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DERRICK Z. JACKSON

Trouble Downeast

Machias Seal Island has the largest Downcast colony of Atlantic puffins, but scavenging gulls are decimating the tern population, and may turn next to puffin eggs and chicks.
Machias Seal Island has the largest Downcast colony of Atlantic puffins, but scavenging gulls are decimating the tern population, and may turn next to puffin eggs and chicks. (Globe Staff Photo / Derrick Z. Jackson)

Machias Seal Island PUFFINS ARE NOT in paradise, even as 3,000 pairs of them flap, grunt, waddle, and hop along the rocks. There should be more noise. There are no terns flying about. This is not the way it is supposed to be.

``Gull predation," University of New Brunswick biologist Tony Diamond would later say over the telephone. ``We lost the biggest Arctic tern colony in North America."

This island between Maine and New Brunswick has the largest Downeast colony of Atlantic puffins. It was spared the worst of 19th-century hunting that nearly wiped them out off Maine. But old enemies, aided by humans, are swooping down for a new kill.

Herring gulls and great black backed gulls chronically come by Machias Seal, scavenging for old bait chucked overboard by nearby fishermen pulling up their lobster traps. Until five years ago, the Canadian Wildlife Service had a warden who could drive off the gulls with a combination of pyrotechnics and occasional, well-timed rifle shots. Now, according to Diamond, director of a wildlife research network in Atlantic Canada, the summer guards are hired too late to get them a rifle permit. Without the rifle, shooting fireworks out of a starter pistol no longer works. ``It scares the terns more than the gulls," Diamond said.

Five years ago, there were around 2,000 pairs of Arctic terns and 1,000 pairs of common terns. This year, there were only 900 pairs of Arctic terns and 213 pairs of common terns. Diamond and his researchers estimate that 1,700 nests were almost instantly cleaned out by gulls in the spring as researchers watched helplessly. ``A lot of times terns will re-lay eggs, but this summer, they gave up," Diamond said. ``The gulls now walk the island with impunity. Gulls are not stupid. Before, when we could scare them with guns, you'd walk toward them and they'd fly off the island. Now, I throw a rock at them and they only hop 10 feet away."

Because of their dive-bombing and shrill screeching, Diamond said, terns are a ``defensive umbrella" for puffins and other birds. He said he will press hard this winter with the Canadian government to restore permission to use gunfire as a scare tactic and as a last-resort lethal gull control measure. Without the terns, Diamond fears the gulls will start decimating puffin eggs and chicks.

Gulls were a top obstacle in the Audubon Seabird Restoration Project's three-decade restoration of puffins and other birds to the islands of Maine. Even in Iceland, where 10 million of the world's 12 million to 15 million Atlantic puffins live, people are rapidly seeing the effects of another invasive animal -- nonnative pet rabbits and farm rabbits that have been let loose or escaped and are stealing the ground burrows from puffins.

``It just demonstrates what we've been saying for years, that we can't let our guard down," said Steve Kress, director of the Audubon restoration project.

Because of gull control on the Audubon-administered islands, some of them have been able to ``adopt" many of the terns driven off Machias Seal. ``It shows how important it is to manage things on a regional basis," Kress said, ``not just in any one spot." He said Machias Seal, where the profusion of puffins is now suddenly in question, confirms something he often tells people who talk about restoring nature's ``balance."

``There is no such thing as balance," Kress said. ``There is management."

Diamond agreed. Twenty years ago, in an interview for Newsday, I asked him if puffin restoration made him feel like he was playing God. His answer was, ``It's time somebody did after our predecessors played the devil for so long." The events of the past five summers leave him more resolute about that. Besides the threat of gulls, his researchers say that the puffins are showing the possible effects of human overfishing. The puffins' diet has changed. They normally eat fish such as herring, but are resorting to krill and jelly-like larval fish. That is like eating Jell-O when you need a swordfish. Puffin chicks are growing more slowly and fledging later.

``We know so little about how these ecosystems work," Diamond said. ``I'm extremely concerned."

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com.

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