Birding Rx

A bird a day keeps the doctor away.

Kickboxing. Meditation. Crocheting. Baking. Everyone has their own way of relieving stress. Some tactics may be healthier than others, but we all look to cope when life’s challenges arise.

For me, birding has always allowed me to feel whole again and forget any of my troubles in the midst of trying to identify a tough fall warbler, shorebird or sparrow (those darn LBJs!). I’ve had the good fortune of traveling specifically to bird certain areas in the US. My friends and I went to Naples, Florida a few years ago and were thrilled to see Reddish Egrets, Little Blue Herons, White Ibises, Loggerhead Shrikes, Burrowing Owls, Sandhill Cranes, and Wood Storks (to name a few). We visited Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and got a glimpse of extraordinary Painted Buntings on feeders outside the visitor center.

Our trip to Naples was one of my favorite birding adventures. I also love birding in the Garden State, my home state. I’ve had a blast at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Cape May Lighthouse State Park/Meadows, Franklin Parker Preserve in the Pinelands, the Meadowlands, Sandy Hook, Hartshorne Woods, and so many more. Every time, the rush of seeing the first bird of the day calms my mind. My head is clear except for thoughts of field marks and range maps. Fewer vices, and believe me I’ve tried, have been more effective at calming my anxiety.

As much as I love Jersey birding and the community that surrounds all of us who know that “Dirty Jerz” isn’t so dirty…the ultimate getaway for me is Hog Island Audubon Camp in Bremen, Maine. My first trip to the Island was in the summer of 2017. One trip was all it took for me to fall in love. My goal is to return to Hog Island every summer for the rest of my life. The place is unbelievable and steeped in birding history.

Back in 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was ratified. Five years later, National Audubon Society opened its first wildlife sanctuaries in Louisiana and Long Island (Corkscrew would come later, in the early 1950’s). In 1934, Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide was published, which led to an explosion in birding. Two years later, Audubon opened its nature camp on Hog Island, Maine. For over 80 years, Hog Island has been at the center of the birding world. And in 1973, when the Endangered Species Act was passed, Dr. Stephen Kress founded Project Puffin off the coast of Maine near Hog Island, solidifying the area as a place of cutting-edge research for bird conservation and protection.

In keeping a promise to myself (also important for my own well-being), I returned to Hog Island for my second session this past summer. Last year, I attended the Joy of Birding session and this year I decided to take it up a notch and go for Hands-on Bird Science. While Joy of Birding was a beautiful and engaging week of birding basics, Hands-on Bird Science was more focused on bird banding, audio recordings and advanced ways to study birds. I couldn’t have been more excited.

Hands-on Bird Science was my present to myself after finishing graduate school. Talk about motivation! Throughout my last semester, I kept my sights on Hog Island, assignment after assignment. It helped me immensely to have a tangible trip to look forward to and made the work a little bit easier. After that last paper (about birds, of course) was submitted, the countdown to Hog Island was on. With graduation and the stress of working full-time and going to school full-time behind me, I packed up my car and headed north.

Day 1 – Sunday, June 10, 2018

After a pit stop to see my best friend in Boston, I arrived in Bremen, Maine on a beautiful, sunny June day. I’d been working on birding by ear and was greeted by Eastern Phoebes and Common Yellowthroats calling as I walked down the path to the boat.

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You can see Hog Island on the right. The gray building, Queen Mary, is where I stayed for my last two trips.

On my first trip to Hog Island, the weather had been of the “typical Maine” variety, rainy and cold. This year, however, was absolutely gorgeous. I wore a light sweatshirt and enjoyed reconnecting with the island on a clear day. I was thrilled to learn that Hands-on Bird Science coincided with one of the teen camps, so there were young, high-school-aged birders exploring the island too! These young birders were infinitely more skilled than me and I learned so much from them all week. Jennifer was the artist in residence that week and she blew us all away with her stunning bird watercolors. I was having a great time and it was only the first few hours!

We played the traditional Hog Island bingo and I met Patrick. Patrick is going to school at the University of Delaware (my alma mater), is from New Jersey and birds with Bergen County Audubon Society, like me. How funny to have finally met all the way up in Maine! He had plans to wake up at 4:45 am for the sunrise the next morning. I liked his style and decided to join him.

I also did a bit of exploring around the Island and I was happy to be greeted by the hermit crabs at low tide near Porthole Cove, like last year.

I met my roommate for the week KC, another young birder, and our trio was born. We had spaghetti and broccoli for dinner, and enjoyed some wine. In the evening, Dr. Stephen Kress spoke on Project Puffin. He told us that it takes up to 2,500 fish to raise one Atlantic Puffin chick. Due to climate change and warming waters, puffins were increasingly eating “junk food”. Butterfish, a species that enjoys warmer waters, is now plentiful near Eastern Egg Rock but doesn’t have as much nutritional value for the chicks and is hard for them to swallow. Dr. Kress talked about the “people who care enough” and the movement to conserve the Atlantic Puffin in the face of a warming climate and changing diets for birds around the world.

