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Living simply to help save Seal Island's puffins

Puffins off the coast of Maine are finding it harder to locate food, a possible sign of a changing environment. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

By Adam Desiderio, Producer, NBC News

For the past three summers, Jenny Howard has helped restore seabird populations on Seal Island, a 65-acre national wildlife refuge located 21 miles off the coast of Rockland, Maine.

"It takes a little adjustment," Howard said. "You're going from showering every day and sleeping in a bed to using an outhouse and sleeping in a tent.”

Howard, 26, is the Seal Island supervisor for Project Puffin, a seabird restoration project of the National Audubon Society.

Howard and a small crew of interns and volunteers, four or five at any one time, monitor and protect nine species of seabirds during the summer breeding season -- including arctic terns, great black-backed gulls and Atlantic puffins.

“If we weren’t here, they wouldn’t do as well, and they would probably not breed on the island as a result,” said Howard, who holds a bachelor's degree in arts and biology with an environmental science concentration from Kenyon College in Ohio.

The crew’s primary objective is to monitor the productivity of the Atlantic puffins, a portly bird with a colorful beak often referred to as a “sea parrot.” They were hunted more than 150 years ago for food and feathers and disappeared from Seal Island, once home to the largest puffin colony in Maine.

Dr. Steve Kress, founder of Project Puffin and director of the Audubon Seabird Restoration Program, reintroduced the puffin to the island 40 years ago.

“We've learned how to manage the seabirds just by having our interns living on the island,” Kress said.

From mid-May to mid-August, crews live in tents that are perched atop 8-foot-wide wooden platforms, overlooking a rocky beach.  “You get really close to people really fast because you're spending all your time with them,” Howard said.

The crew brings only what they can carry on their backs when they travel to the island: duffel bags full of clothes, books, music and non-perishable foods such as pasta, rice and other canned goods.

There’s no refrigeration on the island, and with the exception of two solar-powered lights, there’s no electricity either. Food and fresh water are delivered every 10 days by a local lobsterman, who sometimes drops off lobsters as well, a perk of living and working on an island in the Gulf of Maine.

Each morning just before daybreak, Howard and the crew spend up to three hours counting the number of seabird pairs from inside any one of a handful of “blinds,” rectangular wooden structures used for bird-watching, just large enough to hold a single person. 

Afternoons are spent recording sea surface conditions, wind direction and air temperature, all in an effort to track and maintain healthy living conditions for the breeding seabirds.

The island is almost Hitchcockian. Thousands of pairs of diving-bombing terns and other seabirds swarm overhead, but despite the chaos, Howard says it’s generally a quiet and peaceful place. 

The only real structure on the island is the Seal Island cabin -- affectionately called “Mama Billy Goat's Cabin,” after a nickname given to Howard for the way she leaps from one burrowing rock to the next, leading the crew through the island's rocky and sometimes dangerous terrain.

The island, once owned by the U.S. Navy, was used as a bombing target from the 1940s to the 1960s and unexploded ordnance still dots the landscape.

Built in 1984, the cabin offers more protection than the tents and is where most of the research and data entry are done. The walls are covered with drawings and pictures left by crews from years past. A small library is made up of books that volunteers have brought and left behind.

It’s the crew’s safe haven from the elements, and a place where the crew can cook and stay warm. During off-season in early spring, when the harsh Maine winter weather still lingers, the cabin doubles as the crew’s primary residence. The table folds into a double bed, and there's a small sleeping loft.

The crew shares weekly chores. On Seal Island they call it being the “Betty of the Day,” a term used for the person in charge of recording the data collection, cooking dinner and cleaning dishes the next day.

Showering is a science in itself. The crew uses a gravity-fed, solar-heated shower that works by filling a large, thick, black plastic bag with only a few gallons of water and placing it in the sun to heat it. A small nozzle attached to a hose on the bag controls the flow of water.

In theory, the water is warm by the end of the day, but it never gets hot. But when the weather is warm, the bay itself becomes a bathtub.

For Howard, the best part of a day spent on the island is getting to play with the birds.

“You see a baby chick, and you can't help but smile,” Howard said. “It’s a completely different style of life from the average person, but I just love the work, and I love waking up and getting excited about what I'm going to do.”