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Science & Tech

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Associated Press photos
A puffin-viewing tour boat passes a small island off the coast of Maine. Puffins were successfully reintroduced to the island 40 years ago. There are about 1,000 pairs of the seabirds today.

All eyes on ocean puffins

Scientists in Maine recruiting birders in lifesaving research

Atlantic puffins congregate near their burrows on Eastern Egg Rock, a small island off the coast of Maine.

– Wanted: puffinologists. No experience necessary.

The Audubon Society wants bird lovers to contribute research to a project scientists hope will help save Atlantic puffins from starvation.

There are about 1,000 pairs of the seabirds, known for their multicolored beaks and clownish appearance, in Maine. Audubon says the number of puffin fledging chicks has declined in the last two years, possibly because their key food source, herring and hake, are leaving for cooler waters. Puffins are on the state's threatened species list.

Audubon maintains three Web cameras on Seal Island, a National Wildlife Refuge in outer Penobscot Bay, 22 miles off Rockland and one of the key puffin habitats in Maine. Volunteers are being asked to watch the puffins feed and answer questions about their feeding behavior, said Steve Kress, director of the National Audubon Society's seabird restoration program.

From 2007 to 2011, Kress said 77 percent of puffin pairs on Seal Island produced fledglings, or birds that are able to fly. The number declined to 31 percent in 2012 and 10 percent in 2013 and while 2014 “appears to be better,” he said, it's too early to tell.

“This is a citizen science project, hoping to advance the science as well as entertain the viewers,” Kress said. “There are some questions that can be better answered through lots of people viewing.”

Almost all of Maine's puffin population nests on three islands – Matinicus Rock, Eastern Egg Rock and Seal Island. Kress and others believe the decline in fledged puffin chicks is tied to rising water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine.

The puffins are left to try to eat butterfish, a species more available as herring and hake – key food species for puffins – seek colder waters, Kress said. Scientists say surface temperatures of the waters in the Gulf of Maine have increased slightly each year since 1982, but the pace increased after 2004.

With fewer herring and hake, puffins have been giving their young butterfish, but those fish are too big for puffin chicks to eat, and many of the birds starve and die. That's what happened to Petey, the puffin chick the 2012 camera focused on.

Two of Audubon's cameras focus on the rocky areas where puffins roost. Another is inside a burrow, providing a close-up view of a fuzzy puffin chick.

Last year's featured puffin chick, Hope, survived. This year's chick, Pal, hatched around June 25.

Audubon is asking Web camera watchers to observe Pal and answer a survey about what kind of fish his parents feed him, including how many and when. The Web cameras have attracted more than 4 million views since 2012.

Online:

Puffin cam: http://explore.org/live-cams/player/puffin-burrow-cam

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