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The Puffin Prof: An Extended Interview With Sue Schubel

Seabird Sue working on some of her art at the Project Puffin Visitor Center in Rockland, Maine.
Steve Kress

Sue Schubel has been championing Atlantic birdlife for more than two decades as a field researcher and, since 2000, as outreach educator for Audubon’s Project Puffin—a program that has reintroduced a once-dwindling population of Atlantic puffins to its original nesting islands in Maine. Last summer Schubel, a.k.a. “Seabird Sue,” was honored with a prestigious Disney Conservation Hero Award for her inspiring education efforts. We spoke with Schubel about her state’s charismatic wildlife and her pumped-up pupils.

Audubon: How did you get the moniker “Seabird Sue”?
Schubel: Well, I’ve spent many years out on the Seabird Islands with Project Puffin, with the Seabird Restoration Program, although that wasn’t my moniker there. I didn’t get it until I began to transition into the seabird education program, and I was talking to Puffin Pete [Pete Salmansohn], and he said, ‘But Puffin Sue doesn’t sound that good,’ and I said, ‘Well, I can be Seabird Sue.’ The kids all call me that at school, so it’s great. Plus, you get the alliteration with Seabird Sue. It’s more fun to have one of those names in quotes than just a regular name—something a little more descriptive.

Q: What’s your background?
A: I have a bachelor of arts from the University of New Hampshire in zoology with a minor in art, and then I’ve taken random graduate courses here and there, like in conservation biology. I also spent a few years in art school in Maine.

Q: Have you worked on seabird restoration in other locations besides Maine?
A: Yes, I went with an associated project down to the Galápagos Islands for a season to work on the dark-rumped petrel project, which was done through Audubon in cooperation with the Galápagos National Park. We were trying to attract them into a safe area of islands, because the islands they nest on there are the same ones that people live on—and people brought mammalian predators with them, so there are a lot of cows and goats stomping around on these burrows—the birds nest underground—and also a lot of rats and dogs and cats. So we were creating a safe zone along with the Galápagos National Park people, and then we used sound systems to attract them into this area. We dug artificial burrows for them, too. And then for another year I was out in California working on the common murre project. It involved attracting the birds into safe habitats, or back to habitats that they once used, by employing decoys and sound systems. Currently, I kind of have a side business making sound systems for various projects like that.

Q: As outreach educator, what do you focus your programs on?
A: Seabirds—but we can touch on a lot of conservation issues using puffins, which are excellent indicators of ocean health. Maine is the only state where Atlantic puffins nest, and not in very many places. People really latch on to them—mostly because they’re very cute. We have the Project Puffin Visitor Center up in Rockland, Maine, and people can come there for programs. Lately, I got a bunch of third graders to dress up like puffins with me and march in this parade with me. It was the Festival of Lights parade in Rockland, which is kind of like a Christmas parade. It was a good look: We had orange legs and wings and big heads. My mother and I made the costumes.

Q: You said that puffins are also indicators of ocean health. How so?
A: Well, we always try to talk about having a clean and healthy ocean. 'Clean ocean' is something very easy to grasp for anybody of any age, and they have the power to make change and go pick up garbage along the shore and help get that ocean cleaner. A lot of the kids around here are in fishing families, and so they would be interested to know how the puffins are doing, since the puffins subsist on young fish that, as they get bigger, become lobster bait-sized fish. So people can learn a lot about the environment and perhaps make predictions about what’s happening a few years down the road based on how the birds are doing.

Q: Is climate change affecting puffins?
A: Well, we think they’ll definitely be affected if there are more severe weather events during the breeding season. These islands are not high, so if sea level really rises, their nests are going to get flooded. And, in fact, already during severe weather events, their nests get flooded. Our data set probably isn’t long enough to really give you concrete evidence of that, but we’ve noticed lately there have been some problem years.

Q: Is that something you’re going to follow more closely now?
A: Yeah, we’re going to keep following that.

Q: It sounds like your zoology degree comes in handy. You also studied art—does that figure into your work?
A: All the time. I make a lot of things with the kids—it’s a very engaging, creative use of their minds and spirits. I’ve also painted murals on the walls at our Puffin Visitor Center. One bathroom has an undersea scene with the whole predator-prey food web. Along a hallway I built a puffin burrow out of big fake rocks made from wood, fiberglass, resin, paint, and wood putty that kids can climb into.

Q: How do you get kids excited about puffins?
A: We do a lot of hands-on things, like the “blubber mitt experiment,” which simulates the fact that seabirds such as puffins have a thick layer of fat to insulate their body. One hand goes in a double layer of plastic bags with nothing in between, and the other hand goes into one with a layer of shortening to separate the bags. You then dip your hands into ice water and feel the difference. Some kids are so dramatic about it, you’d think they were freezing to death. But then, when you think about a puffin being out there in the ocean in the middle of the winter and staying out on the water for a couple of years, it really is quite a stunning thing. Puffins have a lot of other adaptations to help them survive, too, like a salt gland so they can drink salt water.

