Eastern Egg Rock, Maine — Under bejeweled blackness, the lacy string of the Milky Way was gloriously sliced by the International Space Station, the brightest object in the sky. Matthew Dickey, a 21-year-old wildlife and fisheries senior at Texas A&M, grabbed a powerful bird scope and was able to find the space station before it went over the horizon. He shouted: “I think I can make out the shape of the cylinder!”
The space station gone, Dickey and four other young bird researchers settled back down around a campfire fueled with wood from old bird blinds that had been blown out of their misery by a recent storm.
They were alone six miles out to sea on a treeless six-acre jumble of boulders and bramble.
44 years of Project Puffin
On this seemingly inconspicuous speck in Maine waters, a man once as young as they were, Steve Kress, began restoring puffins. He was part of the world’s first successful effort to restore a seabird to an island where they had been killed off by human activity. The experiment began in the spring of 1973 by bringing down 10-day-old chicks down from Newfoundland, feeding them until fledging size in the fall, and hoping that after two or three years out at sea, they would remember Maine and not the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in Canada, where decades of management have maintained Canada’s largest puffin colony of more than 260,000 pairs.
Tonight it was a celebratory fire, flickering off faces with crescent smiles. Besides Dickey, there was team supervisor Laura Brazier, a 26-year-old science and biology graduate of Loyola University in Maryland and masters degree graduate in wildlife conservation at the University of Dublin in Ireland. There was Alyssa Eby, 24, an environmental biology graduate of the University of Manitoba; Jessie Tutterow, 31, a biology graduate of Guilford College; and Alicia Aztorga-Ornelas, 29, a biology graduate from the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California, Mexico.
In the two days prior, their routine count of burrows with breeding pairs of puffins surpassed the all-time record. The previous mark was 150, set last year. During my four-night stay with them in late July, the count rose from 147 to 157. The summer would end with 172 pairs.
“We did it. We are awesome. You guys are awesome,” Brazier said. “Puffins are cool enough. To know we set a new record and we’re part of puffin history is incredible.”
As the fire roared on, celebration became contemplation. As full of themselves as they had a right to be, they know their record is fragile. Where once there were no more than four puffins left in Maine in 1902, decimated by coastal dwellers for eggs and meat, Kress and 600 interns in the 44 years of Project Puffin have nursed the numbers back to 1,300 pairs on three islands. The techniques used in the project—including the translocation of chicks and the use of decoys, mirrors, and broadcast bird sounds to make birds think they had company—have helped save 64 species of birds in 14 countries, including Japan and China. (I have the distinct pleasure of being Kress’s co-author on the story of his quest, “Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock,” published in 2015 by Yale University Press.)
In the crosshairs of American politics
But in the last decade, the Atlantic puffin, which breeds in an arc up from Maine and Canada over to Iceland, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom, has become a signal species of fisheries management and climate change.
On the positive side, Maine puffins are bringing native fish to their chicks that rebounded with strict US federal rules, such as haddock and Acadian redfish. Negatively, the last decade has also brought the warmest waters ever recorded in the Gulf of Maine. A study published in April by researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that several current key species of fish “may not remain in these waters under continued warming.” Last month, researchers from the University of Maine, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, NOAA, and others published a study in the journal Elementa, finding that the longer summers in the Gulf of Maine may have major implications for everything from marine life below the surface to fueling hurricanes in the sky.
For puffins, there already is significant evidence that in the warmest years, the puffin’s preferred cold-water prey like herring and hake are forced farther out to sea while some of the fish that come up from the mid-Atlantic, such as butterfish, are too big and oval for small puffin chicks to eat. The new fish volatility is such that while puffins thrived last year on tiny Eastern Egg Rock, their counterparts could not find fish off the biggest puffin island in the Gulf of Maine, Canadian-administered Machias Seal Island. Last year saw a record-low near-total breeding failure among its 5,500 pairs of puffins.
In the European part of the Atlantic puffin’s range, warmer water displacing prey, overfishing, and pollution have hammered breeding success. According to an article this year in the journal Conservation Letters, co-authored by Andy Rosenberg, the director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a former regional fisheries director for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the north Atlantic realm of the puffin is one of the most over-exploited fisheries in the world, as evident by the crash of several fisheries, most notably cod.
On the Norwegian island of Rost for instance, the 1.5 million breeding pairs of puffins of four decades ago were down to 289,000 in 2015. A key reason appears to be voracious mackerel moving northward, gobbling up the puffin’s herring. Even though there are an estimated 9.5 million to 11.6 million puffins on the other side of the Atlantic for now, Bird Life International two years ago raised the extinction threat for puffins from “least concern” to “vulnerable.”
Much of that was on the minds of the Egg Rock interns, because the very puffins they were counting are in the crosshairs of American politics.
Incessant attacks on environmental accomplishments
Puffins are on land only four months to breed so Kress and his team a few years ago put geo-locators on some birds to see where they migrate in the eight months at sea. Two years ago, the team announced that in the fall and early winter, many Maine puffins go north to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. In late winter and early spring, they come south to forage in fish-rich deep water far south of Cape Cod. That area of ocean is so relatively untouched by human plunder, the corals in the deep are as colorful as any in a Caribbean reef.
The Obama administration was impressed enough to designate the area as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument, protected from commercial exploitation. While vast areas of the Pacific Ocean under US jurisdiction earned monument status under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, the canyons are the first US waters in the Atlantic to be so protected.
Yet President Trump, as part of his incessant attack on his predecessor’s environmental accomplishments, ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review Obama’s monument designations for possible reversal. Even though the Coral Canyons account for a tiny fraction of New England’s heavily depleted waters, the fishing lobby bitterly opposed monument status. This week, the Washington Post reported that Zinke has recommended that the Canyons and Seamounts be opened to commercial fishing.
