allowed, and once you get there, an Audubon researcher boards the boat to explain what you can — and can’t — see going on all around you.
Puffins were once plentiful off coastal Maine, but the population was decimated in the 1800’s by hunters after their meat, eggs, and also their feathers for women’s hats. Part of the problem is that Puffins lay just one egg each year, typically don’t breed until 5 years old, and have a limited nesting habitat. This trifecta makes them vulnerable to any type of human disturbance. The fact that their food supply is currently dwindling due to climate change only makes matters worse.
In the early 1970’s the National Audubon Society began Project Puffin to try and repopulate Puffins to five rocky islands off Maine. On Seal Island where we visited, it took Project Puffin years to rebuild the population to the 500 pairs that now lay eggs in burrows between the boulders.
This fascinating project involved 950 imported puffin chicks, Puffin decoys, mirrors, recorded Puffin sounds, and a host of Audubon biologists who fed the hatchlings.
Our enchanting afternoon with the Puffins did not disappoint. We left with a warm fuzzy feeling, glad that Audubon had stepped in to put things right.
Little did we know. Not quite a month later, The New York Times blared this headline:
“Why Are Puffins Vanishing? Overfishing, hunting and pollution are putting pressure on the birds, but climate change may prove to be the biggest challenge.”
The story by John Schwartz, reporting from Grimsley and other islands off Iceland, prominently featured a photo of a hunter with a couple dozen dead Puffins slung across his back.
“Though some puffin colonies are prospering, in Iceland, where the largest population of Atlantic puffins is found, their numbers have dropped from roughly seven million individuals to about 5.4 million. Since 2015, the birds have been listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning they face a high risk of extinction in the wild,” the story states.
There may still be millions of Atlantic puffins, but the numbers are deceiving, Erpur Snaer Hansen, a Puffin researcher at the South Iceland Nature Research Center, told The Times.
“These birds are long lived, so you don’t just see them plummeting down,” he said. But in the long run, he warned, “It’s not sustainable.”
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