It's summer camp for grown-ups, with great bird watching, excellent educators and a chance to see one of the world's most charismatic birds, the puffin.
For as long as I can remember I've wanted to see Atlantic puffins, those small tuxedoed birds with big orange beaks, nicknamed the sea parrot.
Many of us encounter them on nature shows or bird calendars, but that wasn't enough. I needed to see puffins in real life, doing whatever puffins do. Not only because these birds are as cute as a button (even the researchers who work with puffins say so) but also because there's an amazing recovery story taking place a half-continent away.
Since these are birds of the open ocean, puffins have never been seen in Minnesota and probably never will be. To see puffins -- charismatic, football-sized seabirds -- you must go where they live, the Atlantic Ocean.
In the deep of last winter, I ran across an article about Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine, with its promise of puffin sightings. Here was a chance to go to summer camp for grown-ups, help researchers in their seabird conservation efforts and even rub elbows with Stephen Kress, the world-renowned inspiration behind Project Puffin, Audubon's Seabird Restoration Program.
Two friends and I quickly signed on. In June we drove from Boston to Bremen, Maine, then boated the short hop to Hog Island, a stunning 300-acre piney island. The puffins don't live on Hog Island -- it's too full of people -- but were less than 6 miles away, on a small island called Eastern Egg Rock.
As recently as 40 years ago, a day trip from Hog Island wouldn't have found puffins. Due primarily to overhunting, puffins had disappeared from most of Maine's coastal islands. Thanks to the efforts of Kress and a cadre of other experts and interns beginning in the early 1970s, puffins are returning
Not that it was easy: The birds return to the island where they hatched, and no puffins had hatched on these stony outcrops for more than 100 years. They're chummy little birds that won't nest without other puffins around. To increase the challenge, they don't breed until they're 4 or 5 years old and, since they raise only one chick a year, population recovery is a long, slow business.
Fooling the puffins
Kress and Project Puffin transferred puffin chicks from Newfoundland's large puffin population, then fooled them with mirrors and decoys into thinking they were joining a colony. It took years, but in 1981 a chick was discovered in an underground burrow. You can imagine the excitement -- against all odds, puffins were nesting again on Eastern Egg Rock.
Our group of campers wasn't scheduled to travel to that rocky little island until the last day of our stay, so the excitement mounted. In the meantime we attended engaging presentations by well-known bird experts, picked trash off shorelines (vowing never to buy anything encased in plastic ever again), visited hardworking interns on another seabird restoration island and built tiny structures to protect just-hatched terns from gull attacks.
Finally, our group boarded a boat to travel out to Eastern Egg on a foggy, overcast day. Nothing could dampen our enthusiasm as we got close enough to observe dozens and dozens of puffins, standing on the rocks, floating in the water and flying alongside the boat, their short, stubby wings seeming to whirr. Cameras clicked as eyes were locked onto the puffins, and I will always consider the hour we spent circling this small spit of land as one of the peak moments of my life.
This six-day trip was the experience of a lifetime. We woke up each morning to warblers and juncos calling in the mist, watched lobster boats chugging around Muscongus Bay and roamed freely on Hog Island, an iconic Audubon property. And we watched puffins go about their busy lives.
It really was like summer camp for adults, if your idea of camp encompasses sessions with leading researchers and environmental educators, taking long hikes through piney woods and dining on outstanding food at every meal.
There's still time to sign up for Audubon Camp sessions in September: Check it out at projectpuffin.org/OrnithCamps.html. In my opinion, everyone should see a puffin at least once in his or her life.
Val Cunningham, a St. Paul nature writer, bird surveyor and field trip leader, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find out more about Atlantic puffins and hear their unique, "chainsaw" call at www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Atlantic_puffin/sounds. The state of Maine provides interesting information at www.mainebirding.net/puffin. Even though the state bird is the black-capped chickadee, puffins are important to Maine's biodiversity and economy.WEB CAMS
The next best thing to being there is watching puffins on live Web cams. Two Audubon Society sites allow you to watch a young puffin in its nest burrow and/or adult puffins and razorbills loitering on Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge: www.projectpuffin.org/PuffinCam.html. The high-resolution images are nothing short of spectacular.