MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
It's been a tough year for East Coast seabirds. They've been battered by storms and disruptions in the food chain - among them, the colorful puffin. Here in the U.S., it had been in real trouble decades ago, but seem to be on the rebound. As WBUR's Fred Bever reports, the puffin may be on the brink again.
FRED BEVER, BYLINE: Rocky, windswept Eastern Egg Rock, about six miles off the coast of Maine, was once a haven for a hugely diverse bird population. But in the 1800s, fishermen decimated their ranks for food and for feathers. When ornithologist Stephen Kress first visited 40 years ago, the seven-acre island was nearly barren, with only grass and gulls left - not a puffin in sight, not even an old puffin bone.
DR. STEPHEN KRESS: But it had great habitat because there were great boulders on the island, and I could imagine the puffins standing on top of them.
BEVER: No imagination is needed now. Thanks to a relocation experiment pioneered by Kress and his co-workers in the Audubon Society's Project Puffin, this treeless little island is now kind of a bird tornado.
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BEVER: The island's manager, Maggie Post, leads the way.
MAGGIE POST: ...here. So there are eggs and chicks. I guess I can lead the way up there.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, please.
POST: We'll go single file and try to step on bare rock and our trails if you can.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.
BEVER: In peak years, more than 200 of the orange-and-black beaked puffins nest here. Ten other bird species, including the endangered roseate tern, have been tempted into their slipstream, with an assist from handmade burrows, decoys and recorded birdcalls. In nesting season, humans are posted to wave off predators such as black-backed gulls and eagles.
Kress heads to a bird blind out on the perimeter. He is surrounded by a whirl of laughing gulls and terns. They're mostly what's heard here. Puffins are silent above ground. But a dozen or so puffin loaf - that's the scientific term - loaf on a jutting rock nearby. It's a group of little bird-faced jesters in tucked-back tuxedos, all seeming to ponder the sea and the sky.
KRESS: They keep their distance. They don't ever - oops, one goes. The others think maybe it's time to leave too. Yup. Yeah.
BEVER: Kress snaps pictures of puffins on the wing as they bring staples like herring and hake to chicks nesting deep inside the rocks.
KRESS: So there's two puffins flying around, coming in with food. You can see this fish shiny in the beak even from here. I think it's two or three herring, which is good news.
BEVER: Herring are good news now because last year, they never arrived in local waters. Their absence coincided with the warmest water temperatures ever recorded in the Gulf of Maine, part of a general warming trend documented over the last decade. Instead, a more southerly species called butterfish showed up. Butterfish are fine, even nutritious for adult puffins, but they're too big for the babies' gullets.
KRESS: Last year, the puffin chicks were surrounded by big butterfish that they couldn't swallow, and most of them - about half of the chicks starved.
BEVER: The herring are back now, and there are fewer butterfish around. Still, workers are finding a new southern invader uneaten in puffin and tern nests. And after last year's hard winter, the numbers of birds, nests and surviving chicks are low. Kress says it's too soon to tell if this is a long-term trend.
KRESS: I think the seabirds tell us about the changes. If the oceans are changing so that the seabirds can't survive here, this is not good news for humans either.
BEVER: Island workers do get depressed about it all. But they have a pick-me-up, grubbing for puffin chicks.
POST: Yeah. We have a few tools we're using for this grubbing here. One of them is...
BEVER: Maggie Post and resident intern Kate MacNamee worm their way far down into a jumble of boulders.
KATE MACNAMEE: He's on my stick. He's standing on my fly swatter. He's really close to you.
POST: OK. I've got him.
BEVER: MacNamee emerges with a 10-inch beaked bundle of gray and white fluff. It has a distinctive crown, a little like a bald-headed friar.
MACNAMEE: He's got male pattern feathers.
POST: He's got a friar's haircut.
MACNAMEE: Friar Tuck.
POST: Yeah. Friar Tuck.
BEVER: Friar Tuck is banded, measured, weighed and returned to his burrow. With luck, in a few weeks, this new Maine native will fledge and take on the mature puffin's distinctive colors. And after dark, one night soon, he'll head out onto uncertain seas. For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever.
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