Field Ornithology on the “Island in the Sun”

“Every bird has been a revelation.”

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View from the Bird Banding station

Signing up for summer camp eight months in advance, giddy with excitement, is not something I ever thought I’d be doing in my adult life. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVED summer camp as a kid from sleep-away sports camp to the half day rec camp that my hometown organized I was ready for it all. However, at 28 years old, the camp I’ve come to know and love in my days as a “20-something Environmentalist” is my favorite of all. Hog Island Audubon Camp is a bird nerd’s dream, first introduced to me by my local birding chapter Bergen County Audubon Society.

During the summers of 2017 and 2018, I spent a week off the coast of Maine surrounded by birds and the people who love them at Hog Island Audubon Camp and I couldn’t wait to return this year!

Day 1

For my third summer on Hog Island, I decided to try the Field Ornithology week, after already experiencing Hands-on Bird Science and the Joy of Birding. “Field O” is led by none other than author and naturalist Scott Weidensaul. You may have read one of his books Living on The Wind, The Ghost with Trembling Wings, or Of a Feather. Scott is a contributing editor for Audubon magazine, a columnist for Bird Watcher’s Digest, and a tried and true bird nerd. He has directed a study on Northern Saw-whet Owl migration for over 20 years, is a co-founder of Project SNOWstorm (which studies Snowy Owls), directs Project Owlnet (a collaboration of more than 125 owl-banding stations) and the Critical Connections project (which studies the migration of birds from Alaska’s national parks). Scott also is one of only 200 licensed hummingbird banders in North America. I was lucky enough to participate in his Northern Saw-whet Owl migration study when I volunteered for the day with another Hog Island instructor, Sandy Lockerman, last fall.

To meet Scott in person is to not only be amazed by his endless enthusiasm and bird knowledge, but it is to be reminded of the truly good people that still walk the Earth. He is an absolute delight.

I arrived after a long but pleasant solo road trip in the rain. It was nice to see one of last year’s instructors Heather stop by on my way out to the Island. As always, Captain Bill and Megan took us from the mainland over to Hog Island on the Snow Goose. I was so happy to see Eva (Program Manager for Audubon Camp) and Juanita (President of the Friends of Hog Island) again! Juanita made a joke about all of my luggage and we hugged as old friends do.

Unfortunately, my car alarm was broken at the time and Eric (Facilities Manager for Audubon Camp) helped me back over to the mainland to handle that before I settled into camp for the week. I enjoyed my tradition of heading over to Porthole Cove to feel the hermit crabs crawl over my toes. The other campers, including the teens for their session, were arriving and camp was full of activity. One of the instructors from last year Anthony Hill and I greeted each other warmly. It was so great to see him again.

Anthony is the oldest and longest-serving Project Puffin volunteer and has spent time on Eastern Egg Rock, Stratton Island, Matinicus Rock and Seal Island. He holds a master bander permit (including hummingbirds) and is certified as a trainer for passerines and hummingbirds by the North American Banding Council (NABC), for which he also serves as chair of the certification committee. His research is focused on wintering hummingbirds in New England, migrating Northern Saw-whet Owls and breeding American Kestrels in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts.

I recognized one of the other instructors as Andy McGann who I had also met the night I helped Sandy band Northern Saw-whet Owls. What a small, but lovely world our birding community is.

Andy started birding at age ten and went onto field jobs and point count survey work after studying Biology at Villanova University. He was also involved with studying Northern Saw-whet Owls through the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art. After graduate school, Andy studied birds in the field in Vermont, Idaho, and Pennsylvania. He now works for Cellular Tracking Technologies (CTT), a small tech company that pioneered web-connected GPS devices for wildlife telemetry. CTT devices are worn by Whooping Cranes, California Condors, Lesser Prairie-Chickens, Snowy Owls, and many other species.

This year for the first time I stayed in the Porthole Cabin as opposed to the Queen Mary. I liked being closer to the Cove and trails that head into the forests of the Island.

