For me, I’m off the coast of Bremen, Maine, where temperatures reach a high of about 45 degrees. It might not be a tropical or exotic destination, but for me, its paradise.
Hog Island Audubon Camp, located on Muscongus Bay in Maine is one of those places with an unmistakable energy and aura. The deep historical roots in American Ornithology add to the allure. One of the first bird instructors on Hog Island was none other than Roger Tory Peterson. His field guide is probably in your birding bag. No big deal.
Hog Island is celebrating over 80 years of offering environmental education programs to bird nerds like me. According to their Facebook page, “since 1936, residential sessions at Hog Island have been led by some of the most respected naturalists and environmental educators in the nation, inspiring scores of scientists, school and university educators, and conservation leaders”.
Early last year, I had no idea that Hog Island Audubon Camp even existed, let alone that it would come to be one of my favorite places on Earth. I received an email from my birding club, Bergen County Audubon Society, about a scholarship opportunity to attend a “bird camp” in Maine. I did a little bit of research and found out that not only would I be able to spend a week birding in a state I’d never been to; I’d have a shot at seeing ATLANTIC PUFFINS. I was sold. I applied for the scholarship and was thrilled when it was awarded to me by Don Torino, Marie Longo, and the good people at BCAS. I am so grateful to them for providing me with such an unbelievable opportunity.
Those of you who know me, know that I am not a patient person. I did my best to wait from February until June, when I would finally arrive on the elusive Hog Island. Little did I know the magical place that I was about to discover.
After my flight from New Jersey to Portland, Maine, I was shuttled to a McDonald’s in Damariscotta. From there, I joined a few other bird nerds as we waited for a shuttle from Hog Island to pick us up. We ventured to our destination in newly minted vans. We arrived to the “mainland” and waited for a boat to taxi us over to Hog Island, visible from where we were standing. The captain of the boat, Captain Bill, brought us over with his crew and lovely dog Blizzard. Any place with boats and dogs has already won my heart, so I was pretty excited to say the least.
We found our rooms in the unheated “dorms” of Hog Island and settled in, waiting for the evening program to begin. We ate lobster appetizers, looked at pictures hanging on the walls of the buildings, played Hog Island Bingo, explored the Nature Store, and told a lot of nerdy bird stories. I learned that people traveled from Missouri, New Jersey, like me, Maine, Georgia, California, Michigan, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Canada to attend the “Joy of Birding” session at Hog Island.
Before the presentation, I had already seen Common Eiders (life bird #1) and Harbor Seals. We ate a delicious, local dinner, crafted by the amazing staff in the Hog Island kitchen. I was truly a happy camper (get it?).
Dr. Stephen Kress, Executive Director of the Seabird Restoration Program, gave us a brief history of the island and his work on Project Puffin. Among the roughly 1,000 things I learned from Dr. Kress’ talk, I learned that Hog Island was named after the livestock that had historically populated the island. There are also Sheep and Cow Islands in the area. Go figure.
On my luxurious dream vacation, I woke up the next morning at 5 a.m. so that I could be ready for our 5:45 a.m. early bird walk. Again, I couldn’t be happier. To each their own; this is my place, birds are a large part of my life and birders are my people.
I walked the trail into the Hog Island woods near our dorms with legendary Jersey birder Don Freiday and Jennie Duberstein, a badass birder with a passion for cultivating young birders through her camps. We heard Blackburian Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, a Winter Wren, and others on our early morning walk. We saw Northern Parulas, Yellow-Rumped Warblers (butter butts), and Double-crested Cormorants.
After an unbelievable breakfast, we went into one of our first breakout sessions of the week, Bird ID with Jennie. I enjoyed starting my day talking about field marks, tail patterns and rump patches. After Bird ID, we learned about Birding by Ear with Don and we “Met the Locals” with other Hog Island Instructors Wayne and Charles. They prepared us for the types of species we were likely to see on Hog Island: seals, eiders, cormorants, loons, guillemots, gulls, terns, herons, and eagles.
In the afternoon, I went on a “shakedown cruise” or a short boat trip around the island. It was incredible! We saw Harbor Seals, scoters, mergansers, eiders, guillemots, osprey, and we even saw a few lobster pots that the staff at Hog Island (Megan) pulled up for us. All the lobsters were too small to take out of the pots, given the limits by the state. We also learned that a lot of lobsters are moving North, looking for specific temperature ranges in the water. Climate change has and will surely continue to affect these creatures.
After the cruise, we had a few workshops scheduled which I skipped out on to explore the Island. I got lost on the West Trail and enjoyed the smell of eel grass and feel of the trees (Red, White and Black Spruces, Black Cherry, Yellow, White and Gray Birches; Striped and Red Maples, Red and Mountain Oaks) enveloping me until I eventually found my way back in time for dinner and the evening program. With a fire burning in the Fish House, we talked about the “joy of birding” as a tagline for our lives. We discussed “the science of observing and the art of seeing”. It was a mutual admiration society for all involved.
