A passion for puffins

Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge is a remote, 65-acre island located 21 miles south of Rockland, Maine. It is a treeless, rocky landscape previously used as a bombing target for the Navy from the 1940s to the early 1960s.

The Navy transferred the island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1972, where today it is cooperatively managed by the Service and the National Audubon Society.

Its mix of grasslands, rock ledges and boulders offers prime seabird nesting sites for species like the Atlantic puffin, a sad-eyed seabird sometimes called the “sea parrot” because of its colorful beak.

Atlantic puffins

The numbers of Atlantic puffins may be on the decline in Maine because of climate change. Credit: USFWS

These days the island is targeted by conservationists as a kind of proving ground for efforts to restore seabird populations in the face of forces like climate change.

In the Gulf of Maine, scientists worry Atlantic puffins have been dying of starvation and losing body weight, possibly because of shifting fish populations as ocean temperatures rise. The warming waters might be contributing to a boom in the butterfish population, crowding out the herring that puffins need to feed their young.

Puffin tagging

In addition to monitoring productivity and living conditions, biologists also tag puffins to get insight about the flight patterns of the birds. Credit: Greg Thompson/USFWS

Monitoring the puffins’ productivity and living conditions, then, plays a key role in understanding ways to help safeguard them from these and other harmful impacts.

Enter Jenny Howard, the Seal Island supervisor for Project Puffin, a seabird restoration project of the National Audubon Society.

A recent segment of NBC Nightly News highlighted the work of Howard and her small crew of interns and volunteers as they spent hours counting seabird pairs. Afternoons were reserved for recording sea surface conditions, wind direction and air temperature.

From mid-May to mid-August, the crews live in tents perched atop 8-foot-wide wooden platforms, overlooking a rocky beach. There’s no refrigeration on the island, and with the exception of two solar-powered lights, there’s no electricity either.

Check out photos of seabirds at Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge

“You get really close to people really fast because you’re spending all your time with them,” Howard says.

The program billed the segment as “living simply to help save Seal Island’s puffins.”

In the battle to reduce impacts of global climate change and other landscape-scale threats, conservation sometimes still comes down to a few dedicated people willing to endure personal hardship and sacrifice for something much bigger.

And that’s the simple truth.

Check out this video to see how the Service, National Audubon Society and Canadian partners are using GPS tracking devices to track the location of puffins off the coast of Maine. 

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