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Day 1 Sunset

Day 2 – Monday, June 11, 2018

Our trio did indeed wake up at 4:45 am and was it ever worth it.

We went for an early bird walk at 6 am, had breakfast, and were introduced to the topics we would cover throughout the week.

Community Science

Brooke Bateman, Director of Climate Watch in the Science Division at the National Audubon Society and one of our instructors for the week, told us all about a new community science program called Climate Watch. The project involves monitoring bluebird and nuthatch populations throughout the year. Bluebirds and nuthatches were chosen because these species are expected to shift their range in response to climate change, they are easy to identify, and Audubon’s current population models for the species are fairly accurate. Sightings from participants will help to “ground truth” the accuracy of Audubon’s predictions for how the birds’ ranges will change in a warming world. Brooke explained that there are “climate winners” and “climate losers” based on Audubon’s research. Birds like Northern Cardinals are considered winners, while the Rusty Blackbird and Red Knot will not fare as well.

Bird Banding

Sandy Lockerman — a licensed bird bander who studies Northern Saw-whet Owls and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and fellow crazy cat lady — along with her husband Gary and bird bander Anthony Hill showed us the basics of a bird banding station. We were able to band both male and female Purple Finches, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and a few American Goldfinches.

During the process, birds are outfitted with a little, silver band. Each band has an identification number. In the event that the bird is resighted or recaptured, the observer can report the band numbers to biologists. These resightings help biologists learn more about the behavior, site fidelity, habitat preferences, and breeding tendencies of birds.

Through decades of perfecting the art, banding does not endanger birds. The birds are removed safely from mist nets by a trained biologist. The experts then weigh the birds, take other measurements and blood samples, and band the birds. All data collected is used to better understand birds, the threats that they face, and how we can work together to protect them. Banding is one of my favorite aspects of birding and to say that I was overjoyed by the demonstration is an understatement.

Museum Skin Preparation

Next, Courtney Brennan, Collections Manager for the Ornithology Department at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, showed us how to skin a bird to prepare it for a museum collection. I was fascinated! What a treat to have Courtney on Hog Island to catch a glimpse into a world that I hadn’t known existed. Courtney is properly trained and has all of the permits that are required to complete her work for the museum and demonstrate her skills to others for educational purposes. She explained that the vast majority of the specimens that the museum received were birds that had died naturally and were found by concerned citizens with proper permits. Many of the birds also unfortunately had passed due to window strikes on Cleveland’s buildings.

We learned from Courtney that there is an art to skinning a bird and that the collections in museums serve to answer BIG questions: will this bird exist in 200 years? Has it existed for the last 200 years? Is it adapting to climate change?

In the past, preparators used arsenic to help preserve species, but now corn cub dust is used in the skinning process. Courtney doesn’t use gloves so she can feel the bird while she removes fat to preserve it for years to come. After a series of very specific steps, the bird is inverted and stuffed. Specimen prep is different from taxidermy because the birds are meant to be preserved for science and do not need cosmetic touches like glass eyes, etc.

So much information is collected through this process. We learned what the bird was digesting at the time of it’s death. This type of data can help scientists to determine changes in diet ecology of species over time. Genetics/DNA data can be gleaned this way too…beak/leg measurements, body/wing size, the list goes on! We were all completely engrossed in Courtney’s demonstration and couldn’t wait to learn more.

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Courtney preparing a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, her favorite bird.

Audio Recording

Angelika Nelson, who at the time was the curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics in the Museum of Biological Diversity at The Ohio State University, encouraged us to listen deeply to the sounds of the birds around us. We learned that birds babble not unlike human babies when they are first learning to speak. Some birds, like ravens, use social feedback to learn songs. Many birds use templates, have species-specific cues, or hormone/physical-related cues that trigger their ability to begin learning songs. Birds can also adapt to traffic noise and will shift the frequency of their calls to be heard above the chaos, which I think is absolutely incredible.

After our demonstrations, we went on a little boat cruise around the island and saw crabs, loons, scoters and seals!

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Patrick holding a Rock Crab.

Finally, we took a tour of Mad River Decoys and, during the evening program, we heard about the decoys and Murmaid Sound Systems from “Seabird Sue” Schubel, the Outreach Educator for Project Puffin. We learned more about social attraction and how the decoys built on Hog Island have been used in conservation projects that span 47 seabird species at 100 different locations across 14 countries.

