They are out there, swooping and dodging like swallows over a summer pasture. Only their prey isn’t flying insects, it is two- to three-inch juvenile herring. Occasionally one of them halts abruptly in midair, hovers for a heartbeat, then plunges into the sea for its prey. Federally endangered Roseate Terns are making a comeback, thanks to Maine island nesting colonies that are being managed by wildlife biologists to ensure the safety of their broods.

Mention seabird and often what comes to mind are various iterations of gull: the familiar gray-backed Herring Gull, the smaller and aptly named Laughing Gull with its black head, and the largest of them all, the Great Black-backed Gull. They follow fishing boats in cacophonous swarms chasing discarded bits of bait and flotsam, and squabble for food snatched from unwary beachgoers. But accompanying the ROTERoseate Terns, not far offshore from the beaches and clam shacks, is a remarkable diversity of seabirds: Leach’s Storm Petrel, Black Guillemot, and the hands-down crowd pleaser, Atlantic Puffin. Their presence in Maine waters has become a tourist attraction and created an economic boon for tour boat operators steaming from Maine ports throughout the summer.

From the brink

It has not always been so. In early times Indians and settlers raided seabird colonies for eggs and birds, which explains proliferation of Hen Islands and Egg Rocks along the Maine coast. Seabird populations began to plummet in the late 1800’s when birds were taken for the millinery trade: the period’s fashion demanded feathers in women’s hats. Even after the passage of the first Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1916 prohibiting the hunting and transport of migratory birds, seabird numbers dropped precipitously from the early 1900s to the 1950s. Gulls, taking advantage of open dumps and seaside trash, began a population surge that is still being felt, long after the open dumps were outlawed.

As natural predators of terns, puffins, Eider Ducks and other seabirds, the gulls’ increase spelled trouble. “Terns were headed towards extinction,” says Stephen Kress, with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and director of Project Puffin. “I am convinced they would be extinct today if we hadn’t taken an active role in management.” Kress says National Audubon “decided they weren’t going to stand by and document the decline, but instead would work to restore the historic distribution of seabirds to pre-1900 levels.”

Road to restoration

In 1973, Kress started the Puffin Project to restore Atlantic Puffins to their historic nesting islands in Maine waters. That meant an almost complete re-introduction of puffins to Maine, since only Matinicus Rock and Machias Seal islands hosted nesting pairs. Kress and other biologists brought 10-day-old puffin chicks from abundant Newfoundland colonies. They became their surrogate parents on Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, feeding and caring for them until they fledged. Nearly 1,000 puffins were transplanted over the next 13 years.

Puffins lay only one egg each year, and they usually don’t breed until they are five years old. Restoration would take time. The first major sign that Project Puffin might succeed came in 1977 when some puffins returned to nest, attracted by painted wooden decoys and recorded calls played over loudspeakers.

Kress and his team stopped relocating puffins from Newfoundland in 1989 when Maine’s new colonies were well enough established to attract their own birds. Their pioneering techniques worked and were replicated on other islands to lure seabirds such as terns and petrels. Today, reports Kress, “The puffin colony at Eastern Egg Rock is thriving. Last year we saw a big increase, to 59 pairs.”

Terns have also come back from the brink. There are more Roseate and Common Terns nesting on Maine islands now than at any time since 1900. It may be tempting to declare success, pack up and go home and “let nature take its course.” But Kress is emphatic about staying on task and not resting on past successes. “There’s a notion that people have of ‘the balance of nature,’ that successful conservation should lead to stability, but it doesn’t,” says Kress. “That is a myth. People don’t want to hear that, but humans and their enterprise so dominate the coastal ecosystem, it’s not natural anymore. The course of nature is what we decide it should be.”

The reason seabird colonies are thriving on Maine islands today is because 11 islands have been dedicated to their success. Summer interns reside on some of these islands to keep track of returning birds. They count them and their brood and monitor their feeding behavior and diet. Perhaps their most important task is protecting them from predators and human disturbance. With just 11 managed colonies, the successes are precarious. “The concern we have right now is, if you look at geographic distribution, 90 percent of all Maine terns nest on these 11 islands,” says Linda Welch, Wildlife Biologist with Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Milbridge. “About 95 percent of the ROTERoseate Tern population nests on two islands.”

