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Graduate Student Perches on Island to Aid Breeding Seabirds

For his birthday this year, Jeff Kimmons was most thankful for the small, motorized boat that transported him from Eastern Egg Rock off the coast of Maine to the U.S. mainland where he temporarily rejoined mainstream society and took advantage of some of its most basic provisions, including a hot shower.

By his birthday on July 22, the University of Arkansas biological sciences doctoral student had completed half of a summer-long stay on the seven acre plot of land in Maine’s Muscongus Bay, where he spent his time researching and protecting seabirds. His accommodations included the “Egg Rock Hilton,” a 144 square-foot wooden shack devoid of running water.

Eastern Egg Rock is one of Maine’s many coastal islands where a variety of seabirds come to mate and rear their young. Kimmons has traveled to Maine for the past three summers to participate in the National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin and Seabird Restoration Program.

“Our main purpose overall is bird safety, so our interests are in studying the birds as well as in their overall well being,” Kimmons said. “That requires a lot of seagull management, and some of that’s done just by human presence, which will deter gulls.

“Over time gulls can completely take over an island and push other birds off of them. Gull management is an ongoing problem because gulls have adapted to humans better than other seabirds which has made more resources available to them.”

Kimmons served as co-supervisor of Eastern Egg Rock in charge of Atlantic puffin research this summer.

Stephen Kress of the National Audubon Society started Project Puffin in 1973 with the goal of restoring puffins to Eastern Egg Rock and other historic nesting lands. A flourishing colony of puffins regularly nested on Eastern Egg Rock until about 1885, when its last members were picked off by hunters seeking their meat, eggs and feathers.

Between 1973 and 1986, more than 900 puffin chicks were transplanted to Eastern Egg Rock and reared by Kress and other Audubon staff and volunteers. Kimmons said that puffins usually return to the land where they were born to breed and raise chicks of their own, so Project Puffin researchers track the birds in an effort to ascertain which and how many birds return to the island to nest.

“We try to determine the exact number of active burrows on the island,” Kimmons explained. “Puffins nest in burrows within the piles of boulders at the island’s edge. We try to identify and record the location of each burrow by painting numbers on the boulders. We identify the breeders by reading identifying bands secured around their legs.

“Our goal is then to match the birds with active burrows, and we know burrows are active if puffins make fish deliveries to them, which means there’s a chick inside. We try to grub out chicks, which basically means you try to remove the chick from its burrow by hand or by using tools. You usually have to use a pole with a hook on it to grab their legs and pull them out gently. We do this so we can track them by banding their legs and recording their age.”

Kimmons said he recorded about 90 pairs of breeding birds this summer, an indication that the efforts of Project Puffin researchers are paying off.

“It’s taken 30 years to get 90 burrows,” he noted. “It’s obviously a slow process, but it’s very exciting to see how your work impacts the lives of these birds.”

Puffins, which spend most of their non-breeding time on the open sea, began returning to the island in June of 1977 to scope out suitable breeding ground, and researchers observed the first puffin bringing fish back to a burrow on July 4, 1981.

Kimmons said the lag time between when puffins first returned to Eastern Egg Rock and when they started breeding there is due to the birds’ natural sexual development.

“Puffins are long lived seabirds, so they do not obtain sexual maturity for many years after hatching,” Kimmons explained. “They will go out to sea and not return to breed for several years.”

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