Day 3 – Tuesday, June 12, 2018

I missed a bit of the 5 am audio recording activity on Tuesday morning, but caught up with Patrick and together we recorded the call of a Chipping Sparrow on the center trail of the island. We had a delicious breakfast and Captain Bill and his puppy Chili took us over to the mainland for some land birding. We started our day doing our own Climate Watch study along the trails of the Todd Wildlife Sanctuary. Though we heard a Red-breasted Nuthatch, it called before the official start of our five-minute survey, so we weren’t able to count it. It was great to be among the Tiger Swallowtails and Pink Lady Slippers as we listened for more birds.

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Pink Lady Slipper

We continued our point counts along the road after we finished Climate Watch and left the Sanctuary. We were heading towards Juanita’s property for some more bird banding! It was fun to listen for Ovenbirds and more Red-breasted Nuthatches as we walked. Juanita is a full-time volunteer at Hog Island and President of Friends of Hog Island.

Once we got to where we were going, we saw a Broad-winged Hawk soaring overhead. I took it as a good sign for what was to come. Well, we were able to band Hairy Woodpeckers (mother and chick), American Goldfinches, Song Sparrows, a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird and a Red-winged Blackbird!  I was able to hold the Hairy Woodpecker momma and help Sandy as we banded her.

I’ve held birds before, but to hold a woodpecker was so special. She had such beautiful eyes and a long tongue. Her long beak didn’t peck at my fingers too much, which was a pleasant surprise. Holding such a beautiful creature is a humbling and world-stopping moment. I was nervous and focused all of my energy on making sure that she was as safe and as comfortable as possible while we learned more about her and her chick. What an unforgettable memory underneath the trees and among friends, human and bird alike.

After a cozy grilled cheese and tomato soup lunch, we set out to attempt our own museum skin preparations with Courtney. KC, Patrick, and I were excited to give it a go. Courtney had a number of specimens to choose from; many were collected along the sides of roads after snowstorms that winter. It was interesting to get such a close look at the birds, who had no molt and no fat since they were found in March. We were able to choose between Northern Flicker, House Wren, Grackle, Ovenbird, Horned Lark, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Eastern Meadowlark, and others. It was a little heartbreaking to see so many birds affected by the rough winter, but I decided to focus on the positive: the birds would be used for further study to help populations moving forward.

We tried our best to follow along with Courtney as we cut bones, skull, and muscle, flipped the bird inside out and prepared the wing of each of our birds for educational use on Hog Island! I learned so much about how to sex and age a bird through this process and also learned what a lot of the birds were eating by looking into their stomachs. The Sharp-shinned Hawk even had songbird feet inside it’s stomach!

After museum prepping, I ventured out to Porthole Cove again to feel the hermit crabs crawl all over my toes at low tide. The tide varies from ten feet above sea level to less than one foot out on Hog Island! The boat ramp will go from a steep, 45 degree angle to flat in just a few hours.

At dinner that night, we listened to KC tell chicken jokes and laughed and laughed. We enjoyed tacos and lemon pie and tallied up the species we’d seen around the Island: 70 so far! Next, Eric — Facilities Manager and Instructor on Hog Island — told us a little bit about the 96 solar panels used to power the Island.

Our evening program featured Iain Stenhouse, Director of the Marine Bird Program for the BioDiversity Research Institute, based in Gorham, Maine. Iain shed light on how far we’ve come in ornithology. Before humans understood migration, we thought that the birds all went underwater during some parts of the year. Iain showed us old drawings of humans “fishing for birds”. Some species were even named according to the myth, like the Barnacle Goose. Who knew?! Then, we thought that birds transformed or trans-mutated. Or was it hibernation/torpor? Or plumage dyes?

Nowadays, we have a lot more information about bird migration, but continue to refine tracking techniques and look for glimpses into the unbelievable world of migrating birds. Iain told us about at-sea surveys, satellite tracking and geo-locators. We were all entranced by his experience tracking Arctic Terns from their breeding grounds in Northeast Greenland to their wintering areas in Antarctica and back again – the longest animal migration ever recorded! Iain and his colleagues have seen average annual round-trip lengths of about 44,100 miles (!!) for these terns. It is absolutely mind-boggling what birds do to survive.

Day 4 – Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Today was the day! Time to see Atlantic Puffins and maybe a Razorbill or two! During each Hog Island session, campers have the opportunity to travel out to Eastern Egg Rock to get amazing looks at a puffin colony located in outer Muscongus Bay.

We had bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches for breakfast and packed up for the trip. Captain Bill and his crew took us out on the water in the morning. We saw a lot of birds and wildlife on the way to Eastern Egg Rock, including an immature Bald Eagle and Harbor Porpoises! The Harbor Porpoises were life porpoises for me.

