PORTLAND: Two high-definition cameras began streaming live video Wednesday of clown-like Atlantic puffins waddling, preening and nesting on a remote Maine island.
The National Audubon Society and explore.org teamed up to stream video from Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge to anyone with an Internet connection. Located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) offshore, the island has the largest puffin colony in the U.S.
Scientists count 3 million to 4 million pairs of Atlantic puffins worldwide, with roughly 60 percent of them breeding in Iceland.
The video marks the first time 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 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 underground, inside a burrow showing a puffin in her nesting site. It is so close to the bird you can look into its eye.
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, its diminutive stature and the comical way it waddles.
The birds live across a vast expanse of the North Atlantic from Maine to northern Russia, but 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 puffin 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.
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 also includes a third camera on Seal Island that is aimed at common terns, and a fourth camera on another 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, California, and a division of the Annenberg Foundation.