A cold winter leads to more successful nests for Maine’s charismatic Atlantic Puffin

10/8/2014 | 0

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An Atlantic Puffin wearing a band on each leg carries a beakful of white hake at Eastern Egg Rock, the southernmost colony in Maine. Photo by Sandy Flint

In “Seabirds by Sail,” the cover story of our August 2014 issue, we noted the troubles experienced by Atlantic Puffins in the Gulf of Maine in the summers of 2012 and 2013. Numbers of nests and fledglings were down significantly at most colonies due to rising ocean temperatures, which reduced the availability of the puffin’s most important prey.

Plus, on Eastern Egg Rock, the southernmost colony in Maine, a pair of river otters, predators never seen on the island before, wreaked havoc, eating adults and chicks and reducing the number of nests from 123 in 2010 and 2011 to 104 in 2012. After the mammals were removed, the colony rebounded slightly to 111 nests in 2013.

Happily, the two-year slide in puffin production throughout the gulf was reversed in the summer of 2014. At Maine’s largest colonies, Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge and Matinicus Rock, 75 percent and 66 percent of the pairs fledged healthy young, respectively. And the Eastern Egg Rock colony increased by one-third over 2013 numbers to a record 148 nesting pairs.

Steve Kress, vice president of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society and director of its 41-year-old Project Puffin, says the results were welcome news after the “ocean heat wave” of the last few years.

He attributes the nesting success to the frigid winter of 2013-14, high amounts of snowfall, and a subsequent increase in snowmelt, all of which cooled ocean temperatures in the gulf about 1°C (1.8°F). By summer, the puffins’ primary forage fish — white hake, herring, and sand lance — returned, providing plenty of food for adults and young.

The 2014 fledgling counts were “within the upper range of recent normal years,” he says. “It’s too soon to say if this is a trend, but it shows that small changes can have a big effect.”

A version of this article will be published in the December 2014 issue of BirdWatching. Subscribe.