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Immature Bald Eagle

We had great looks at the puffins, terns and even a Razorbill once we arrived at Eastern Egg Rock! Captain Bill was very excited about the Razorbill and kept shouting about it, even when the bird coming around near the boat was an Atlantic Puffin. His excitement was contagious and we all had a great time watching the flurry of activity on the island.

After Eastern Egg Rock, we headed out to Burnt Island, land owned by a commercial lobster fisherman who supports National Audubon Society’s work. We were greeted by a dog that looked like Lassie on the docks, which made everyone’s day even brighter. Burnt Island was beautiful. I saw two life birds: Magnolia Warbler (my nemesis bird too!) and Red Crossbills.

We set up a banding station and Patrick and I also went on a hike around the Island. We saw a Brown Creeper and Hermit Thrush, among other birds, on our walk. We had excellent birds during our Burnt Island banding: White-throated Sparrows, Swaison’s Thrush, Common Yellowthroat, Black-throated Green Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and American Redstart.

We returned to Hog Island triumphant and learned more about National Audubon Society’s community science programs from Zach Slavin — Audubon’s Community Science Program Manager  — during the evening program. He spoke of the Great Backyard Bird Count, Christmas Bird Count, and Climate Watch. I’m proud to have participated in all three, especially the Christmas Bird Count, since it is the longest running wildlife community science program in the world. Community science programs help biologists to understand long-term trends, year-to-year changes, migration patterns, and breeding bird behaviors like never before.

That night, back in our “bunk”, one of the other campers, Debbie, interviewed me. She is the Senior Producer at Talkin’ Birds Radio Show and also Editor/Writer at Euphony Editing and Audio. Debbie was warm and made telling some of my favorite birding stories easy. She is one of those women that you can tell is a mom right away.

Day 5 – Thursday, June 14, 2018

On Thursday morning, I got a few great digiscoped photos of Rachel, of Rachel and Steve, the Island’s local celebrities. Hog Island’s nest cam overlooks the pair of Ospreys now in their sixth year of nesting at Hog. The nest and cam are right outside the building where we enjoy our meals. Here is Rachel looking pretty that morning before breakfast!

After breakfast, we headed out to the mainland again and had great looks of Bobolinks, Alder Flycatchers, swallows, and Eastern Phoebes at Bass Falls Preserve. We heard Bay-breasted Warblers and Red-eyed Vireos at the Hidden Valley Nature Center in Jefferson, Maine. We watched a chickadee carry caterpillars to it’s young in a tree stump. We traveled to a beautiful bog full of pitcher plants, Scarlet Tanagers, Veeries, and Eastern Kingbirds. It was magical!

Later in the afternoon, we returned to Juanita’s property for some more bird banding. I learned more about the materials and training that you need to begin banding at your own station from Sandy. She encouraged me to make a new life list, a birds in hand list, which I proudly started. We had typical Maine weather roll in so we only banded a few birds before it was a bit too rainy. That afternoon, we had a Downy Woodpecker, more American Goldfinches, a Brown-headed Cowbird, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker!

Our last night on Hog Island we celebrated with a Lobstah Feast! KC, Patrick, and I sat the rowdy table and had ourselves quite the time. We enjoyed seafood chowder, lobster, potatoes, corn and, of course, the Hog Island tradition: cream puff-ins.

After dinner, we listened to two of the teen sisters sing a beautiful version of a Tracy Chapman song. We played more bird games and awards were handed out. A few campers asked if KC and I were sisters, which we laughed about. KC said that without me, she would feel like a “bird out of air” (instead of a fish out of water) at camp. We continued to laugh at her terrible but endearing joke.

Day 6 – Friday, June 15, 2018

On our final morning, everyone was busy packing up and grabbing breakfast before the boat came to take us all home. I stayed behind until the last boat to spend a bit more time talking about bird banding with my new friends. After getting a little lost, I made my way home to Jersey in time to celebrate my Dad’s birthday with my family.

Field Ornithology 2019

My next Hog Island adventure will be the Field Ornithology session in June 2019. I can’t wait! I’m grateful to have a hobby that soothes my often wild mind. Birding makes the world bigger and smaller at the same time. The wonders of birds will never cease to amaze me. The more I learn, the larger the world gets. At the same time, the more birders you meet, the more you realize that everyone kind of knows each other and your inner circle gets a little tighter. What a small world to have met Patrick in Maine instead of New Jersey!

I’m looking forward to my next trip to Hog Island and to all the small trips before that. All birds — from spotting Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons in the Hackensack River on my commute to work — to listening for Northern Cardinals in the parking lot of my apartment complex — to spotting a rarity during Christmas Bird Count — give me hope. Just one sighting energizes me, changes my mood and helps me to take on the day. If you are having a bad day, I encourage you to look to the sky or in the trees for the thing with feathers too.

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