A puffin flies onto Eastern Egg Rock with juicy sand lance for a chick. The island, six miles off Pemaquid Point, was where Project Puffin began 50 years ago. Puffins were killed off the island in the 1880s by hunting. In 2019, the project set a record of 188 breeding pairs. Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson.

ME - Off the coast of Maine, puffins are rebounding and feasting on a new snack

The 50th anniversary of Project Puffin has just ended, with researchers fully realizing how their quest has morphed from saving one bird to playing a part in saving the planet.

Its purpose in 1973 was simply to return puffins to islands off the coast of Maine, where hunters had killed them off by the late 1800s. Led by Steve Kress, then an Audubon camp bird instructor in his late 20s, the project moved puffin chicks here from Newfoundland.

The effort became the world’s first successful seabird restoration of its kind. There are now more than 1,300 breeding pairs of puffins across several Maine islands. The irony is that a bird that gives us a sense of the watery riches of Maine in the 19th century today warns us how we are impoverishing our oceans.

The warning zoomed past me while I sat in bird blinds.

It was early July on Eastern Egg Rock, a seven-acre island six miles off Pemaquid Point and the original site of the project. Puffins began breeding anew here in 1981, and the population reached a record high of 188 breeding pairs in 2019.

Early July is the time of summer when scores of puffin chicks hatch in burrows under the boulders of the island, triggering one of nature’s most amazing sights. At dawn, parents pop out of the dark of burrow openings one by one, surveying their surroundings in the yawning manner of humans rubbing their eyes as they rise from bed. They then take off and fly out of sight over the Gulf of Maine.

About 45 minutes later, an aerial parade of parents return with glistening, silver beak loads of fish in their mouths. Some zip over the boulders from the right, others from the left. Some come straight at me to burrow directly in front of my blind. Some arrivals are so simultaneous, I can’t keep track. They all plunge back into burrows with breakfast for chicks.

The parade was among the most memorable in the project’s history because of the species of fish that nearly every puffin parent and many terns brought back:

Sand lance.

Small in size and obscure in direct value to humans, you will not see this fish on ice at the seafood counter. But many of the fish we prize in the pan or sizzle on the grill are there because of sand lance.

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