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July 01, 2019

By Rick Smith, Bird Keeper at Penguin & Puffin Coast

The other day, my neighbor’s daughter asked me, “do you support saving the ocean?” She was doing a survey project for her school. I responded with an enthusiastic “yes!” I told her a few things about my job as a keeper and how I love sea birds. Later, it hit me. Who can save the ocean? It isn’t going anywhere. What I really want to save is what’s in the ocean. Whether I am conscious of it or not, I ask myself every day how I can save the ocean. In keeping with our Zoo’s mission, I am going to help make changes by participating in conservation. This is what drives me to go back for an eighth season as a volunteer for Project Puffin’s Seabird Restoration Program

Project Puffin’s Seabird Restoration Program, also known as Audubon Society’s Seabird Restoration Program, is dedicated to advancing the science of seabird conservation while encouraging protection and appreciation of seabirds worldwide. Project Puffin has a year-round staff of seven, which increases to about 50 during the seabird breeding season in spring and summer. The project is based in Ithaca, New York at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Todd Wildlife Sanctuary in Bremen, which is on the mid-coast of Maine and is part of the Science Division of the National Audubon Society.  

I have volunteered for Project Puffin since 1994. It is a great opportunity for me to get into the field and help contribute to seabird conservation. So far, I have been to three of the Project Puffin islands in Maine ( Seal, Outer Green and Stratton). This year I will be heading for a new destination—Pond Island. This year, the focus on this important site will be on tern restoration.

Terns are small, fast-flying seabirds in the gull family (Laridae). They look similar to gulls, but their wings are narrower, and they have a spear-like bill. They live around the oceans, large lakes and rivers. Considering that terns’ primary prey is fish, many fishermen look for terns in the open ocean because they are looking for a good spot to drop a line.

Project Puffin has attracted four different species of terns to seven island refuges along the Gulf of Maine.  This was accomplished by using predator control, decoys and playing tern recordings.  Three of these islands have breeding colonies of puffins. On these islands, the terns act like “watch dogs;” they will fend off predatory gulls who try to eat seabird chicks. These terns add extra protection for the pufflings when they leave their burrows and go out to sea.

Pond Island National Wildlife Refuge is at the mouth of the Kennebec River and had traditionally been an important tern nesting area in Maine. However, by 1987, there weren’t any terns nesting in this region of the coast. Tern restoration on Pond Island National Wildlife Refuge began in 1996 with a gull management and social attraction program (using decoys and tern vocal recordings to entice the birds), and terns nested that year for the first time since 1937.

At Pond Island, the tern numbers continue to increase, with over 600 pairs now. However, significant annual predation by great horned owls has hampered recovery efforts as the owls cause the terns to abandon their chicks at night. The annual success of the tern colony is directly related to success in managing owls. In most years, there is abundant fish for them to eat. Unfortunately, recent rises in the sea temperatures have reduced the abundance of fish in some areas of the Gulf of Maine.

As a volunteer, I participate in the field research with the tern colonies on Pond Island. Our research includes nesting records, feeding surveys, chick growth surveys, weather records, ocean water testing, habitat study and plant identification, and monitoring the fishery operations nearby. Maintenance of the field station camp is also an important role of staff and volunteers. Duties include three hour blind stints (blinds are structures that allow conservationists to discretely study animals,) bird banding, chick measurements, avian census counts, and monitoring the abundance of other wildlife.

Project Puffin is supported by many institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, including the Saint Louis Zoo. Our Zoo assists with some of the costs that it takes for me to volunteer.  
Locally, we are fortunate that five species of terns can be seen in the St. Louis area. Migrating terns can be seen along the Mississippi River in the spring and fall. During the summer, you can see nesting least terns at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in West Alton, Missouri. At Riverlands, there are barges filled with sand that mimic a beach habitat. Decoys and recordings are used to attract the least tern to these barges as a conservation management effort. This is very similar to the methods used by Project Puffin to attract terns and other seabirds to restoration habitats worldwide. It is a wonderful opportunity to see similar conservation work in action in our own backyard.

Here’s how you can you help the ocean:

  • Say no to plastic disposable straws whenever possible, and use metal or disposable paper straws.
  • Avoid using plastic bags and bring your reusable bags — like our Byetobags bags — to the store.
  • Look for sustainable seafood. Use the Seafood Watch card or app.
  • Avoid plastic bottle and cups.  Instead, bring your reusable water bottles or to-go cups.
  • Try to recycle whenever possible. Check your city and state websites for recycling tips.
  • Avoid micro plastics used in health products. Check the labels of products. 

Attached are photos of previous experiences at the Seabird Restoration Program. Click on the photos to make them larger.