All the campers shook hands and got to know each other as we watched Song Sparrows, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, American Goldfinches, Purple Finches, and Northern Parulas flint among the trees and feeders. We even watched a Bald Eagle and the two resident ospreys Rachel and Steve fight in mid-air! For dinner, we enjoyed lasagna, green beans, salad and garlic knots, along with some delicious chocolate cupcakes. I met my roommate for the week, Michelle, a park ranger from Maryland. We quickly settled in and got ready for the week ahead.

For our evening program, we learned about Project Puffin from Dr. Stephen Kress, the Director of the Seabird Restoration Program and Vice President for Bird Conservation of the National Audubon Society. I’ve heard Dr. Kress speak three times now and I’ve also read his book, but the story of how he brought Atlantic Puffins back to the coast of Maine never gets old.

As we went around in a circle sharing how many times we’ve been to Hog Island, Dr. Kress shared that it was his 50th summer! To be so lucky! We learned that, “everybody is an educator, everyone can learn from you.” We heard the legacy of Roger Tory Peterson, Alan Croshank (who stood on his head on top of the roof of the boat to signal a rare bird sighting in pre-eBird days), Rachel Carson, and other “bird heroes.”

After Dr. Kress’ talk, I went to sleep early to wake up with the sun the next morning.

Day 2

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Sunrise on June 17

After soaking in the sunrise, I joined instructor Andy McGann for a birding-by-ear walk at 5:45 am. We learned from Andy that bird call/song pitch will vary depending on whether birds are competing with fast moving streams, wind or city noise. Birds will also become lazier with their songs after finding a mate (who can relate?). We talked about warbler resource partitioning, differences in dawn chorus songs, and how in the Eastern U.S. you will hear birds before you see them, but in the Western U.S. you will see birds before you hear them. We saw/heard Red-breasted Nuthatch, American Goldfinches, Purple Finches, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Northern Parulas, Opsrey, and an American Crow.

After breakfast we headed onto the boat with Captain Bill and Megan for some inshore bay birding. We saw Harbor Seals, Common Loons, Bald Eagles, Double-crested Cormorants, Common Eiders, Black Guillemots, and Merlins.

Next, we began our Intro to Ornithology 101 Part I workshop with Dr. Sara Morris.

Sara is a professor and Director of the Environmental Science Program at Canisius College. She teaches classes in ornithology, vertebrate zoology, ecology, and evolution. Her research focuses on bird migration. Sara is also a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU), the Secretary of the AOU, a council member of the Wilson Ornithological Society, and a research associate at the Buffalo Museum of Science. She is one of those people who seems to be extremely busy, but does everything so well and puts time and thought into each task. Sara was an inspiration to me as a young female birder throughout the week. She has an uncanny ability to take tough biological concepts and break them down for everyone to understand. Sara brightened each room/trail that she walked into all week.

She held class outside the Fish House. It was a beautiful morning to learn more about how birds survive and reproduce. We looked at bird skeletons, examined the differences between human and bird bone structure, and talked bird respiration. I had no idea that birds exhale into their lungs due to completing two breath cycles! Here’s my sweet diagram to throw it back to high school biology.

Bird Respiration

We also discussed feathers. Did you know that pointed wings are better for long-distance flight but rounded wings give birds more maneuverability? Sara explained that we are seeing evolution in our human lifetime through birds adapting to cars. Cliff Swallows, for example, seem to be utilizing rounder wings for greater maneuverability and are flying higher to avoid cars.

Sara articulated the difference between pennaceous (structured, has rachis) and plumulaceous (less structured, no rachis, fuzzy, down) feathers to us. We even cupped down feathers in our hands to feel their weightlessness.

We discussed the cryptic ways of feather molt, which has been eluding birders for centuries. I had no idea that it takes a Great Horned Owl four to five years to molt all its flight feathers. It is too dangerous to grow too many feathers at one time, at the risk of becoming flightless. However, ducks like Common Eiders can be flightless for periods of time and therefore can molt their feathers together. We talked about seabird salt glands and fluorescing feathers.

It was fascinating but also made my head spin a little bit! Birds are the coolest.