This morning during our early morning walk (again 5:45 a.m.), we were treated to a mist-netting demonstration by one of the instructors, Chris Lewey. Biologists often set up mist-net locations to learn more about bird habitat, distribution and migration patterns. The birds fly into the mist net and are removed (unharmed) by scientists, who then take various measurements of the birds’ key characteristics before letting them go in a timely fashion. That morning, we were able to see Purple Finch, Eastern Phoebe, and a Yellow-Rumped Warbler up close and personal. We also learned how funny Chris is.
During our first session of the day, we learned about the Music of Birds with John Pumilio. This was my favorite session of the program. We analyzed sonograms and learned about the anatomy of birds and why some species are built to perform better than others. Despite the fact that women in America believe that birds sing because they are happy, and men in America believe that birds sing because they are annoying, birds actually sing because they are either looking for a mate or they are marking their territory. When you hear a bird call, it is because they are looking for food, making contact with their flock, sense a threat and want to ring the alarm, are in flight, or are begging.
Did you know that birds, like people, have different dialects? For example, an Indigo Bunting from Pennsylvania does not sound the same as an Indigo Bunting from New York. This is because some birds don’t sing their parents’ songs, they sing their neighbors’ songs. Mind. Blown.
Next, we learned “Unfamiliar Facts about a Few Familiar Faces” with Wayne Petersen. Wayne is an extremely knowledgeable birder who works for the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Key takeaway: birds spend about a third of their 24-hour day sleeping. Some birds even “sleep on the wing”, like Sooty Terns, as they are flying.
Charles Duncan then informed us about Bird Feathers. This session was a bit scientific and hard for me to grasp at times, but Charles is awesome, warm, and friendly and made the material easier to understand. Did you know that feather structure has not evolved past 150 million years ago? Seems that those OG birds (dinosaurs) got it right a long time ago. Also, in case bird ID is not confusing enough for you, birds molt their feathers at least two times a year and appear different after each molt. Charles described it as “changing clothes while we are watching them”. Also, all songbirds have the same number and arrangement of feathers, showing that small distinctions can make big differences in the birding world.
After an amazing squash soup and quinoa salad for lunch, we learned more about Coastal Ecology from Chris. Cool fact: Alan’s Rule: in colder environments, birds appendages become smaller and closer to their bodies.
I had the immense privilege of playing Pete Dunne‘s “Hawks in Flight” game before dinner. That man is a genius and his knowledge, combined with his passion for birding, is unparalleled. It was thrilling to be in the company of a birding legend. I unapologetically fan-girled very hard and had Mr. Dunne sign one of his bird books for me.
During the early morning bird walk, we saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk nest and Don had a conversation with a Black-throated Green Warbler.
Today was the day that we ventured out to dry land, the mainland around Bremen. We first walked in the footsteps of Roger Tory Peterson (!!) around Muskrat Pond. Then, we went to one of Damariscotta River Association’s properties and saw a ton of Bobolinks (life bird!). After that we made a trip to the Damariscotta Mills Fish Ladder, ate some ice cream at Round Top, and visited the mudflats of Bremen.
When we arrived back on Hog Island, we learned more about building communities around conservation in New Mexico from Jennie.
One of the staffers on the Island, Eric, is an astronomer and he brought out a telescope to show us Spika, the Big Dipper, Taurus, and three of Jupiter’s moons at night before bed. I told you this place was paradise.
During our last full day on Hog Island, I got the Full Maine Experience. We traveled to Eastern Egg Rock by boat. Atlantic Puffins flew all around our boat and the Rock. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. With their bright bills and torpedo-like bodies, they seemed to glide through the air and through the water. They were joined by a Razorbill and many terns, including Roseate Terns (life bird!).
On the way back to Hog Island, we saw a few Bald Eagles on Franklin Island and stopped on Harbor Island for lunch. We saw an Olive-sided Flycatcher (life bird!), American Redstart, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk with its prey. Other life birds from the island included: Swanison’s Thrush and an Eastern Wood Pewee.
For dinner on our last night, we enjoyed a feast! We had seafood chowder and lobster. I learned from a fellow camper named Jeff to eat the lobster legs first, then its tail and then the claws. For dessert, we had Cream Puff-ins. After dessert, Juanita Roushdy, President of Friends of Hog Island, helped me to continue to buy everything in the Nature Store. Juanita gave a heartfelt speech about the impact that Hog Island has made on her life. She is kind and genuine and her speech will be remembered by all of us that were on the island that week.
Short and sweet, we all boarded our planes, trains, and automobiles home after our last breakfast together. Captain Bill and his dog Blizzard took us back to the mainland. I flew with a few of my favorite fellow campers. We enjoyed beers from Shipyard Brewing Co. in the airport before boarding our flights and heading home with all of our knowledge and ever-growing appreciation for birds.
Hands-on Bird Science in June 2018
After the experience that I had during the “Joy of Birding” session at Hog Island in June of 2017, I couldn’t wait to sign up for this year. I intend to return to Hog Island every year for the rest of my life, if I can! Hog Island is a place to “find your tribe”, fuel the fire within your soul for learning more about nature and the world around you, and for seeing some awesome life birds. I highly recommend the experience to anyone at any birding level, both in skill and interest. The experience is life-changing and eye-opening, but somehow feels like home.
To learn more about Hog Island Audubon Camp, and to sign up for a session this year, visit their website.