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Maine scientists working to save puffins

One of the symbols of Maine is in trouble, but a biologist and his team are working around the clock to save the puffins. (WGME)

EASTERN EGG ROCK (WGME) – One of the symbols of Maine is in trouble, but a biologist and his team are working around the clock to save the puffins.

Eight miles off the coast of Bremen, there's a tiny 7-acre island with no dock, inhabited by five types of birds, the most famous, a cute bird, with a colorful bill.

Steven Kress took it upon himself to bring the puffins back to Eastern Egg Rock.

"So this was my idea when I started this work in 1969,” Kress said. “We had patiently waited for eight years to get that first breeding pair."

After years of hand rearing puffin chicks, Kress' restoration project appears to be successful.

"I happened to be here the day that that first puffin returned,” Kress said. “I happened to be here the day the first puffin fed a chick."

While Kress is away, researchers live in tents on the island all summer monitoring the puffins.

"We are spending time in observation blinds, looking through spotting scopes, and we are counting the number of puffins come back, reading leg bands on the puffins, so we know how long they live," Kress said.

But now experts say there's a new threat.

"One is the changing environment of the ocean,” Kress said.

Kress says the warming ocean water affects everything from the plankton to the puffins.

"Part of that is the changing populations of fish," Kress said.

Kress says warmer water means the small fish puffins need to survive are further out to sea, making life difficult.

"If there's not enough food, she can't form the egg,” Kress said. “If there's not enough food, they won't incubate the egg because they have to feed themselves first. If there's not enough food in the ocean, they can't bring back enough food to raise that chick."

Kress says puffins only swallow fish whole, limiting their diet.

"They bring them back whole, they feed them to their chicks whole, and so a big fish that's too long or a fish that's too wide just won't fit in to the gullet," Kress said.

Kress has seen puffins starve and even choke to death trying to eat the bigger fish.

"That may have been a glimpse of the future of what happens when we get the ocean surface too warm," Kress said.

But there is hope.

"Last year here at Egg Rock, the puffins brought in enough redfish, they made up half of the food that they fed the chicks," Kress said.

For now, biologists will continue to monitor how changes in the ocean will affect the flock.

"It isn't easy to see, but the puffins are telling us about these changes," Kress said.

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