Saving puffins and 'King Penguin,' too

Kris holding puffin
Bill Scholtz
Stephen W. Kress, Ph.D. ’72, holds a puffin on Eastern Egg Rock Island.

“Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock” (Yale University Press, 2015) is written by Stephen W. Kress, Ph.D. ’72, director of the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Restoration Program, with Boston Globe associate editor Derrick Z. Jackson.

Kress is known to Cornellians and Ithacans as the avian-pun-spouting instructor of Spring Field Ornithology, the lecture and field trip series that just completed its 39th season.

The Project Puffin story – how Kress and a dedicated band of seabird-fostering conservationists brought Fratercula arctica back to Maine’s barren, offshore islands and invented restoration techniques now used worldwide – has been told in documentaries and TV news and print stories.

The Ithaca-based Puffin Man is a hero to the Maine state tourism industry, with fleets of seabird-watching boats circling Eastern Egg Rock Island each summer, offering near encounters with the colorful birds that winter at sea.

Kress’ scientific memoir covers Project Puffin history in technical-but-readable detail. Like the hand-painted puffin decoys to attract the real thing, or the solar-powered (avian pun ahead) Murremaid Music Box to broadcast calls of endangered roseate terns, another species of concern for Project Puffin. And how geolocator devices finally revealed migration routes of puffins, which are now recognized as important indicators of global climate change.

Then Kress tells how he nearly drowned none other than “King Penguin,” guidebook author Roger Tory Peterson.

The frail, 81-year-old Peterson— verging on hypothermia after a rogue wave flipped a film crew’s boat into frigid waters— struggled to the surface, and saw “angels.”

“Take care of Roger – he is a national treasure,” Peterson’s wife had warned as PBS “Nature” filmmakers set off on the perilous daytrip. Kress was at the helm of the small, inflatable craft.

Soaked and stranded on Western Egg Rock Island as nightfall approached, Kress was huddling to share body warmth with his hero. Rescuers were desperately needed, but none appeared.

“While I lay next to him, I heard him ask if these were angels,” Kress writes. “Much later, he recounted that he actually said they were angelwings (butterflies), which may have been the case, as I have seen these beautiful orange butterflies with mauve-edged wings in late summer on these islands.”

Rescue came, at last, when a teenager on a puffin-watching boat spotted frantic signals for help and summoned the Coast Guard.

The Project Puffin founder had been saved by the tourism industry he fostered. Peterson recovered, too, and resumed his reign as the “father of modern birdwatching.”

“In late fall 1990, I was at a meeting of the International Congress for Bird Preservation… and Roger was the featured speaker,” Kress relates. “I shuddered when he began his comments with an account of our near disaster and hoped he would not mention my name. He began by saying, ‘Birdwatchers saved my life.’”

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Melissa Osgood