Steve Kress dedicated 50 years of his life to saving Maine's puffins.
The biologist Steve Kress is pictured at Eastern Egg Rock around 1979 with a relocated puffin fledgling. Credit: Courtesy of Richard Podolsky

In springtime, Maine attracts tourists eager to take short cruises to see puffins on Eastern Egg Rock in the outer Muscongus Bay, off the coast of New Harbor. Often called “sea parrots,” some might think puffins resemble penguins with their black and white feathers, but the stocky, short-winged seabirds are a different species altogether.

The fact that these creatures still exist in Maine is largely due to the efforts of a pioneering biologist, Steve Kress, who dedicated 50 years of his life to restoring populations on nesting islands in the Gulf of Maine through Project Puffin.

Kress will be awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Natural Resources Council of Maine on Oct. 26 for his work restoring and managing breeding colonies of puffins and seabirds in Maine and globally. The Bangor Daily News spoke to him about what he’s learned from a lifetime in conservation, his successful restoration of puffins and the threats facing them and other bird species today.

In the 1970s, Kress and a research assistant, Kathleen Blanchard, teamed up to restore puffins. The seabirds were overhunted a century ago, and, while large populations of puffins existed in Europe and other parts of the world, only a dwindling population of about 70 remained in the Gulf of Maine.

Kress transplanted newly hatched puffins from Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock and nested them in burrows on the island. He expected the birds to return themselves and to establish a colony after spending their first few years at sea. Young puffins are known to return to breed where they originally hatched.

Steve Kress dedicated 50 years of his life to saving Maine's puffins.
Steve Kress puts a young puffin chick in a burrow at Eastern Egg Rock around 1975. Credit: Courtesy of the Project Puffin Archive

But leaving it entirely up to nature and expecting the puffins to return to establish a colony proved challenging. So Kress invented a “social attraction” method to draw the birds back to the island. It required setting up decoy puffins, sound recordings of puffins, and mirrors to give the birds the impression of an existing population they could rejoin. His method worked, and over the next few decades, the seabirds grew to an existing population of 1,300 breeding pairs on five islands.

Today, his methodology is implemented around the world to conserve not only seabirds, but other animals, too. Since Project Puffin, a third of seabird species have benefited from his social attraction method, and a total of 800 seabird restoration projects have been initiated the world over, Kress said. Teams of biologists and researchers continue the conservation work to manage Maine puffins at the National Audubon Society and the Project Puffin Visitor Center in Rockland.

Puffins are adaptable creatures, but even they are vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise, Kress said. However, he is hopeful about their survival.

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity:

Mehr Sher, BDN: What was your biggest learning from your life’s work — restoring and conserving seabirds?

Steve Kress: Well, I didn’t expect it to be a 50-year-long enterprise. The idea was to do this in a few summers and move on. My initial goal was to get nesting on a rock and then let nature run its course, and it was a very naive idea to think that it would be that simple. … I think the most important thing I learned through my project is that it demonstrated the possibility of restoring a species. My methodology, which involves social attraction, is my most important contribution. … Eastern Egg Rock represents the first ever restored seabird community in the world, and it has inspired people around the world to say, well, that’s something that I could do as well. 

Sher: What, in your view, was one of the biggest successes of your project, in addition to the conservation of the seabirds and your methodology?

Kress: I think our training of young biologists on the islands and actually working to educate them with a broad sense of conservation — why it’s important, the biology of the birds. … We also welcomed international participation in this program. Very early on, we would bring in conservation biologists from other countries, and when they went back to their native countries they initiated similar projects. That was always the hope. Sometimes it didn’t work because they didn’t have the resources or the support there to do it. … It takes money, permits, dedication and long-term work. We have a special fund at Project Puffin to support other conservation biologists, called the Herz International Seabird Fellowship. 

Sher: What makes puffins unique in a marine ecosystem?