After a delicious lunch of fried rice and edamame, Scott, Sara, and Anthony Hill set up a bird banding station off one of the trails on the Island. We took a look at Song Sparrows, Black-throated Green Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers up-close. It was interesting to talk about the difference between physiological stress and psychological stress for birds. Many people worry about bird stress during the banding process, but that is because we tend to anthropomorphize them. Banders are constantly checking for signs of  physiological stress like puffed feathers, closed eyes, and panting, to ensure bird safety during banding.

Over taco dinner, Anthony and another camper Barbara discussed their service to our country during Vietnam. It was truly special to listen to a woman who served in the Air Force in that day and age.

After dinner, Sara led our evening program: Taking the Sexism out of Birding. We had so much fun using field marks like wing bars, breast streaking, and facial/eye features to try to identify female birds. Her program has been my favorite so far in all my summers on Hog Island. We did our best to ID female Magnolia, Black and White, Black-throated Blue, Blackburnian, Yellow, and Chestnut-sided Warblers, and Common Yellowthroats. I also learned that there’s such a thing as “sneaker males” or first-winter male birds that molt to look like females so that other males don’t chase them out of their territory. Again, birds are so cool.

Before bed, we were treated to the full moon in June or the Strawberry Moon over Porthole Cove…just when I thought the day couldn’t get any better.

Day 3

We woke up on Tuesday to a breakfast of pancakes and sausage. Yum! We headed onto the boat with Captain Bill so that we could hit the mainland for some birding in different habitats. I jumped in a van with Andy and Catherine Hamilton, another instructor. Like Andy, Catherine started birding at a young age, but she also started drawing birds too. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design and a Master of Fine Arts from Bennington College. She has taught for years and also followed birds around the world making drawings and paintings working out of wildlife refuges, urban environments, research stations, and museum collections. Her art can be found in private, corporate, and small museum collections in the U.S. and abroad. She believes in gaining insight and greater understanding of the world through field sketching and observation. Catherine also has really cool hair.

I was so happy with the van that I chose because Catherine immediately started to quiz us on warbler song ID on our trip to Hidden Valley Nature Center. I learned so much from her and Andy, who chimed in as he drove, on the way.

Once we arrived, Andy used a laser pointer to help us to spot the birds he was spotting. One of the things I appreciate most about Andy is his care and attention for the birds. We listened as he said “see my dot” and pointed the laser always at least one foot below the bird, so as to not disturb it. We quickly moved on when we saw a bird had food or was traveling back to it’s nest. We used very little audio playback, because as Andy says, “the dose makes the poison.” I’ve been on a number of bird walks, all at varying ethical standards, and Andy’s received a gold star.

I learned that there are Snowshoe Hares in Maine and that they like bog habitat. One did big hops around us on the bog boardwalk.

For lunch we had ham and cheese sandwiches, string cheese, and pretzels. It sure did feel like summer camp. We continued on and listened to a Winter Wren, or as Andy called it, “a Hershey Kiss of a bird.” We saw so many nests during our time at Hidden Valley: Least Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, and Eastern Kingbird.

We stopped at the Damariscotta Fish Ladder and caught glimpse of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird nest too. Our land adventure finished out with Roundtop Ice Cream, where I spotted a male Bobolink behind the shop.

Before dinner, Michelle and I celebrated “Cinco de Maine-o” (if you know, then you know) and enjoyed a Thai meal with zucchini noodles.

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View from “Cinco de Maine-o”

That evening, we listened to Scott Weidensaul talk about Project SNOWstorm. He opened with, “Anybody here not like owls?” so we were naturally hooked right away.

He quickly dispelled a few myths about the Snowy Owl irruption of December 2013. The owls who came south were not starving, quite the opposite. In June 2013, there were so many lemmings in the sub-Arctic that Snowy Owls were bringing up to 78 to one nest! This absurd amount of food allowed the owls to have large clutches, sometimes six-nine chicks per nest. Thousands of these young owls then moved south.

Scott and his colleagues moved quickly to submit a proposal to study the irruption. The approval came in 20 minutes and Project SNOWstorm began. The team started tracking owls with technology from CTT.  Since 2013, 75 owls from 15 states have been tracked. Scott receives updates of the birds’ locations on his cell phone which he jokingly refers to as receiving a “text message from a Snowy Owl.” As the heaviest and strongest owl in North America, it takes scientists about 45 minutes to put the tracking harness on once the birds are caught.