The researchers on Egg Rock mused around the fire over the concerted attempt, led by the Republican Party and often aided by Democrats in top fossil-fuel production states, to roll back environmental protections for everything from coral to coal ash and broadly discredit science in everything from seabird protections to renewable energy. Some of the divisions of NOAA that are directly involved in studying waters like the Gulf of Maine are targeted for massive budget cuts by the Trump administration.
Fighting against a stacked deck
“It’s funny how in the business world and the stock market, no one questions the numbers and facts,” said Brazier, who marched in April’s March for Science in Washington, DC. “They’re taken as facts and then people use them to decide what to do. But now it’s ok to question science.”
“I think it’s because if you can deny science, you can deny what needs to be done,” Eby said. “It’s too hard for a lot of people in rich countries to get their heads around the fact is that if we’re going to deal with climate change, we’re going to have to change the way we live and the way we use energy. That’s so hard, a lot of people would rather find ways to skip the science and live in their world without thinking about the consequences.”
Tutterow, who hails from North Carolina, where the General Assembly in 2012 famously banned state use of a 100-year-projection of a 39-inch sea-level rise, added, “If I was offered a state or federal job, I’d take it. I’d like to believe there’s a lot of career professionals who work hard to get the job done. But it used to be the main thing you worried about was red tape. Now you have to worry about censorship.”
Dickey said simply, “Sometimes it feels like the deck is stacked against us. But we just have to keep working as hard as we can until someone realizes we’re just trying to deliver facts to help the world.”
The stacked deck is unfair, given the joyful doggedness displayed by this crew. On two days, I followed them around the perimeters of Egg Rock as they wrenched their bodies to “grub” under the boulders, contorting until they could reach their arm into the darkness to puffin chicks to band for research.
The simple act of banding has led to understanding the puffin’s extremely high levels of fidelity, coming back to the same island and burrow year after year despite migrating hundreds of miles away. One Project Puffin bird was in the running for the oldest-known puffin in the world, making it to 35 before disappearing in 2013. A Norwegian puffin made it 41 before being found dead.
On other Atlantic puffin islands, the birds can nest in more shallow cavities of rocks and mounds in grassy cliffs within wrist and elbow reach. Researchers on those islands are able to band scores of puffin chicks and adults.
But the massive size of jagged boulders on Eastern Egg Rock makes it so difficult to grub that the summer record was only 14. On my visit, the crew went from 9 to 17 chicks, with Brazier constantly saying, “Oh no, we’re not giving up. We got this. The next crew’s going to have work hard to beat us.”
No face was brighter than Aztorga-Ornelas’ when she took an adult puffin they banded and lowered it between her legs like a basketball player making an underhanded free throw. She lifted up the bird and let it go to fly back to the ocean to get more fish for its chicks. “I’ll never forget that for the rest of my life,” she said.
On another day, with the same enthusiasm displayed for puffins, they grubbed for another member of the auk family, the black guillemot. At one point, they caught four chicks in separate burrows within seconds of each other. They gleefully posed with birds for photographs.
“I wish people could feel why I’m in this,” Tutterow said. She talked about a prior wolf study project in Minnesota. “We tracked in the snow what we thought was one wolf,” she said. “Then, at a junction, what we thought was one single wolf, the tracks split into five different sets of tracks. Your jaw drops at the ability of these animals to perfectly follow each other to disguise the pack.”
Getting it right
My jaw dropped at how bird science is making world travelers out of this crew beyond Egg Rock. Brazier has worked with African penguins in South Africa, loggerhead turtles in Greece, snowshoe hares in the Yukon, and this fall is headed to Midway Atoll for habitat restoration in key grounds for albatross.
Eby has worked with foxes in Churchill, Manitoba; oystercatchers, murres, auklets, gulls, and petrels in Alaska; and ducks in Nebraska. Besides wolves, Tutterow has helped manage tropicbirds and shearwaters in the Bahamas, honeybees and freshwater fish in North Carolina, loons in the Adirondacks, and wolves in Minnesota. Aztorga-Ornelas has worked with oystercatchers and auklets on Mexican islands and Dickey has helped restore bobwhite, quail, deer, and wild turkey habitat in Texas.
Brazier said a huge reason she helped rehabilitate injured endangered African penguins in South Africa was because of her experience tending to them in college at the Maryland Zoo. “I actually didn’t get the section of the zoo I applied for,” she said. “I got the African penguin exhibit and when all these little fellas were running around my feet, it was the best day of my life.”
Though he is the youngest of the crew, Dickey said his quail and bobwhite work gave him self-sufficiency beyond his years. “My boss lived two miles away and my tractor had a flat four times. It was on me to fix it and I figured it out, even though it was hotter than hell every day, sometimes 110.”
Tutterow, the oldest, originally earned a bachelors degree in nursing at Appalachian State University, but found far more satisfaction in an outdoor career. Among her fondest childhood memories was her parents allowing her to wander in local woods to read atop a rock on a creek. “You can build a lifestyle around any amount of income, but you cannot build happiness into every lifestyle,” she said. “Working with these animals, I’m building happiness for them and me.”
No myopic set of politics and denial of science should ever get in the way of this level of career happiness. Aztorga-Ornelas and I, despite her limited English and my stunted Spanish, shared a dozen “Wows!” sitting together in a bird blind, watching puffins zoom ashore with fish.
Eby said, “It’s strange for me. We just came out of a conservative government in Canada (under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper) where they stopped lake research for acid rain, fisheries, and climate change and government scientists did not feel the freedom to speak out. And now that we’re getting more freedom, I’m here. I hope the US can get it right soon.”