When Steve Kress first visited the place, there was something he didn’t see. It was the summer of 1969, and he
had a job at the Audubon Society’s Hog Island Camp. As part of his duties, he traveled to a low, treeless island called Eastern
Egg Rock, ringed with rocks and crowned with grass, squatting six miles off the coast of Maine. He could see that it was home to a variety
of birds, including Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls, but because of the host of hungry fishermen and sailors who had once
stopped at the island regularly, he couldn’t see the thing they had stopped for.
That thing was the Atlantic Puffin, a bird Kress had seen in 1967, on Machias Seal Island, during one of his previous summer jobs at the
Sunbury Shores Arts and Nature Centre in New Brunswick, Canada. Small teardrop-shaped birds, each less than a foot long, colored
bright white and glossy black, and sporting a triangular bill banded with colors bright enough to grace any of the era’s album
covers, they whirred over the rocks and the water, bobbed in the waves of the surrounding sea, and burrowed under the grass to
raise their chicks.
But not on Eastern Egg Rock, where the puffin’s eggs and flesh had been a convenient source of protein for palates grown tired
of salt cod and hardtack. By the time Kress set eyes on the island, the bird had been gone from it for a century, but he didn’t yet
see that. It wasn’t until he was back at Hog Island, reading up on the area’s natural history, that he came across a copy of Ralph
Palmer’s Maine Birds and learned that the island had once been a nesting site for the Atlantic Puffin.
It wasn’t there. But suddenly Steve Kress saw it.
Today, of course, Stephen W. Kress is one of the world’s most celebrated ornithologists because of what wasn’t
there. Since 1973, he and a host of colleagues, assistants, interns, and volunteers have worked diligently to bring the Atlantic
Puffin back to Eastern Egg Rock, and since July 4, 1981, there have been puffins breeding on the island—one of only a
handful of spots in the United States where the species nests. Project Puffin, the more euphonious name for the National
Audubon Society’s Seabird Restoration Program, is celebrated in children’s books, scientific journals, and glossy magazines, and
the techniques pioneered on Egg Rock have been used to bring extirpated seabird species back to past breeding grounds in Bermuda
and the Galápagos Islands. All of this has taken place because Steve Kress looked at the birdlife of a place and saw what
was missing—a hole in the American avifauna. That absence is what I want to talk to him about as I walk down the corridor on
the second floor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
But he’s not here.
Nevertheless, thanks to the example he set, I feel sure I can imagine him, if only I can view the place where he used to be.
The task is made considerably easier by the Project Puffin staff, who let me into that place: his office.
Atlantic Puffins, naturally, dominate the décor. The computer’s mousepad is decorated with “ATPUS,” as are two of the
walls. There are decoys, surprisingly hefty bowling-pin-shaped woodcarvings that once sat atop dowels to make the pioneering
puffins of Eastern Egg Rock feel more like part of a crowd. But again, it’s an absence that speaks to me: thanks to his work over
the past four decades, Kress has won numerous awards, but there is little in the room to suggest it. No plaques or certificates adorn
the walls—not even a diploma. The most prominent object on the highest point of the biggest bookshelf is an old motorcycle
helmet in which some wrens long ago constructed a nest.
But on the bottom of that shelf, in chronological order, are the field journals from each seabird restoration project: Seal Island,
Matinicus Rock, Stratton Island, Jenny Island, Pond Island, Outer Green Island, and of course Eastern Egg Rock. And thanks to
that shelf, I can know the history of Project Puffin, even without Steve Kress being here to tell me about it.
That history begins in a small, battered, red-spined black hardback journal; on its front cover is a blue plastic Labelmaker
label reading “19/3,” presumably due to a faulty 7 key. The first entry, written anonymously, describes the beginning of a project
that would take more than eight years to demonstrate success.
“June 11, 1973: Arrived on Great Island, Newfoundland… Initial survey of the island from our
little research cabin confirmed what Dr. Leslie Tuck of Canadian Wildlife
Service had told us earlier that morning—100,000 (pr) Common Puffins…
Burrows were everywhere, on slope, flat,
and cliff habitats, and among stands of spruce and fir.”
Obviously, at the time Project Puffin began, the Atlantic Puffin was not
endangered; at nesting sites in Canada, Iceland, and Europe, its numbers were
entirely healthy. Nonetheless, the bird’s range in the United States had sharply
declined during the 19th century, and only two small nesting colonies existed
off the Maine coast—Machias Seal Rock had about 30 pairs left, and the colony
on Matinicus Rock had been reduced to a single pair when the local lighthouse
keeper began serving as a warden for them in 1901. Numbers had increased
by the time Kress came to the Gulf of Maine, but nesting areas had not. Like many colony-nesting birds, puffins typically return
to the islands where they were hatched; thus, once an island’s population is gone, no birds will come to it.
