SEAL ISLAND — The Atlantic puffins casually mill about this rocky island, looking like clowns in tuxedos as they appear to ignore dozens of tourists who’ve boated out to see them.
But life hasn’t always been easy for these quirky birds — sometimes called sea parrots — on the islands off the coast of Maine.
Maine’s puffins were nearly annihilated by hunters a century ago, but now they’re returning in record numbers to the state, thanks to an innovative restoration effort by the National Audubon Society.
“The message is that it is possible for people to actively encourage a species to establish a colony. People can restore it as well as decimate it,” said Dr. Steven Kress, director of the society’s Puffin Project.
Kress and his team of researchers launched the recolonization project in 1973, transplanting puffin chicks from Newfoundland to man-made burrows on Eastern Egg Rock, a desolate island in Muscongus Bay.
“I thought it might work if we moved some of them and got them to learn a new home. They could take care of themselves after we finished rearing them,” said Kress.
In 1984, the project expanded to this forlorn island, once used for target practice by warplanes and warships during World War II.
Now decoys perched atop granite rocks beckon puffins to join them on the stark 100-acre island. The rattle of machine gun fire has been replaced by mating calls that waft from a solar-powered CD player.
“We’re testing the power of social attraction,” said Kress.
This year the puffins, which look like a cross between a penguin and a parrot, came back in record numbers. With 20 nesting pairs on Seal Island in outer Penobscot Bay, 120 pairs on neighboring Matinicus Rock and 15 on Eastern Egg Rock, there were more puffins in the Gulf of Maine this summer than any time this century.
“The puffins are not an endangered species (in Maine), but a rare and vulnerable species,” Kress said.
Kress’ model for restoring bird colonies also is being used in California, New York, Nebraska, Massachusetts and Hawaii, as well as Japan and the Galapagos Islands.
But besides paving the way for bird recolonization efforts, the puffins are a tourist attraction.
Throughout the summer, boatloads of people from around the country come to see what has become one of Maine’s unofficial symbols. More than 10,000 people have spent a day on a “puffin cruise” to catch a glimpse of the unusual sea birds.
“The puffins are cute and colorful with human characteristics … their popularity is like the penguin thing,” said Rick Shauffler, the National Audubon Society supervisor for Seal Island, as he sat in a blind watching birds with binoculars.
People can identify with this bird with a dumpy body, stubby legs set far apart and a sad look in its eye.
Their anatomy makes them clumsy on land, but the puffins are masters of the sea, where they live when they are not nesting in the summer. The pigeon-sized birds can dive at least 150 feet down and hold up to 28 fish at a time in their colorful beaks.
“If a puffin could lay an egg that floats we’d never see them,” said Susan Jones, a volunteer with the National Audubon Society, on a recent cruise.
But because they do nest for four months in the summer, so does Shauffler.
For the past four summers, Shauffler, 35, has been the bearded guardian of this treeless island with dramatic cliffs. He lives in a small shack and, along with other field researchers, records crucial data on the puffins and Arctic terns.
He rarely leaves, relying on the puffin cruises to bring him mail and supplies.
It is an ideal life for Shauffler, peacefully watching birds most of the day, and taking breaks to go fishing or to haul lobsters and ending the day with a sunset dinner.
The one problem: “You don’t get enough intellectual activity,” says Shauffler. “If I could just get on Internet …”