Stephen Kress’s dedication to Atlantic puffins and his innovative techniques for re-establishing their colonies on Maine’s Muscongus Bay have inspired rescue projects for 48 other bird species in 14 countries around the world.

A freezing fog cloaked Egg Rock, a speck of an island off the coast of Maine in the United States. Stephen Kress hunched in his chilly metre-square plywood bird-blind, eyes straining, a lonely vigil he had maintained over eight empty years. Suddenly a figure burst out of the mist, arms windmilling in excitement.

“Puffin . . . with fish!!!” cried Evie Weinstein, Kress’s ornithological colleague. “Those were the three most important words of my career,” he says, remembering that pivotal moment in 1981. “That Atlantic puffin, with those fish, represented something that had never been accomplished before. For the first time, a seabird was restored to an island where humans had wiped it out.”

His vigil had paid off with this proof that puffins had taken the first step in the long road back to an old nesting place. Thousands of other at-risk seabirds have made similar odysseys in the 35 years since.

Weinstein had been by the sea, collecting water to wash dishes, when a puffin sailed over her head, ghostlike in the fog, bearing ‘the loveliest fish’ she’d ever seen. Hastily recording the details, she took off across the islet to break the news to Stephen that the puffins were finally returning. Today, a thousand pairs are breeding on the five islands around Muscongus Bay – including places where hunters had exterminated them as long ago as 1895.

Kress’s aspiration to re-establish puffin colonies led, in 1987, to a Rolex Award for Enterprise. Colleagues and students have applied the elaborate techniques he pioneered at Egg Rock to 48 other species of sea and land birds including the Bermuda cahow, the Japanese short-tailed albatross and Chinese crested tern, in a hundred projects spreading across 14 countries.

Charismatic birds

Kress was smitten with puffins in his 20s after spending several nights observing them on Machias Seal Island on the Canadian/U.S. border. “When I started Project Puffin to restore them to Egg Rock, I’d no idea just how charismatic they are to the general public. Their vertical posture, bright colours and round body shape may make them deeply compelling attractions, as they mimic children and maybe clowns. I too still find them cute and endlessly entertaining to watch. Their lifestyle is compelling: they are monogamous, loyal and great providers for their chicks.”

Restoring vanished seabirds to their native grounds is no easy task. Kress’s strategy involves translocating young chicks to imprint their new home on them, then hand-rearing them in artificial nests or burrows until they can go to sea. Next he employs visual, sound and smell cues to draw the survivors back to the same locations once they are old enough to breed, and also to attract passers-by seeking new homes. His “social attraction” strategy uses mirrors, decoys, counterfeit eggs, sound recordings and mating perfumes. It exploits geolocation to track seabirds in their wanderings and webcams to observe the puffins in their burrows.

“Puffins are superstars without working at it – but knowing about their plight and putting their daily lives on high-definition TV has raised an audience in the millions worldwide,” he explains. “When I started Project Puffin in 1973, people had a ‘hands-off’ view of conservation. If a species was contracting its range, then ‘nature was taking its course’. This spelt extinction for birds that could not adapt to human activity. Today, there’s a more ‘hands-on’ approach to wildlife conservation, especially of charismatic species. When successful, it spills over to others which share the same habitat.”

Stephen delights in the growing army of research students who are carrying his methods around the world: “Recently I attended the International Ornithological Congress in Tokyo to talk about seabird restoration. Also on the programme were many of my past interns, giving papers on seabird conservation.” Social attraction has been adopted as a favoured restoration technique in Japan, China, the Caribbean, the Pacific and elsewhere. Kress chronicles his setbacks as well as his successes in the new book Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock (Yale University Press 2015).

Halt extinction

Climate change, ocean pollution and industrial fishing have made life more fragile for seabirds by altering their food source – the world’s fish populations. “We can’t wait for nature to regain balance,” Kress says. “This myth leads to idle neglect. Responsible, thoughtful action is the only reasonable conservation option to halt extinction,” he says.

Inspired by the charm of puffins, Stephen Kress lives his vision of restoring the world’s threatened bird life in his roles as Vice President for bird conservation at America’s National Audubon Society and a field instructor in ornithology at Cornell University. The Rolex Award “gave me a huge boost with the Audubon Society” at a time when many doubted his methods, he relates. “It recognized the value of my work and gave me the funds to attempt my first international project – helping the endangered Galapagos Petrel. It gave me the opportunity to clearly demonstrate that Project Puffin had global value to seabirds.”

Learn more about Stephen W. Kress

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