Kress was confident, however, that puffins could be trained to regard Eastern Egg Rock as home—that their homing ability was
learned, not inborn. “That was known through Ronald Lockley’s work on Skomer Island, South Wales,” he notes. (Lockley, perhaps
best known as the author of The Private Life of the Rabbit, the book that inspired Watership Down, had spent years studying
seabirds on the islands around Wales.) “I thought it was 100 percent[inborn]; now I understand that it’s not. Only some of the
birds do that. Others will join a restored site—a good thing for genetics, but there was no study that showed that previously.”
Either way, one thing was clear: Kress couldn’t restore puffins to Eastern Egg Rock unless he brought them there himself. To
accomplish this, he and his colleagues went to Newfoundland in 1973 to gather the raw materials—puffin chicks. The scientists
began a trial-and-error process of digging artificial burrows, feeding the chicks by hand, and clearing the area of predators.
Then came the hard part: waiting.
Puffin chicks leave their nesting grounds at the end of the summer,
soon after their parents have flown off for their seven-month sojourn at sea. As August passed, the translocated chicks fledged,
emerged from their burrows, and waddled or flew off into the Gulf of Maine. It was just before 1:00 o’clock on the morning
of August 20 when a bird nicknamed “Puff,” the last remaining chick of the original group, made his final appearance:
“12:47: Puff out of burrow and making direct and rapid approach
to the sea. Would walk fast, then stop, fast, stop, etc.
“Puff became caught in a ravine. I picked him up & faced him in the right direction. Near a high rock
he was overtaken by waves. I saw him floating high in the water beyond the
breakers,” wrote Kress’s first assistant, Kathleen Blanchard.
None of the puffins brought to Eastern Egg Rock that summer
would ever return. Steve Kress does eventually return to his office,
however. He has to, because he’s teaching the Lab’s Spring Field Ornithology
course, an Ithaca institution for the past 35 years. Soft-spoken, affable,
and not physically imposing, he nonetheless immediately exudes two qualities
that make him well suited to the project of restoring seabirds: patience and resolve.
As he puts it, “If you give up early, you might as well not start.”
What started in the Hog Island fish house was a simple enough idea: bring
puffins back to Eastern Egg Rock. It soon became clear, however,
that the idea had both unexpected complexities and broader applications.
“The idea was, ‘Hey, we’ve got to restore the whole
community,’” says Kress, munching on a salad at his desk. Just
bringing puffins back to the island wouldn’t be enough, and once
they were back, they couldn’t just be abandoned. “It was naïve to
think you could ever walk away from this kind of thing,” Kress
Puffins mature at sea and do not return to their nesting ground
for three to five years, so Kress and his colleagues knew that the
birds hatched during the summer had no likelihood of returning
before America’s bicentennial celebration. To make their return
more likely, however, Kress had to get back to imagining
what wasn’t there: What would the puffins themselves miss, and
how could it be provided? Thus, the scientists began the process
of making Eastern Egg Rock appear to be a successful colony.
Wooden decoy puffins were placed on the rocks and occasionally set floating off the shoreline. Mirrors were set up to multiply the
motions and appearances of the birds that might come to the
island. And of course there was still the problem of what puffins
need to be absent: gulls.
Herring and Great Black-backed gulls are notorious predators
of eggs and chicks, and during the 100-year absence of puffins on
Eastern Egg Rock, the gulls had thrived there, living on fish and
fishermen’s garbage. Kress knew that the puffin colony would
never survive the gulls so long as it depended on human beings
for its defense.
“The whole ecosystem is so badly distorted by human pressure,”
Kress points out. “At Western Egg Rock, for example, there
is a colony of Great Black-backed and Herring gulls—they’re the
steady state; they will eventually nest on former puffin and tern
colonies. You can get other species to come back, but keeping
them there is very unlikely.”
Luckily, there was a way to kill two birds with this particular
stone, so to speak: if the scientists could persuade terns to nest
near the puffins, the gulls might be kept at bay. Terns are relentless
in defense of their nests—a trait that eventually led Kress to
adopt a tam-o’-shanter as his standard headgear, because the birds
would attack the tassel on the crown, rather than him—and with
many of the same techniques they had used for puffins, a breeding
population of terns was established on Egg Rock. “From the
puffin’s point of view,” he says, “it’s an umbrella hanging over the
Still, it was a long wait. A puffin with a Project Puffin band
was spotted at sea in 1977, and a few more turned up in the colony
on Matinicus Rock, but Eastern Egg Rock remained puffinfree,
except for the young birds Kress and his team translocated
every May and watched vanish every August. Then a few banded
birds began to appear—an encouraging development—but not
The volunteers maintained their sense of humor nonetheless.