Kress: They are presently serving as really good indicators of the quality of the environment at a time of climate change. Ocean water is warming up, and it’s not as salty as it was. There’s all kinds of changes happening in the marine environment. … Puffins have the ability to collect samples and bring back small fish, and that’s something that even fisheries biologists can’t capture as well. We measure these environmental changes in the ocean and the effects on the species by the kinds of fish that are in their beaks and by measuring their chicks, which may be smaller than usual in size, and documenting the impact of climate change on the species.

Sher: What has been the most surprising thing about puffins to you?

Kress: The most surprising thing is their adaptability. They are such great survivors. The ocean is throwing them all kinds of stressful situations. They spend most of the year on the ocean without coming onto land at all. They survive all the waves and storms. I think it’s the sheer strength of puffins to survive in such a challenging environment — challenging from a climate and a human perspective.

Sher: What are the biggest threats to the survival of seabirds and the marine environment today? And what role can conservationists play?

Kress: I think the biggest immediate threat is climate change, and that is affecting the birds in at least two key ways. It’s affecting their food supplies. Bottom up, the plankton to the kinds of small fish that they feed on, the abundance, the timing, location and the quality of those fish are all changing. That’s a huge threat. It’s a big challenge to the puffins to find enough food in that changing environment. And in some years they are much more successful in doing that than others. So far, the population seems to be breeding well. …

The other threat from climate change is ocean level rise. Because most of the puffin nesting habitat in Maine is on low nesting islands like Eastern Egg Rock, which is only about 17 feet above high tide, at its highest point, and most of the public habitat on the island is even lower. I worry that ocean level rise will eventually flood the puffins’ nesting habitat, and even one big surging wave during the summer breeding season could eliminate chicks and adults. … So, what can we do about it? 

Well, there’s more under control than one might think. Project Puffin was always focused on research, management and education, but now it also includes policy. There are advocates in Washington and other coastal states who are actively involved with climate and fisheries management. Considering ecosystem management for fisheries management is really perhaps the most useful thing we can do in this climate change scenario for seabirds. If there’s more fish in the sea, then there’ll be more fish available for seabirds, even in a warming climate.

Puffins at Matinicus Rock.
Puffins at Matinicus Rock. Credit: Courtesy of Project Puffin

Sher: Herring populations have been declining in recent years due to ocean warming, and they are a key food source for the birds. Does this pose a challenge for the survival of puffins? 

Kress: It’s definitely a challenge. But being an optimist, I hope that they can adapt to it and will continue to thrive. Even though the herring population has declined, especially in their diet, the puffin population has been growing. So that says to me that they’re finding enough food from other kinds of fish. …

They may have to work harder, fly further and dive deeper for other food sources. … The prey, especially coldwater species, like herring, are moving into cooler water. Fish are very mobile, and they can find cooler water either further from the islands or the coast, both of which are problematic for puffins because they end up using a lot of energy to fly out to capture their food, and there are limits to how far they can fly and how deep they can dive.

Sher: I know you’ve worked in other states and internationally. What makes Maine unique in terms of seabird conservation efforts?

Kress: For seabirds, Maine is right on the junction of cold water from the north and warm water from the south. Over the years, this has provided a wide range of species to live on Maine islands. All of those species pose conservation challenges. Maine is particularly good for seabirds because of all the islands. 

There’s over 4,000 islands along the coast of Maine, and hundreds of those are suitable for seabirds to nest on. So, there’s been a great opportunity to do seabird conservation. There’s a long history of what lives on which islands, and so I was able to look at that history, which is very important for restoration work. If I didn’t know that puffins used to breed on Eastern Egg Rock, I wouldn’t have been intrigued by the possibility of restoration in the first place. But there it was, in Ralph Palmer’s book, “Maine Birds,” and he described in detail the puffins that lived there until the mid-1800s.

Mehr Sher is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.

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Mehr Sher reports on the Maine environment. She is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for her reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.