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Environment and Outdoors

VIDEO: Interns Call Summer Gig Monitoring Puffins On Maine Island 'A Dream Come True'

Brian Bechard
Maine Public

Every summer, a handful of interns and research assistants are selected from hundreds of applicants to camp in primitive conditions on a tiny, treeless island several miles off midcoast Maine. Their job description calls for “a sense of humor” and love of “adventure, the outdoors and birds.”

In this case, the summer jobs are with the National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin, an unusual seabird restoration project that got its start on Eastern Egg Rock in the 1970s.

It takes about 30 minutes by boat to reach the exposed, 7-acre island, which is bordered by slippery, seaweed-covered boulders. Hundreds of screeching terns and gulls circle overhead. The noise never stops.

“Anytime I’m like, ‘Oh, I wish that these birds would be a little bit quieter,’ you gotta remember that you’re in a seabird colony and it’s pretty wonderful,” says Sarah Guitart, crew lead for the four interns and research assistants living and working on the island from May to August. She wears earplugs to get to sleep in her tent at night.

Atlantic puffins are the quieter of the bird residents. They’re cute and colorful with their tuxedo-looking suits of black and white feathers, bright orange beaks and feet. By the late 1800s they had mostly disappeared from their historic nesting grounds in the Gulf of Maine, killed off by hunters for food and feathers.

More than a century later, the puffins are back. Dr. Stephen Kress, vice president of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society, is the founder of Project Puffin. In 1973, with permission from the government, he started transporting puffin chicks from a healthy colony in Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock. The effort paid off and eventually expanded. There are now 1,300 pairs on five Maine islands.

Credit Brian Bechard / Maine Public
Dr. Stephen Kress, vice president of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society, in a bird blind on Eastern Egg Rock.

Kress examines a chick that’s been pulled from a burrow deep between some rocks, which is weighed and measured.

“I’d say it’s very much on target. There seem to be enough small fish,” he says, referring to the chick’s food source.

While the puffin population on Eastern Egg Rock is stable, Kress says it remains small and vulnerable to disease and predators like gulls, which the interns occasionally have to shoot. But there’s not much they can do to protect the birds from the rapidly warming Gulf of Maine. Twice a day, surface temperatures are taken to look for changes that might affect the fish that puffins and other seabirds need to eat.

Nadia Swanson, a recent college graduate with a degree in wildlife ecology, scoops up a bucket of water, drops a thermometer in and waits.

Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public
Michael Rickershauser puts on his boots on the steps of the "Egg Rock Hilton," the base for seabird monitoring on Eastern Egg Rock.

“It’s like 62 degrees,” she says. “This morning it was 60 degrees, so it got a little warmer, but it’s not like abnormal. It’s usually between 60 and 64 degrees,” she says.

That may seem warm — unless you need a shower and the Gulf of Maine is your only option. Out here there’s no running water. Hats and long sleeves are essential because bird droppings hit everyone and everything. The days are long, often starting before 6 a.m., and the pay is low. But interns are here for a different reason.

“Things are changing and we’re here potentially documenting that change and trying to figure out what are the questions we need to be asking and how do we get the information out of these seabirds,” Guitart says.

Credit Brian Bechard / Maine Public
Puffins on Eastern Egg Rock, with a bird blind in the background.

The job requires spending several hours at a time in a bird blind, observing birds’ nesting and feeding habits and carefully recording the data. It also involves “grubbing” for different species of chicks — reaching into deep, narrow burrows to pull them out, measure and band them.

“It was sort of a dream come true to work out here. It’s something special,” says Michael Rickershauser, a former auto mechanic from Long Island. “It’s more than seeing a picture or reading a book.”

Credit Brian Bechard / Maine Public
Puffins on Eastern Egg Rock.

Over Project Puffin’s 46-year history, more than 500 interns have worked on several Maine islands monitoring puffins and other seabirds as a way to guide future conservation. The work is funded almost entirely by private donations.

Kress says the main lesson he hopes to teach is that people can be destructive to a species, but with their presence and perseverance they can also help bring it back.