Audubon Society’s Seabird Restoration Program

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.


World Oceans Day - A Zoo Journey with Deb Bree the Puffin

June 05, 2019

Hello! My name is “Deb Bree,” and I am a horned puffin here at the Saint Louis Zoo. You can just call me Deb. In honor of #WorldOceansDay this Saturday, I really want to make sure all of you know that our oceans aren’t looking so clean. My friends here at the Zoo are dedicated to teaching everyone ways they can keep the oceans clean, even if they live in the middle of the country. Saturday is an extra special day for all the animals that call the ocean their home. Come celebrate #WorldOceansDay from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and learn all about ways you can help keep oceans clean. Follow me along today for a special #puffintakeover as I wander around the Zoo and show you all the places you can visit on Saturday!

Hi, it’s Deb again. Did you know recycling is an easy way to help animals everywhere? On Saturday,  come to the Emerson Children’s Zoo to see the sea jellies and coral reef. While there, learn how easy it is to help keep items out of landfills and our oceans by recycling. You can recycle all sorts of things: paper, plastic, glass, electronics, batteries, light bulbs, clothing and even food! #puffintakeover

Come to Penguin & Puffin Coast (my favorite place at the Zoo) and take the pledge to say no to plastic straws. Did you know over 500,000,000 plastic straws are used each day in the United States? It’s easy to say no to straws, or to get a nifty reusable straw to take with you everywhere you go. There might be penguins around here, too, but I personally think puffins are far superior. See you Saturday! #puffintakeover

Down at Stingrays at Caribbean Cove presented by SSM Health, you can learn about microplastics, which are very small pieces of plastic. Aquatic life can easily mistake these teeny tiny pieces of plastic for food, which can be harmful to their stomachs. Learn more about this threat to marine life at World Oceans Day this Saturday. #puffintakeover

It’s a full-on SEALebration over at the Judy and Jerry Kent Family Sea Lion Sound! Come wish a happy birthday to all the pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) that have June birthdays, which is almost all of them! Take the #byetobags pledge and make a commitment to yourself to remember to use reusable bags. One person switching to reusable bags can keep about 500 plastic bags out of the environment every year! #puffintakeover

Since a human needs the equivalent of four bottles of water a day, you can save around 1,460 single-use plastic bottles a year by switching to a reusable version. My water bottle is 10 years old, so it has saved about 14,600 bottles from being used. It is also a nice way to express yourself with art or fun stickers. Mine even glows in the dark! Here at the Zoo, we have water-filling stations to keep your bottles full during your visit. Don’t forget to stop by the Zoo on Saturday for World Oceans Day. #puffintakeover.

One Health Capacity Building in Kenya: Notes from the Field Part I

May 28, 2019

By Maris Brenn-White, Institute for Conservation Medicine Research Fellow

The idea that the health of all living things and the ecosystems that support us are inextricably connected is central to the work of the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine (ICM).  Watching herders guide cattle to forage in the arid Northern Kenyan landscape while impala, zebras and reticulated giraffes graze in the background brings this idea sharply into focus: humans, livestock and wildlife share space, resources and often disease. 

Understanding and addressing the unique challenges that this type of interaction presents in Kenya and neighboring countries requires strong, local One Health practitioners. 

Along with collaborators from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Smithsonian Global Health Program, ICM team members recently traveled to Kenya to help build One Health capacity through intensive trainings with veterinarians, medical doctors, ecologists and other scientists from throughout the region. As the ICM Research Fellow, I was lucky enough to join the journey, share my wildlife veterinary and epidemiology knowledge, and learn from exceptional instructors, participants, and many others along the way.

My first stop was the incredibly beautiful and ecologically important Mpala Research Centre. Lying in the shadow of Mt. Kenya, Mpala supports a rare pack of African painted dogs, endangered Grevy’s zebras, scores of African elephants, and a myriad of other native animal and plant species. Like many Kenyan wildlife conservancies, Mpala also contains a working ranch that brings cattle, camels and other livestock side to side with protected wildlife.

This made it an ideal location for the One Health Regional Network for the Horn of Africa (HORN) summer school. HORN brought more than 20 early-career scientists from Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somaliland to Mpala for a hands-on introduction to a few of the many disciplines and skill sets needed for One Health work.

For four days, an interdisciplinary team of instructors from the University of Liverpool, ILRI and ICM guided the participants through a crash course in research techniques for studying disease vectors like mosquitoes and ticks, microclimates in different habitat types, livestock health and epidemiology, and human behavior and attitudes. 

As the fifth and final day approached, Kimani Ndung’u, a Mpala field biologist and new friend, and I were handed the reins with the task of bringing a wildlife health perspective and research skills to the group. This meant introducing the participants to tools they can use in their research to determine which, where and how wild animals are sharing space, resources and potential diseases with livestock and people in their study areas.  

We led the participants on a road transect, identifying, counting and recording the locations of the mammals that we saw along the way. Dung surveys came next, which, while arguably less glamorous, can provide rich information about the animals using an area over a longer period and can provide samples of pathogens and host animal DNA.

As we navigated our way back to camp, Mpala provided the perfect final lesson of the day. Just across the river, we could see African painted dogs running and chasing unseen prey. They had many puppies to feed – a remarkable fact given that a canine distemper outbreak in 2017 had decimated the pack. Canine distemper has caused serious population declines in a number of wild carnivores, both felids and canids, and it is often acquired from domestic dogs. Watching the wild dogs race through the brush as the daylight began to fade was beautiful and exhilarating. It was also the perfect reminder that studying how wildlife, domestic animals and humans interact and share this landscape is essential to protecting all of our health and well-being.

After wrapping up an excellent week, we traveled back to Nairobi where I began final preparations for the next phase of my trip. I would soon be on the road headed south this time to ILRI’s Kapiti Estates to meet up with ICM Director Sharon Deem and team member Stephen Leard. While there, we led an intensive dromedary camel health and welfare training for Kenyan veterinarians. We’ll discuss this in our next blog post, so stay tuned!