I have another activity that we do called, 'The Dangerous and Interesting Lives of Seabirds.' It’s a giant game played on the floor. We create an ocean habitat full of all the things that are found there these days, like pieces of plastic, fish and sharks, and oil spills, and then we have to toss these little fake puffins into the game and hope they avoid the dangers and get them out to sea and all the way back to their islands.

At the beginning of the game, I ask the kids to guess what they think will be the most dangerous thing facing the puffins, and they usually think sharks, but the sharks never really get any of them—well, once in a while they do—but it’s usually starvation which kills most of our game puffins—and that’s probably true in the natural world, too. And then during one round of the game, a big oil spill comes, and that has a pretty negative effect on the birds in terms of both them landing in the fake oil spill and losing their food supply to it. So the kids find all this out, and then I show them some of the real survival data, and they can compare that to their game and see how they did. Some classes have a survival that’s quite low. But then usually they focus, and they really want the birds to survive, so even though the situation might get tougher, they’re making a real effort, and the survival goes up a little bit. By the end, I want them to feel like they’ve made a good impact, so we have a town meeting, and we clean up that ocean and we make conditions as good as we can for these birds so that, hopefully, in the last round we get very good survival.

In the real world, when those puffins go out to sea, you usually don’t know why they don’t come back, and we can just suppose what the reasons are. In our game we can really see some of the things, and it’s surprising when we look at our data how from year to year the survival changes a lot.

Q: Puffin education seems to be going strong. How are the birds faring in the wild?
A: We have more breeding pairs than ever before [approaching 1,000].

Q: How many puffin colonies are there in Maine?
A: Four. They’re on Eastern Egg Rock, Matinicus Rock, Seal Island, and Petit Manan. There are more colonies of terns. We work on seven different islands altogether, and some of those are just tern islands.

Q: So Project Puffin helps to restore other seabird populations, too?
A: We work with the Arctic, the common, and the roseate terns. We’ve experimented with attracting common murres and gannets. Storm petrels nest on the same islands that we manage. There are some gulls nesting out there, but they tend to be threats. And then Stratton Island has a wading bird colony on it.

Q: What are these birds’ primary predators?
A: When they’re on the island, avian predators are their primary one. Large birds like great black-backed gulls, herring gulls, falcons, birds of prey like that. And any mammals that get out to the islands, like mink, which can swim a mile and a half. At night, on some of the closer-in islands, great horned owls will come out and kill birds either in the air or on their nests. Out at sea, they can get eaten by sharks and big fish.

Q: You were one of 11 to receive a Disney Conservation Hero Award in 2008 for your work as outreach educator for Project Puffin? How did it feel to win that award?
A: It was great, thrilling, surprising, and amazing!

Q: You’ve done so much for seabirds. Will you put the thousand-dollar Disney prize money toward your work?
A: It will no doubt be associated with puffins or seabirds. It may go to my “Earn a Seabird Smile” program, where people get a little smiling puffin button to congratulate them if they prove they’ve done something positive for the environment.

Q: How can individuals help protect seabirds?
A: They should do everything they can to maintain a clean and healthy ocean, which includes creating less waste and wasting less.

Q: Do you have any other activities you’d like to highlight?
A: There’s the annual Guillemot Appreciation Day. We always forget about the little black guillemot, a relative of the puffin. On a worldwide basis, it’s more rare than a puffin, but around here, they’re pretty abundant. But they’re like little black holes—people just don’t notice them. They’re all black except for these small white wing patches, and they have lovely red feet and red mouth lining. So we decided that since we never really do too much with the guillemots, that once a year we’d celebrate them on Guillemot Appreciation Day, June 27, with song and dance and poems—anything participants want. We have people wearing red shoes, shoelaces, and red socks. So, everyone should get their red shoes polished in time. We’ll have information on our website about it.

Q: Where will this take place in Maine?
A: We’ll have an event in Rockland. But you can celebrate wherever you are. We have this live camera out on Seal Island that streams through our Project Puffin website, and it feeds directly to our Rockland Center and you can manipulate the camera yourself if you’re there. So if you happen to be online, you can watch whatever the person in Rockland is watching. Last year the people out on Seal Island staged a little drama with someone in a guillemot costume. Hopefully, something like that will happen again.

Q: I read somewhere that you make good chowder. Is that true?
A: I won a trophy at a chowder contest.

Q: Surely one of your finest achievements.
A: Definitely.

Q: What kind of chowder is it?
A: Seafood chowder. Seabird Sue’s seafood stew.

Q: Do you sell it?
A: No, I just make it occasionally. Perhaps we’ll have it at Guillemot Appreciation Day, with little bits of pimento for the red.

Q: If you could deliver one message to kids everywhere, what would it be?
A: Connect with nature and care for the earth.

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