Richard Podolsky’s notes in the 1981 journal are filled with
cracks about everything from the Spartan living arrangements
on the Rock to the peanut butter-tomato-and-onion sandwiches
constructed by Shad Northshield, and he dryly asks, when one of
his colleagues moves from Eastern Egg Rock to Matinicus, “Will
he just visit or stay to breed?”
But on July 4, the tone of the journal’s notes shifts abruptly.
One of the team members spotted a puffin with fish in its bill.
The fish in question were being carried to the island, rather than
being consumed at sea—a development that could only mean
one thing: somewhere on the island there was a chick to be fed.
Steve Kress wrote that day: “It was the sight we had all done
much watching for—but little talking…the best proof we will
probably have that after 100 years of absence and nine years of
working toward this goal, puffins are again nesting at Eastern Egg
Rock—a Fourth of July celebration I’ll never forget.”
Now it’s 30 years since the events so lovingly penned in
that journal. Asked whether the island feels complete
yet, Kress responds, “It’s more than I imagined.” In the
early days, the observers got excited over every minor detail, even
the way the first returning puffin turned its head. “Now we’re
doing well just to keep up with the numbers. We’re having to
sample the population to make conclusions.” Including the 123
pairs of puffins nesting in 2011, there are now more than 7,000
adult seabirds on Eastern Egg Rock, plus their chicks, producing
guano in such profusion that it’s having a significant effect on
the island’s plant life. One female puffin, designated Y33, who
was hatched in 1977, returned to the island last summer to rear
her 24th chick, in the process earning recognition as the oldest
known puffin in North America. Kress is also having to consider
a new element of the project: the fact that long ago, the birds
could move their colonies from place to place every so often, a
development that is no longer an option with human beings in
the area. “The challenge now,” he says, “is maintaining a steady
state seabird colony in one place.”
Maine is hardly the only place where Project Puffin has had an impact. The lessons learned in Muscungus Bay have been used to
help restore Caspian Terns, Galápagos Petrels, Bermuda Petrels,
and other birds to their historical nesting grounds in places as
far-flung as Oregon, Japan, New Zealand, and the Galápagos Islands.
“One of the exciting things about this is that 42 species of
seabirds have benefited using these methods,” notes Kress, who
thinks the most exciting prospects for future restorations would
be birds that nest in single locations, such as the Townsend’s
Shearwater, which nests only on Isla Socorro, several hundred
miles off the west coast of Mexico. With Project Puffin’s successes
encouraging similar restoration projects for the Bermuda Petrel
in the North Atlantic and the Short-tailed Albatross in the Pacific,
he feels confident about the future. “Now I have the feeling
it could be done with any of them. There’s nothing one or some
combination of these methods couldn’t help.”
But that confidence is tempered with a recognition that human
beings don’t always have the same kind of commitment and
persistence that he and his colleagues have brought to restoring
seabirds. “The reality of humans’ place on earth these days is
to be kind of like a steward with a sense of purpose. And if our
purpose is to maintain biodiversity, we can do that, but you have
to set that up as its goal, or you’ll end up with a less diverse
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Recently Kress has even stepped in to help preserve a different
kind of nesting ground—the Audubon Society’s Hog Island
Camp, where he was working when the idea of restoring puffins
first occurred to him. Opened in 1936, the camp thrived for
most of its long life, but due to what Kress calls “a variety of business
decisions,” it fell on hard times and was closed in 2009. “It
would probably still be closed if I hadn’t rescued it,” he admits.
Now, in a somewhat ironic reversal of the original arrangement,
Hog Island is back open for business, with several new
partners, all under the wing of Project Puffin. Kress sees this as
a good chance to help sustain the seabird program for the long
haul, especially by taking the Hog Island participants out to Eastern
Egg Rock to cut the weeds down and smash lobster traps.
“The fancy name for that is now ‘service learning,’” he says, smiling,
and perhaps thinking of summers long ago. “Lots of hands-on
This year, then, as Hog Island celebrates its 75th anniversary,
its campers will do essentially the same thing Steve Kress once
did, and the same thing his efforts have helped people all over the
world do: see birds where once they would have seen nothing.
And here in the lobby of the Cornell Lab, on a cloudy Tuesday
evening in early April, some of those people, all members of his
Spring Field Ornithology class, are gathering for a field trip.
But Steve Kress isn’t here. The group leaders for the night’s
owling session are experienced and perfectly capable of operating
without him, but as they assemble, they can’t help wondering
where the course’s instructor is.
“He’s not coming,” a newcomer reports at last. “His voice is
shot, and he’s saving it for the lecture tomorrow night.”
The leaders nod, cluster together, and start organizing their
student groups and itineraries for the night. Steve Kress remains
elsewhere, saving something that isn’t there, and hoping it will be
in the future.