Living With Puffins? Better Duck And Cover Project Puffin interns spend the summer cataloging the health and habits of endangered Atlantic puffins. The job is loud and messy.

Living With Puffins? Better Duck And Cover

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to hear now about what might be the best summer internship in America or the worst, depending on how you feel about birds. These interns live on a tiny, treeless island off the Maine coast. They are there to help with a restoration project. And they spend their days monitoring Atlantic puffins and other seabirds. Here's Susan Sharon from Maine Public Radio.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: It takes about 30 minutes by boat to reach Eastern Egg Rock, an exposed, seven-acre island bordered by seaweed-covered boulders. This is home to what's known as Project Puffin.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SCREECHING)

SHARON: Hundreds of screeching gulls and terns circle overhead. The noise, says Sarah Guitart (ph), never stops.

SARAH GUITART: Anytime that I'm like, oh, you know, I wish these birds would just be a little bit quieter, you've got to remember that you're in a seabird colony, and it's pretty wonderful. So...

SHARON: Guitart's the crew lead for the four other interns and research assistants living and working on the island from May to August. She wears earplugs when she sleeps in her tent at night. Atlantic puffins are the quieter of the residents. They're cute and colorful, with their tuxedo-looking suits of black and white feathers, bright-orange beaks and feet. But by the late 1800s, they'd largely disappeared from this region, killed off by hunters for food and feathers.

STEPHEN KRESS: This little puffin chick is about 5 weeks old. I can tell that by the lack of down on it.

SHARON: Dr. Stephen Kress examines a chick that has been pulled out of a burrow deep between some rocks. Kress is the founder of the National Audubon Society's Project Puffin. Back in 1973, with permission from the government, he started transporting puffin chicks from a healthy colony in Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock. The unusual effort paid off and eventually expanded. There are now 1,300 pairs living on five main islands. And while Kress says this population is stable, it's small and vulnerable to disease and to predators like gulls, which the interns occasionally have to shoot. The puffins are also being affected by rapidly warming temperatures in the Gulf of Maine.

NADIA SWANSON: I'm going to drop this in here. And I usually leave the thermometer in for, like, a minute.

SHARON: Nadia Swanson (ph) takes a sea surface temperature to look for changes that might affect small fish that puffins need to survive.

SWANSON: It's, like, 62 degrees. So this morning, it was 60 degrees. So it got a little warmer.

SHARON: That may seem warm, unless you need a shower, and the Gulf of Maine is the only option. Out here, there is no running water. Hats and long sleeves are essential because interns get pooped on a lot.

MICHAEL RICKERSHAUSER: Does it seem large enough to bend (ph)?

SWANSON: Yeah.

SHARON: Michael Rickershauser (ph) is a former auto mechanic from Long Island who says he discovered he has a passion for seabirds. Patience also helps. Interns spend hours at a time inside blinds, watching birds' nesting and feeding habits and carefully recording the data to guide future ecologists.

RICKERSHAUSER: It was sort of a dream come true to come work out here. It's something special. It's more than seeing a picture or reading a book.

SHARON: Over Project Puffin's 46-year history, more than 500 interns have worked to protect seabirds. Dr. Kress says the main lesson he hopes they've learned is that people can be destructive to a species. But with their presence and perseverance, they can also help bring it back. For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon.

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