For the Love of Birds
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Schubel wanted desperately to be part of the restoration effort. During the early '80s, when she began her summer sojourns on the islands, Kress and a few other scientists were still making annual trips to Great Island in Newfoundland, where the birds nested by the thousands, gathering chicks and transporting them to Eastern Egg Rock. Schubel accompanied Kress on one of these trips, stowing the tiny birds in specially designed suitcases lined with soup cans--each one serving as a portable burrow for a puffin chick. Back on Eastern Egg Rock, she helped install the little "pufflings" in manmade burrows and then spent six weeks as a puffin mother, feeding the chicks with vitamin-fortified fish, cleaning their burrows and trying to make sure they were ready when it came time to fledge.

This painstaking puffin parenting was critical to the success of the restoration experiment: Puffins will nest only on the island where they have fledged--making it tricky if they happen to be extinct in the very place where you want them to nest. The restoration effort, which many researchers watched with skepticism, was an exercise in extreme patience. Puffin fledging habits didn't help matters. When they leave their burrows in the dark of night and jump for the first time into the water, they swim straight out to sea, where they live for several years without ever returning to land.

It took nine years, but in 1981, four pairs of puffins finally built nests on Eastern Egg Rock. Over the next couple of decades, Schubel and other devoted "birdsitters" worked tirelessly to make sure those numbers grew. Every summer they set out puffin decoys and discouraged aggressive gulls. They counted eggs and banded chicks. They studied what the puffins were eating, weighed them, recorded their growth and their nesting success. They spent hours sitting in blinds, squinting through spotting scopes and scribbling in field notebooks. In recent years, thanks to their efforts, the Eastern Egg Rock population has stabilized at around 100 pairs of nesting puffins.

Often described as flying footballs, puffins have short wings that beat so fast (400 times per minute) the bird resembles a little wind-up toy as it zooms over the water at up to 55 mph. "Their wings are just big enough so they can fly in the air and just small enough so they can swim underwater," Schubel says, describing the photogenic bird that has become something of a media darling in recent years with its bright orange beak, matching feet, and expressive black and white markings. The puffin has also become the "poster bird" for the larger Seabird Restoration Program, which focuses on other species as well.

"The terns, like the puffins, were pretty much annihilated," says Schubel, who is adept at chasing tiny tern chicks, catching them and weighing them by placing them upside down (to keep them calm) in a paper funnel scale. And then there are the petrels, which have a special place in her heart. "They have this wonderful, musky smell," says Schubel, who is pleased to point out that she has perfect petrel-grubbing arms--long and skinny. This is a useful asset when you are lying on the grass reaching into a petrel burrow, which is about as long and wide around as a skinny arm. "You have to be very careful when you remove a chick to band it," she explains, "bending its head as you bring it forward and cupping its wings."

Over time, all the data Schubel and other researchers have gathered has accumulated into significant and often sobering stories--stories vital to an understanding of the larger environmental issues facing the planet. Monitoring hatching success, for example, can show where there are problems in the food supply. "You'd expect less contamination farther out," says Kress, "but the petrel, which feeds 100 miles offshore, has become an indicator of mercury contamination. These small birds are accumulating metals. If the amount increases, they could be doomed."

Meanwhile, on the islands themselves, it has become clear that re-establishing a thriving seabird colony is not in itself enough. Humans have become an integral part of the birds' success. "If we leave, a big onslaught of gulls will come back in," says Schubel, pointing out that there are 250 coastal Maine islands with gull colonies--and only four with diverse colonies of puffins, terns, petrels and other species. "If we care about having diverse seabird populations," she says, "people are now an important piece of the puzzle." And so the need for summer birdsitters to maintain a constant presence remains.

DEPARTURE DOCK: Audubon boat tours of Muscongus Bay leave from the boat house, above.

Although she doesn't spend as much time on the islands these days, Schubel still returns to Matinicus Rock each May to prepare for the incoming volunteer team. She sets up the blinds, positions the wooden decoys that help attract puffins, and rebuilds tern enclosures, restacking old bricks into little corrals high enough to keep the speedy little chicks from darting out of reach of the researchers who are trying to band them. "She's never missed a year," says Kristin Pennock, who met Schubel in 1992 when they both worked on Seal Island. Even after she became a mother, Schubel returned, carting her infant daughter, Ayla, out to the island with her.

These days Ayla, who is 8, scrambles across the rocks each spring with Pennock's son, who is the same age. While the adults work, the children do their own research, exploring the island. Like their parents, they feel the draw of this wild place, surrounded only by sea and sky and the sound of seabirds on the wind. "It's my favorite time of the year," says Schubel, whose quiet, unhurried pace reflects the rhythms of the natural world she loves. Schubel has, colleagues note, a special affinity for the birds and wildlife she studies. She also has a knack for problem solving.

Last spring, out on Matinicus, she came across a young seal on the rocks. Plastic strapping, probably from a lobster crate, was wound around his body and would certainly strangle him as he grew. "It was terrible to see," says Pennock, "and I have to admit, the rest of us didn't think there was anything we could possibly do without frightening the seal away." Next thing they knew, Schubel had duct-taped a razor blade to a gaffe hook and was sneaking up on the seal, moving stealthily from rock to rock until she was within a few feet, close enough to reach for the plastic strapping, grab it with the hook, and cut the seal loose. "He never even moved," says Pennock. "It was incredible. And that's just the way she is with everything. She'll look at any problem and figure out, very creatively, how to solve it."

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