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Virtual visit

Minicams and audio feeds take visitors at an Audubon center in Maine inside the habitat of puffins

Email|Print| Text size + By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Staff / August 27, 2006

ROCKLAND, Maine -- At the Project Puffin Visitor Center, Sarah Crockett, 13, was surprised to learn that the colorful birds, with their orange-tipped, yellow-striped beaks and penguin-like black-and-white bodies, can live to be 30.

Her mother was amazed by the low near-growls that puffins make. ``I didn't expect that kind of sound," said Linda Crockett, 43 , of Manchester, Maine. ``I was expecting something more high-pitched. They sounded more like little bear cubs."

Francine Hewett, 42, was just as amazed by the sounds, even though she and her husband, Mark, had heard them up close the previous summer, when they took a boat tour to see puffins on Canadian-governed Machias Seal Island. This time, they were hearing the puffins on a live audio feed from Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles south of where they were standing.

Hewett was also taking her own ``real-time" puffin pictures from one of the center's two live minicams located on Seal Island , and putting them on a DVD to share with the second-graders she teaches in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Asked if seeing the puffins only on minicam was boring after watching them in person, Hewett said, ``No, no, no!"

``The tour was great," she said, ``but here, I'm learning even more stuff. When we were in the bird blind on Machias Seal, you could almost reach out and touch them. But here, you see stuff you still can't see even from the blind. Their camera where you can watch a chick in a burrow and see the parent bringing the fish to them is amazing."

The Crocketts and Hewetts were among a stream of visitors at the center with wonder reflected on their faces. On a Wednesday in July, less than a month after the puffin center's official opening, nearly 120 people came through its doors. The 600-square-foot facility on Main Street, a joint project of the National Audubon Society and Maine Audubon, has quickly become a popular midcoast Maine attraction and a testament to the once lonely, 33-year effort of project director Steve Kress to restore seabirds to Maine coastal islands.

For the vast majority of people who will never get to see puffins in their natural habitat on Eastern Egg Rock, Seal Island, or Machias Seal, the center's live-streaming minicams and audio feeds, along with fascinating hands-on exhibits , offer an opportunity to get to know the remarkable birds .

For small children, there is a ``burrow" to crawl into and explore, where they can watch the video feed of puffin chicks in a similar offshore island burrow. Alivia LeClair, 9, of East Longmeadow, had been to the visitor center the day before, and spent 40 minutes in the burrow. She had come back to do it again. ``With the TV in there, it's kind of like feeling like a bird yourself, crawling in and out," she said. ``I feel like a little puffin in a little house. It's so tight, it sort of makes me feel protected."

The center also offers a mockup of a bird blind where children look at projected pictures of puffins and take a quiz. There is spectacular puffin photography on the walls and an informative ``Project Puffin" video that documents the effort s of Kress and others to preserve the species. When the 20-minute video is not being shown, the live feed of bird activity on Seal Island is on the screen, and center managers Fletcher Meyers and Susan Meadows are available to answer questions.

Even the bathrooms, designed by center outreach director Sue Schubel, are adorned with bird paintings and information about puffins.

The interest in puffins was far less rabid in 1973, when Kress, a Cornell University biologist, launched an unprecedented experiment to restore puffins to the string of islands off the coast of Maine that, into the 19th century, harbored a dense diversity of seabirds.

By 1900, however, puffins, eiders, gannets, cormorants, and even the formidable great black- backed gull were wiped out on almost all the islands by hunters seeking their meat, eggs, and feathers. Kress chose to try to reintroduce puffins to Eastern Egg Rock, a small boulder-strewn island in Muscongus Bay, which the National Audubon Society said had had its last recorded puffin in 1885. Kress began bringing puffin chicks down from Newfoundland. With the help of research assistants, he hand-fed them in handmade sod burrows.

They hoped the chicks would remember Eastern Egg when , as fledglings , they flew out to sea for several years. To this day, no one really knows where in the ocean puffins go. The researchers set up decoys and played recordings of puffin calls to try to lure them back. Kress and his assistants waited, summer after summer for eight frustrating years until 1981, when the first puffins were sighted feeding chicks on Eastern Egg Rock.

After that initial success, the project quickly expanded. During the next 14 years, Kress's team successfully fledged 914 of 954 transplanted chicks from Eastern Egg Rock. Similarly, from 1984- 89, 912 of 950 transplanted chicks were successfully fledged from Seal Island.

Last year, Eastern Egg Rock reached a record 72 nesting pairs of puffins. This summer, Seal Island recorded a record number of 319 pairs . Matinicus Island, which was down to two puffins around 1900, has more than 200 nesting pairs. Several species of terns and razorbills, cousins of the puffin, have rebounded on these islands and others in Maine. Kress's techniques have been adopted all over the world to reattract endangered bird species to abandoned sites.

One of those early Newfoundland chicks, banded Y54, is still coming back to Eastern Egg to breed at the age of 29. The oldest recorded puffin, according to Kress , was a 32-year-old bird in Iceland, where millions of puffins live.

``There's another bird that's a year younger, BY98," Kress said . ``It was `adopted' by one of our supporters 16 years ago. I took her out to the rock and she said, `I would like to see my adopted puffin.' The odds of actually seeing any specific puffin and being able to read its band are slim, but amazingly, a puffin came in with a fish to the burrow we thought it [BY98] had been using and sure enough when it popped up, it was that puffin. She was so excited she started crying. She said, `I can die happily now.' "

The longevity of the puffins also awes Kress's graduate students. Christina Donehower, 27, of McGill University , in her fifth summer with Project Puffin , said, ``It's hard to believe that this puffin in front of me is older than me." Back in her hometown near Seattle, she has a pet duck that is 17 . ``It just makes me so appreciate the success that all this is around us."

Sisters Betsy, 61, and Peggy Cadbury, 59, stopped in the center with their mother, Virginia , 90 . In the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, the family summered at the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Muscongus Bay. Virginia's late husband, Bart, was camp director from 1958-68. As much as the Cadbury family has been around birds, Betsy Cadbury said, ``There's no such thing as a jaded watcher of puffins. The feeding of the chicks in the burrows is something you can't see even if they hang you by the ankles. The intimacy has got to inspire more people to think about how what we do to the environment affects our lives."

The guest book indicated that many visitors were similarly moved, with entries such as: ``Puffins deserve to live. Humans are destroying natural selection." ``We're so glad you brought puffins back to Maine." ``They are sooo cute!" ``Wonderful movie and contribution to our world." ``This is the greatest place in town." ``Go Puffins!"

Kress said the burrow cam has shown him behavior he had never seen , such as an adult wrapping a chick under its wing. ``How many times does nature go as predicted?" he said of his project. ``This is a bird that actually fulfilled our vision. I'm grateful I'm still here to enjoy it."

Contact Derrick Z. Jackson at djackson@globe.com.

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