After decades of successful efforts to restore its numbers, the Atlantic puffin remains a canary requiring more human care than ever. The last three years on the signature island of the National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin, Maine’s Eastern Egg Rock, have provided both a sobering and exhilarating illustration of that reality.
The project, which began in 1973 to rebuild a population all but wiped out by humans in the 1880s, reached a record number of 123 nesting pairs in both 2010 and 2011.
But the bird was brutally battered during the past two winters across the entire North Atlantic, with thousands of bodies washing upon European and American shores. Many of the dead birds showed signs of starvation. Scientists speculated puffins could not find traditional foods such as herring, either because of human overfishing or the fish moving away from waters being warmed by climate change. Puffins on Eastern Egg and other islands in Maine have, in recent years, caught more southerly fish that are unsuitable for chicks to eat, such as butterfish. The 2012 death of a chick nicknamed Petey, which could not eat butterfish, was captured on a web cam on another Project Puffin breeding ground, Seal Island.
On Eastern Egg Rock, the problems were compounded in 2012 by a predator never seen before — a pair of river otters. After amazingly swimming to an island six miles out to sea, the otters ate so many puffins and chicks that only 104 nested that year. The mammals eventually had to be shot, since Eastern Egg Rock is also home to Maine’s largest colony of roseate terns, an endangered species.
“It was difficult helping to remove them from the island, but watching the disturbance that they caused our endangered, threatened, and otherwise struggling birds every day made it clear that a seabird island is no place for river otters,” said Maggie Post, the Egg Rock supervisor the last three years. “That continues to be one of the most difficult things I’ve done and witnessed.”
The decision, however, paid off. This year brought the most thrilling thing Post has witnessed in the project: The island achieved a new record of 148 nesting pairs. Two years removed from the otter and with herring making a reappearance in the puffins’ beaks to feed chicks, the birds thrived anew.