Nightly News   |  August 04, 2013

Sea bird’s struggle may be nature’s warning

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.

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>>> we're back with a wake-up call on the environment, the lessons we might learn from what's going on with a small bird in maine , brought back from the brink but now facing a new challenge. the story from nbc's chief environmental affairs correspondent anne thompson .

>> reporter: this is seth, a 4-day-old puffin chick about half the weight of a stick of butter.

>> he's cute, isn't he?

>> adorable. you are just adorable. yes, you are.

>> he is the hope of the future of sea birds .

>> reporter: puffins have bright orange beaks and black and white bodies. they are deceptively fast, flying at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour. hunted a century ago for food and feathers, they disappeared from seal island , a pile of granite slabs off of coast of maine , now a national wildlife refuge . there are 500 pairs of puffins here today, thanks to 40 years of work by dr. steve press of the national autobahn society and the u.s. fish and wildlife service .

>> we don't to sit on the sidelines and watch species go extinct.

>> reporter: but kres says these diving birds face a new threat. today's threat comes from the sea, warming water temperatures are changing the ocean, and that in turn is changing the puffins' diet. puffins eat cold water fish. harder to find last summer when the water here was five degrees warmer than normal. scientist jeffrey rung says it's part of a decade-long warming trend happening ten times faster than in the last century.

>> this may have well had an effect on where herring feed and consequently if herring aren't where the puffins need to be, the puffins will go search other food.

>> reporter: what they found last summer the chicks couldn't swallow so many starved to death. this year, kres says there are 20% fewer puffins in burrows and are nesting two weeks laifrpt, all signs of stress for the birds and perhaps us.

>> there's many industries, including lobsters, who use herring for bait to catch lobsters. and if the food is too far away for the puchs, it will be too far away for people as well will.

>> reporter: a warning from nature, some believe, in a colorful and charismatic package. anne thompson , nbc news, on seal island , maine .