Stephen Kress

1987 Laureate, Environment
United States, Born 1945

Project Goal

Develop new techniques for the successful conservation of endangered seabirds

Location: United States

Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Standing on Eastern Egg Rock in the Gulf of Maine for the first time in 1970, Stephen Kress visualized scores of Atlantic puffins in the boulder-strewn landscape. He could even hear and smell the birds as they jostled for nesting burrows.

"It was very vivid," recalls 55-year-old Kress, now director of the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Restoration Program. "It gave me a sense of what we had lost."

No Atlantic puffin had nested on the barren, three-hectare islet, or on Seal Island, 42 kilometres to the east, in almost a century. Kress had read accounts of hunters and fishermen slaughtering puffins and terns for bait, food and feathers on Maine’s offshore islands in the 19th century.

A few breeding pairs had survived on Matinicus Rock, 29 kilometres to the east, largely due to the efforts of Audubon wardens. It was the persistence — and growth — of the Matinicus Rock colony, the last in U.S. waters, that inspired Kress’s mission to restore Atlantic puffins to their other ancestral haunts in Maine.

Determined to Succeed

His peers were sceptical — nobody had successfully re-established an extirpated seabird colony anywhere in the world. But Kress experimented, persisted and succeeded.

For eight years from 1973, he and volunteer helpers lived on tiny Eastern Egg Rock in early summer, translocating scores of 10-day-old puffin chicks from a thriving colony on Great Island, Newfoundland.

They hand-reared them on a high-protein fish diet in artificial nesting burrows, then, late in summer, watched them waddle into the surf and vanish, destination unknown. They hoped the chicks would remember their adopted home.

A few chicks returned to Eastern Egg Rock as juveniles in 1977. Then, in 1981, four pairs of mature puffins returned to nest. Numbers grew slowly until the mid-1990s, then rose sharply, reaching 37 pairs in summer 2001.

Another puffin restoration project initiated by Kress on 40-hectare Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in 1984 saw seven pairs return to breed in 1992. The population has recently surged, reaching 145 pairs last summer. Fewer than 4 per cent wore identifying leg bands — Maine hatchlings have almost replaced the Newfoundland puffins.

Between puffin projects in 1977, Kress initiated recovery programmes for endangered Roseate Terns and Arctic Terns, and state-listed Arctic and Common terns, on Eastern Egg Rock, Seal Island and Matinicus Rock.

Reaching Overseas

In 1987 his innovative efforts were recognized with a Rolex Award for Enterprise.

"It gave us our first opportunity to work outside Maine, and helped give us international recognition," says Kress. "It was also important within the Audubon Society, because it confirmed our ideas had broader application."

In the Galapagos Islands, Kress began a recovery project for the endangered Dark-rumped Petrel. His team dug artificial nesting burrows, playing taped petrel sounds, and used mating scents to attract the birds. Petrels moved in, and many now breed there.

Innovation in Bird Conservation
Today Kress’s techniques have been applied in two hemispheres and two oceans, and are revolutionising seabird conservation.

Most seabirds nest in colonies. There is security in numbers, and sound evolutionary sense in nesting where one’s own ancestors have prospered for thousands of generations.

But these survival traits confound efforts to re-establish extirpated seabird colonies. Raising chicks in low numbers, in an unfamiliar environment amid predators, is a risky business.

Kress translocates young chicks before they become imprinted to their birthplace, and hand-rears them in artificial nests or burrows until they disperse to sea.

He employs visual, auditory and olfactory cues to encourage survivors back to the same nesting locations when they reach breeding age — and to attract passers-by prospecting for new homes. His "social attraction" strategy variously involves mirrors, realistic decoys resembling adult birds, counterfeit eggs, recorded sounds of active colonies, even species’ mating perfumes.

Kress tries to recreate in the minds of wild seabirds the sense of presence he experienced himself that first day on Eastern Egg Rock, to convince the birds they are in a thriving colony of their own kind.

Sea and Land

Why seabirds? "It’s primarily the environment that appeals to me, the fact that these are magnificent locations," says Kress. "So much is lost when the birds are missing, the whole environment seems less intact."

Kress even experiments at home: he has reintroduced the Northern Bobwhite Quail to the 13.3-hectare property outside Ithaca, New York where he lives with sons Nathan and Benjamin. He has written several books on attracting birds to suburban gardens, which he sees as islands for enriching the variety of life on land.

New Zealand seabird specialist Dr Michael Imber credits Kress’s success to his skill as a communicator and team-builder. A meeting with Kress in the early 1980s convinced Imber that he should try translocating endangered black petrels from Great Barrier Island, north-east of Auckland, to Little Barrier Island, where they had been decimated by cats. There were only 1,000 pairs left, most on Great Barrier Island. The Little Barrier Island colony was barely viable, even after cats were removed in 1980.

The petrels were too sparsely distributed to use social attraction on the rugged island. Translocations began in 1985, but most chicks were already imprinted to their natal island, and returned there to breed after their epic trans-Pacific dispersal flight to coastal Peru and Ecuador. The first immigrants bred on Little Barrier Island in 1990 and the petrel population is now increasing.

Kress does not compromise where rare species are involved. Before he translocated the first puffin chicks to Eastern Egg Rock in 1973, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer poisoned the resident herring and great black-backed gulls and removed their eggs. Both prey on seabird eggs and nestlings.

In 1994, a similar fate befell a marauding night-heron that was frustrating a recovery project for Roseate, Common and Arctic Terns, on Maine’s Stratton Island.

Doing What Works

In California, a team from Audubon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Humboldt State University used decoys, mirrors and taped sounds to restore a colony of common murres (guillemots) at Devil’s Slide Rock in Half Moon Bay wiped out by a 1986 oil spill. More than 100 pairs bred there in 2001.

Success is never assured. Kress recently terminated a Hawaiian project that failed to persuade Laysan Albatrosses to nest on Kaohikaipu Island, instead of on nearby Oahu airstrips.

But relocating a colony of 8,000 pairs of Caspian terns nesting on Rice Island in Oregon’s Columbia River estuary to a historic nesting site on East Sand Island, 25 kilometres away, was a spectacular success. After bulldozers cleared scrub from the island in 1996, decoys and sound recordings encouraged the terns to decamp en masse from Rice Island, where they were taking a heavy toll on migrating juvenile salmon.

Kress says biologists can passively document the demise of species, or actively intervene to maintain seabird diversity. For him, there is no choice: "We have a stewardship role, which carries an obligation to ensure we don’t lose rare species."

Graeme O’Neill

Other 1987 Laureates