For the Love of Birds

“Seabird Sue” has devoted her career to bringing back rare seabirds

It’s hard to know exactly when a puffin chick will be ready to fledge–and nearly impossible to witness–but if you happen to be spending the summer on one of the few uninhabited islands off the coast of Maine where these seabirds nest, and if you happen to be sleeping out under the stars on a night in early August, and if you happen to be awake at precisely the right moment, you just might hear a flurry of wings, a scrambling of little feet. And then, you might actually see the chick emerge from its burrow and tear furiously across the rocks heading straight for the sea. If you happen to be Susan Schubel ’84, you might even find that the puffin, in its instinctual mad dash to destiny, runs right over your sleeping bag.

A wildlife biologist with National Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program and Project Puffin, Schubel spent her first summer among the birds more than 20 years ago. She was instantly hooked. “It was something I was craving all my life–to live in an environment that is not dominated by humans,” says Schubel, whose childhood hero was Marlin Perkins, host of “Wild Kingdom,” the popular television series. “I loved being out in this thriving bird colony, all this living and dying, so much action and vitality.”

For years afterwards, Schubel spent every summer working on one of Audubon’s seven Maine island sanctuaries, sometimes alone, sometimes with a couple of other scientists. Her world was a rocky, treeless outpost, surrounded by sea. And birds. She didn’t mind the constant calling of the gulls, the severe weather, the isolation. She didn’t even mind the fact that most of the time she was covered with bird poop. Or the oily, fishy vomit that came up when an adult bird she was handling was nervous. It was all part of being Seabird Sue, the name she’s earned through the years for her passionate love of her work.

“Not everybody can handle this kind of extreme environment,” says Steve Kress, founder and director of the Seabird Restoration Program and Project Puffin. “Sue was out there for years, summer after summer, happy to spend the whole season, never wanting to leave the island.” Most volunteers rotated on and off the job every couple of weeks, ready for a break. Not Schubel. For her, it was the perfect life. She sometimes caught pollack and mackerel for dinner or concocted meals from mussels, snails and seaweed. Once, she pulled up a dogfish shark using a hook she had created from a bent nail. She loved building bird blinds and making repairs to the tiny shack she lived in. Falling asleep to the night music of the island, the low murmuring call of the petrels in their burrows, was her idea of heaven.

Schubel met Kress thanks to UNH’s legendary ornithology professor, Art Borror, who taught one of her favorite classes and shared her love of puffins. When Borror told her about a scholarship to attend Audubon’s Hog Island summer camp in Bremen, Maine, where Kress was director, she jumped at the chance to apply. She knew that Kress, whom she remembered from a “Wild Kingdom” episode, was leading a now-famous effort to re-establish a puffin colony on Eastern Egg Rock, just a few miles from Hog Island. Once plentiful along the coast of Maine, the birds were popular in the 19th century for their feathers, meat and eggs, and were hunted nearly to extinction. By the time Kress launched his project in 1973, only two colonies remained.

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.

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.”

On Devil’s Slide Rock in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, Schubel set up decoys and a sound system that helped to re-establish a colony of murres that had been wiped out by a 1983 oil spill. In Washington state’s Columbia River, she helped to relocate 10,000 Caspian terns who were eating millions of endangered salmon. Using her sound boxes, Schubel attracted the birds to a new island 20 miles up river. There, the terns had more fish species to feed on and a safe place to breed–and the salmon were no longer threatened. Schubel has also been to the Galapagos Islands to help with the re-establishment of a rare petrel that nests inside volcanoes. And in Bermuda, her boxes are being used to help save the Bermuda petrel, the national bird. Threatened by the rising ocean level, only 65 pairs remain. Schubel’s sound boxes are helping to lure them to higher nesting grounds.

Some of her most important work, though, is going on close to home. At Hog Island, where Schubel and her husband, Anthony Liss, are the year-round caretakers, Schubel can often be found mucking about in the mudflats, net in hand, children gathered round to see what she’s pulled from the ocean waters. She also leads boat tours, dazzling listeners with her detailed knowledge and causing whole boatloads of passengers, binoculars raised, to swivel in unison as she calls out bird sightings from her perch in the bow.

In recent years, as Project Puffin’s outreach coordinator, Schubel has made countless visits to Maine classrooms. Next to petrel grubbing, it’s one of the things she loves most–getting kids excited about the natural world and their place in it. “She’s quite a hero for our kids along the coast,” says Kress, who uses the word “renaissance” in an effort to capture Schubel’s talents. At the Puffin Visitor center in Rockland, Maine, where she does educational programs for summer visitors, Schubel’s creative touches can be seen everywhere, from the beautiful seascapes she has painted on the walls, to the puffin burrows, tucked beneath “rocks” she’s made from wood, epoxy and fiberglass.

One day last spring, about midafternoon, Seabird Sue could be found lobbing small puffins across a classroom in Portland, Maine. Each of the 10 birds, crafted by Schubel out of felt and yarn, flew straight into the hands of a fifth-grader attending her workshop on “The Dangerous and Interesting Life of Seabirds.” Students stood in two rows facing one another while Schubel laid out some blue construction paper “water” between them and started tossing things in: pieces of fishing net, plastic six-pack rings, bits of styrofoam, black paper “oil slicks”—all sorts of pollution a puffin at sea might encounter. She also added some paper fish.

“Fledge, little puffin, fledge!” shouts Schubel. And each student in turn, tosses a puffin into the sea, trying to “fly” them directly onto a bit of fish, the only safe spot in the middle of the dangerous ocean Schubel has created. When they are done, the students do a tally of the survival rate. Some birds were lost in an oil spill. Others starved to death. Some got tangled in fishing gear or were eaten by predators. After a few more rounds, Schubel calls a town meeting, and the students become townspeople and fishermen, as well as biologists, trying to work out solutions to the challenges facing the ocean they all depend on. “Puffins are a way in,” says Schubel, who tries to help students understand the fragile ecosystem they themselves are part of.

When she is finished with her day in Portland, Seabird Sue will load her puffin paraphernalia into her car and drive north, heading for home. She will return to her house at the top of the hill overlooking Hog Island and Muscongus Bay, where the last light will be fading from the sky, sweeping low across the shore and turning the water to pounded pewter. From here she can survey the world she loves—the island she helps care for and the waters beyond where the puffins and other seabirds she has worked so hard to help are nesting again. It is this place that she carries with her whenever she steps into a classroom. “It’s hard to translate it for someone else,” Schubel acknowledges, “but if you can give them a little glimpse of even one bird, if they can catch the sense of fascination and amazement, they start to get the idea that they can care about these birds and do something to help, wherever they are.” And that is why Schubel tosses fluffy handmade seabirds around with schoolchildren and tells them her stories—of puffin chicks running from their burrows into the sea and of petrels singing their night music on a darkening island.