Letter to "Hope" Watchers from Steve Kress

Steve Kress with Puffling

Steve Kress with Puffling

Dear Puffin Friends: 

Many have asked if we have seen puffin Hope since fledging on August 20. Our season on Seal Island is now complete, so this note is my summary of highlights and reflections on the 2013 puffin nesting season.  Seal Island Supervisor Jenny Howard has looked frequently and found no evidence of Hope outside of the burrow.  This tells us that Hope has successfully made it to the sea and begun the ocean-going phase of life.  It is therefore likely that Hope has paddled and perhaps flown far from Seal Island by this time. Little is known about the lives of fledgling-age puffins.  What is known is that puffin fledglings typically head off to sea alone, guided by strong instincts that tell them where to go and how to find food.  By 2015 or 2016, Hope will be old enough to return to the Maine coast as an adult. If so, she will likely visit Seal Island and other nearby puffin nesting colonies.  Hope's first nesting attempt will not occur until at least 2018 when she is five years old.  Nesting may continue for the next 20 years--and beyond.  Project Puffin has documented that even 35-year-old puffins can raise a chick. 

Hope was among the lucky puffins to fledge this year.  While normally, about 87% of puffin eggs hatch and 77% of these eggs produce fledglings, this year only 55% hatched and only about 10% reached fledging age.  The low fledging success is probably related to the stressful winter of 2012-2013 when northeastern coastal waters were unusually warm -- the warmest in the past 150 years. Because fish move in response to water temperature, the warm water may have caused the fish best suited for puffins to move to locations where puffins could not find them.   Also, several strong storms (especially Hurricane Sandy and winter storm Nemo) disrupted marine habitats and added further stress to wintering puffins.  As a result, many puffins were found dead along New England beaches this past winter. Most of these were starving and it's therefore likely that the survivors were in compromised condition for the nesting season which starts in April...  

During the summer of 2013, relatively few puffins were observed sitting on the island, as evidenced by our live-streaming "loafing ledge" camera and eggs were laid about two weeks later than normal. The number of occupied puffin burrows was about a third fewer at Seal Island and nearby Matinicus Rock last summer compared to 2012. The reduced number of breeding puffins means that many puffins either died at sea or took the summer off from nesting--which is a common behavior for long-lived seabirds when food supplies are scarce.  It is normal for parent puffins to conserve their own health rather than attempt to nest when they are in less than prime body condition.  Puffins must be in top condition to nest because of the energy required to lay their relatively large egg, which is equal to 15% of their body weight.  Puffin parents must also be in top shape to make several hundred lengthy foraging trips to bring back enough fish to raise their chick. 

The good news from this summer was that puffin chicks did not struggle with super-sized butterfish which they could not swallow, as they did during the summer of 2012. Instead, parent puffins were bringing back large herring and hake, which are their preferred foods in the Gulf of Maine.  However, the late egg-laying of 2013 pushed the chick-rearing period up against the migration urge of late summer.  Most parent puffins migrated on time in mid-August.  Those chicks that were old enough, like Hope, fledged and will hopefully rejoin the colony as they approach nesting age.  The abrupt end of the chick-rearing season may seem harsh, but long-lived seabirds usually choose to protect themselves rather than stay on and risk their own survival.  This way, they can return again the next year to try again.  Puffins do not need to breed successfully each year to maintain their population size. Over the course of their long lives, a pair of puffins must only fledge two chicks that mature to breeding age to replace themselves.   

The remarkable views that we now have inside the puffin burrow on Seal Island are showing that puffin nesting success is intimately linked to the fish that frequent the waters near the puffin colonies.  But 2013 also demonstrates that the puffins' health - and their chances for a successful nesting season - is tied to the marine conditions that the puffins experience during the winter within a region that extends from Labrador to Bermuda.  In 2013, sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Maine were the second highest (only after 2012) in the past 150 years, so puffins were challenged by warmer-than-normal water. The winter deaths of puffins and the poor nesting season of 2013 show the importance of learning more about both the puffins' winter home and the places where they find food during the summer.  Clearly, protecting ocean habitats is as important as protecting the nesting colonies.  

Events of these past two summers illustrate the effects of climate change in a powerful way. My experiences in bringing puffins back to Maine have shown me that people can reverse declines caused by past generations. Today, our generation is impacting wildlife in ways that are more subtle, yet just as threatening as the now-outlawed hunting of puffins for feathers and meat.  I believe that human-caused climate change is the most urgent conservation issue of our time.   I am convinced that  the fate of puffin chicks is directly related to  climate change. After watching the sad demise of last year's puffling Petey, along with many of Hope's contemporaries, I am more convinced than ever that we must take action to protect the precious life of this beautiful planet. We can all make personal choices in our everyday lives to reduce our carbon foot print while electing representatives that will vote for policies that protect our climate.  Inaction is, quite simply, a vote for fewer puffins. But positive action provides us with a glimmer of Hope.   

Steve Kress

P.S. If you are not already a member of the Cam Super Fans (see link below), I hope you will join our friends so that we can keep you informed as we make plans for summer 2014.

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