June 28, 2012

For puffins, it's not a show -- just reality

High-definition cameras begin streaming video of the Atlantic seabirds from an island off Maine, a first in North America.

By CLARKE CANFIELD The Associated Press

Two high-definition cameras began streaming live video Wednesday of Atlantic puffins waddling, preening and nesting on a remote Maine island.

click image to enlarge

A still frame taken from video that began streaming online Wednesday shows puffins on the shore of Seal Island, which has the largest puffin colony in the U.S.

AP Photo/explore.org, Annenberg Foundation, www.explore.org/birdsSociety

The National Audubon Society and explore.org teamed up to stream video from the Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge to anyone with an Internet connection. About 20 miles offshore, the island has the largest puffin colony in the U.S.

The video marks the first time that high-definition cameras have been used in North America to stream video of Atlantic puffins, said Steve Kress, director of Audubon's seabird restoration program.

One camera shows the clown-like puffins and other seabirds on the island's rocky ledges, flapping their wings and coming and going while waves crash on shore.

The other camera is in a burrow, showing a puffin in her nesting site. It is so close to the bird that her eye is visible.

The goal is to engage the public and spur interest in seabird restoration, said Kress, who has worked with puffins for nearly four decades.

"About a third of all seabird species in the world are threatened with extinction," Kress said. "It's the most troubled group of birds in the world. And the puffin is the bird among seabirds that people can relate to."

The Atlantic puffin is sometimes called the "clown of the sea," with its colorful striped beak, diminutive stature and the comical way it waddles. The birds live across a vast expanse of the North Atlantic from Maine to northern Russia.

They almost disappeared from Maine when settlers hunted them to near-extinction for food and feathers in the 1800s. By 1900, only small numbers of puffins nested, on just two Maine islands.

Kress has been working to restore puffins and other seabird populations to Maine's islands since 1973, when he founded the Project Puffin restoration project.

Today, puffins breed on five Maine islands, with Seal Island having the largest population, about 550 pairs. The birds arrive each April and leave in August, spending the rest of their lives at sea.

Scientists count 3 million to 4 million pairs of Atlantic puffins worldwide, with roughly 60 percent of them breeding in Iceland.

Project Puffin put a Web camera on Maine's distant Matinicus Rock, home to about 300 pairs of puffins, in 2005 in an effort to stream video, Kress said. But the video was low quality and worked only intermittently.

The latest project, with its high-definition cameras, gives views of puffins that were previously unavailable.

The project includes a third camera on Seal Island, aimed at common terns, and a fourth camera on an island elsewhere off Maine that's focused on a family of ospreys.

The project is funded by explore.org, a philanthropic organization in Santa Monica, Calif., and a division of the Annenberg Foundation.

Tom Pollak, executive producer of explore.org, said his organization has other cameras streaming video of pandas, a polar bear, a beluga whale and other animals, with the aim of having people "fall in love with the world."

"The feedback has been very positive," he said. "One of the best experiences we had was when we covered a polar bear migration in Manitoba and somebody commented, 'This is better than football.'"

 

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