Crowd control

The danger of having so many eggs in one basket is how quickly disturbance or a predator raiding the island could wipe out the colony. Great Black-backed gulls, the most severe predators, can easily destroy a seabird colony unless people intervene. A case in point is what happened to this year’s hatch of Common Eiders on Stratton Island. “The Great Black-backed Gulls ate almost every duckling,” says Kress. “They are ravenous, and the hens can’t get through that gauntlet.” Exact numbers are difficult pinpoint, but the average eider nest yields four ducklings; with 98 percent loss from its 1,200 eider nests, Stratton probably lost 4,704 ducklings to gull predation.

And that is only the loss for one seabird species on one island. Great Horned Owls will fly from the mainland or neighboring islands seeking a meal of seabird chicks. Minks are capable swimmers and dangerous predators; last year Stratton Island’s tern colony decreased from 1,279 pairs of Common Terns to just 308 pairs due to the presence of a mink.

Biologists and summer interns on seabird restoration islands can keep track of these events and even control predators. Since gulls arrive earlier in the season to nest, people harass them to discourage them from nesting there. This works on smaller islands like six-acre Outer Green, but some islands are too large to make that practical, and biologists have little alternative but to designate a section or point of land as gull-free. Seal Island, with its long point of land, is partitioned this way.

Sometimes harassment alone is not enough, and wildlife experts are forced to resort to lethal control measures such as destroying gull eggs, or even the birds themselves. “We are sensitive about lethal control,” says Kress. “It is hard to do, especially if you’re a bird-lover. Interns don’t like to do it, but they will if they see the need.” Animal rights activists have protested such efforts in the past. But Kress says the scale of gull control should be kept in perspective because Great Black-backed Gulls nest on over 300 islands.

“Gull control is only on a handful of islands, is highly localized and it affects a very small number of gulls,” says Welch of the Petit Manan refuge. “It’s not affecting the overall number of gulls.” To have seabirds in Maine other than gulls, there is no choice but to control them.

Welch echoes Stephen Kress in promoting a commitment long-term restoration. “What we’ve seen is, if you walk away [from a colony], gulls will quickly come back.” One only needs to witness what happened to eider ducklings on Stratton Island this summer to know what that means.

A partnership of friends

In addition to Project Puffin, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, through its refuge system and the Gulf of Maine Coastal and Estuary office in Falmouth, is also taking a lead role in protecting seabird nesting islands, with many state and private partners working alongside. Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the nonprofit statewide land conservation organization, has protected dozens of Maine islands through conservation easements and outright purchase. The Audubon Society owns several islands, as does the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Petit Manan NWR has offered several management proposals for public comment in its draft comprehensive planning for the refuge. “The majority of people commenting supported the alternative proposing that the refuge acquire 87 islands from willing sellers, and establish six additional colonies to augment the number and geographic distribution of places where seabirds can nest,” says Welch. “With a lot of landowners, their island has been in the family for generations and they’ve been great stewards. But now they’re paying a lot in taxes, and this is a great way for them to preserve it. So we work closely with Maine Coast Heritage Trust and local land trusts to help.”

To educate the public and keep human disturbances from upsetting seabird colonies, a new organization called the Friends of Maine Seabird Islands has embarked on a public outreach campaign. “Our mission is to support the work of the biologists and to conserve seabird resources in Maine,” says executive director David Cadbury. He lists, as top priorities, coordinating with sea kayakers through the Maine Island Trail Association and establishing a uniform signage system on seabird islands to warn visitors when not to come ashore. “We’re getting funding to put signs on islands that identify them as nesting sites. Too often, you have to come ashore before you can even read the sign,” says Cadbury.

Cadbury also hopes to enlist the observant eyes and ears of lobster fishermen in monitoring seabird colonies. “Its everybody’s benefit to have a healthy ecosystem in the Gulf of Maine,” says Cadbury. “Lobstermen and groundfishermen see the connection between fisheries conservation and what it means for other living resources.”

It is an approach Welch endorses. “Lobstermen are incredibly knowledgeable, and they’re out there all the time, observing what’s going on.” Patrice Farrey, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, says it would make a good fit. “If someone said ‘We’re approaching the fishing industry because of the knowledge and access that you have, you know this place and can spot changes,’ – that would be effective,” says Farrey.

If thirty years of seabird restoration have taught wildlife biologists one lesson, it is that keeping old threats at bay while countering new threats is a permanent obligation. It doesn’t hurt to have some new friends and partners join the effort to keep Maine’s seabird islands thriving.