Science, Tech & Environment

Puffin TV captures the successful restoration of a threatened seabird to its Maine habitat

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On Seal Island, the daily doings of puffins are streamed live to millions of viewers worldwide. 

Credit:

Steve Kress

Forty years ago, the National Audubon Society began Project Puffin, an attempt to restore the threatened seabird to its native nesting islands off the coast of Maine. Today, you can watch their success live on the internet. 

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From Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, a live video stream shows puffins raising chicks in an underground burrow and hanging out on the rocks. These weatherproof cameras provide an intimate look into the homes and lives of puffins.

“It’s a remarkable setting for cams,” says Steve Kress, director of the Audubon Society’s Seabird Restoration Program, otherwise known as Project Puffin. “This island is so remote that you can't really see it from the mainland. You have to go on a boat for hours to get to it. The cams show us the world on Seal Island above ground and underground, and this permits us to get new insight into the lives of seabirds.”

Audubon has had cams on Seal Island for five years. One of them sits on a remote point of land they call the Puffin loafing ledge.

“This is a spot where puffins come to socialize, just to hang out,” Kress explains. “We also have a camera underground, inside a puffin burrow. This camera shows the pair of puffins billing, preening, incubating their egg, the moments of hatching, the tender feeding of the chick and finally the chick leaving the island by itself.”

The presence of the cameras has no effect on the birds. “The camera is a small box that sits in the back of the burrow and the birds see it as just another rock,” Kress says. “We have a team of interns, young biologists, who are living on Seal Island and they are in charge of protecting the birds and when necessary they can help adjust the cameras.”

“Occasionally, the puffins will send a squirt of guano in the wrong direction and it can hit the camera straight on and then, of course, we hear about it from other viewers right away. So it's a good thing the interns are living not too far away. They can go out, they can pull the camera out and they can clean it off, pop it back in and then everybody's happy again.”

Puffin TV has proven to be quite popular. Last year, there were over 3 million viewer pages open from all over the world, Kress says. Through these cams, the public can learn about the lives of birds at a level never before possible.

Nest cams can also reveal some of nature’s harsh realities: chicks that don't make it, attacks from predators or even attacks from parent birds. Last year, for example, on the Osprey camera, a bald eagle swooped down and within seconds snatched the chicks from the nest.

Some people were very upset, but these things happen whether we are seeing them or not, Kress says. “This is predation. Predation happens so quickly. Without predation these predatory birds wouldn't be able to live.”

Audubon’s partners at explore.org have given them the grant for Puffin TV and also helped design a citizen science project, in which viewers can record the feedings of the chick and even identify the kinds of fish they are being fed.

“That’s another important part of this,” Kress says. “They’re telling us about the forage fish in the area around the nesting islands. The forage fish are changing because of climate and they're changing because of the impacts of fisheries, and this pair of puffins is telling us about all of that.”

The Audubon Society and The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, where Kress teaches, operate other bird cameras in many wildlife sanctuaries. The most well-known is for Red-tailed Hawks in Ithaca. They also have an Albatross cam in Hawaii and many others, which can all be found on the website, All About Birds.

Explore.org also has a whole range of live cams on their homepage.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.