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As Maine’s waters warm, vulnerable puffin population faces a new threat

A handful of interns is spending this summer in primitive conditions on a tiny, treeless island several miles off the coast of Maine. Their job? To monitor Atlantic puffins and other vulnerable seabirds. While the interns occasionally fend off predators like gulls, the biggest one, climate change, is much harder to dispel. Susan Sharon of Maine Public reports.

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  • William Brangham:

    Every summer, a handful of interns are selected from hundreds of applicants to camp in primitive conditions on a tiny treeless island several miles off the Maine coast.

    As Susan Sharon of PBS station Maine Public reports, their job is to monitor Atlantic puffins and other vulnerable seabirds.

  • Susan Sharon:

    It takes about 30 minutes by boat to reach Eastern Egg Rock.

    Dr. Stephen Kress, founder of the National Audubon Society's Project Puffin, has lost track of the number of times he's made the trip. He's been doing it for 46 years.

    Today, he's dropping off supplies for the island's five interns and research assistants who come from all over the world.

    Sarah Guitart is the crew lead.

  • Sarah Guitart:

    Things are changing. And we are here kind of potentially documenting that change and trying to figure out, like, what are the questions we need to be asking now, and how do we ask those questions, and how do we get that information out of these — out of the seabirds?

  • Susan Sharon:

    Puffins are the reason this project started. They're cute and colorful, but, by the late 1800s, they'd largely disappeared from this region, killed off by hunters.

    More than a century later, puffins have returned with help from humans.

  • Stephen Kress:

    This little puffin chick is about five weeks old. I can tell that by the lack of down on it.

  • Susan Sharon:

    In 1973, with permission from the government, Kress began transporting chicks from a healthy colony in Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock. The pioneering effort paid off and expanded. There are now 1,300 puffins living on five Maine islands.

  • Stephen Kress:

    We have worked very hard to build this colony up to the point where I can say that it is continuing to grow. Our general trend is growth here. But it's still a very small colony. It's still extremely vulnerable to things that can happen here.

  • Susan Sharon:

    Those things can include disease and threats from predators, like gulls, which the interns occasionally have to shoot.

    It's a last resort to protect puffin eggs and chicks from being eaten. But there's nothing they can do about the rapidly warming Gulf of Maine. Twice a day, they take sea surface temperatures to look for changes that might affect the food chain. In some parts of the world, puffins and other seabirds are starving, in the absence of small fish.

  • Woman:

    It's like 62 degrees. So, this morning, it was 60 degrees, so it got a little warmer. But it's not, like, abnormal.

  • Susan Sharon:

    The job requires carefully observing birds' nesting and feeding habits. All the data is then recorded and taken back to the island's central station.

  • Sarah Guitart:

    So this is the Egg Rock Hilton.

  • Susan Sharon:

    Between May and August, the interns are essentially camping in the field. The Hilton is where they typically relax when they're aren't working and where they cook their meals.

  • Sarah Guitart:

    Got a nice little kitchen counter. We got pretty great amenities. Got a cooler, which is pretty great. We can store some dairy products from time to time.

    And this is our workstation. This is where we enter data.

  • Susan Sharon:

    Out here, electricity is limited, and there is no running water. The birds' noise is constant, even at night. And so are their droppings.

    But Michael Rickershauser, a former auto mechanic from Long Island, doesn't mind.

  • Michael Rickershauser:

    It was sort of a dream come true to work out here. It's something special. It's more than seeing a picture or reading a book.

  • Susan Sharon:

    Something special that remains dependent on an adequate number of small fish and a few dedicated interns to keep predators at bay.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Susan Sharon on Eastern Egg Rock off the coast of Maine.

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