Scott explained how much of the funding came through crowdsourcing and that the project even involves citizen scientists/photographers who send in their geo-tagged photographs to help the biologists study age and sex distribution of the owls.

He said that the team of researchers has learned quite a bit from the data they’ve collected. Snowy Owls have been tracked along the New Jersey coast, on frozen Lake Eerie, and have even flown through Manhattan on top of a 58-story skyscraper near Madison Square Garden!

Of the birds that he has studied over the years, Scott exclaimed that, “Every bird has been a revelation.”

Day 4

After a quick egg sandwich, we headed out for a hike around Hog Island on Wednesday morning. We hiked to the Artist-in-Residence cabin and met Ralph James. He was generous to us and allowed us to take a look inside his cabin and explained his art. We heard a Common Loon calling in the distance and we had another listen at a Winter Wren along the trail. Sara explained the different inter-tidal zones to us too.

After a lunch of tortellini soup and salad, we headed out to Eastern Egg Rock to see the famous Atlantic Puffins! It was so great to have Scott on the boat with us to share his knowledge. We watched Harbor Porpoises jump out of the water around us as we headed to the island. He explained the different terns we would see. As we got closer to Eastern Egg Rock, more terns began flying around our boat. Scott said that we were “following the terns back to their colony” to Egg Rock. As always, Eastern Egg Rock was magical. We saw a ton of Atlantic Puffins and even a Razorbill.

Once we returned to Hog Island, I caught up on some reading before dinner, which was a hearty chicken pot pie with broccoli and kale. We also enjoyed a brownie ice cream sundae for dessert.

We went over the checklist of birds for the day and learned that tomorrow we would be celebrating International Guillemot Appreciation Day. Our evening program was given by Matt Young, a scientist with Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We focused on Finch Irruptions, specifically Evening Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills.

I learned that throughout the 1960’s-80’s, Evening Grosbeaks were known as “grospigs” or “grocery beaks” because of how abundant they were and how they would clean out everyone’s feeders. Though that is no longer the case, 2018 was their best year since 2001. Matt thoroughly explained the different call types of Evening Grosbeaks.

Next, we focused on the excellent evolutionary adaptation of Red Crossbills in their curved lower mandible. The curve allows crossbills to reach seeds in cones that are not accessible to other species.

There are ten different call types of Red Crossbills, we learned. There was a heated discussion over whether or not these call types should be recognized as full species. Is there a reproductive barrier to other call types? Are there differences in genetics? Are geographical variations in songs enough to create a distinct call type?

It seems Matt and his team are looking for “honest signals” to answer these questions. I went to sleep excited to talk more with experts about what makes a “species” a true species on Thursday.

Day 5

We observed International Guillemot Appreciation Day (IGAD)! Though the official holiday in Scotland is celebrated on June 27, we held our party on the 20th. Scott and Sara were decked out in Guillemot hats; there were black, white, and vermilion streamers throughout the Bridge; and the Guillemot decoy in the dining area was featured prominently. We all received an “I ❤ Guillemots” pin at our seat during breakfast and were encouraged to wear Guillemot colors all day. It was the bird-nerdiest and I loved it.

After our frittata breakfast, we headed back to the mainland to bird Damariscotta River Association‘s Great Salt Bay Farm Wildlife Preserve. I purposely jumped in the van with Scott driving and listened as he talked about his research to establish shifting baselines for Maine bird populations. He explained that while Wild Turkeys and Canada Geese (of course) are increasing in Maine, neotropical migrants, grassland birds, and swifts, swallows, and other insect-eaters are in steep decline.

I continued to follow Scott around by jumping on the walk he was leading at the Preserve. Scott told us how 95% of mono-morphic birds are actually not when under UV light, like crows and catbirds. He explained the difference between alternate and basic plumage as we watched ducks in the pond. We also had a Virginia Rail and Sora call back to us. On the ride back to camp, Scott talked about Hawk Mountain and the worldwide decline of vultures.

Once we were back on the Island, I relaxed before lunch and read my book while it rained outside. The rain continued as we had yummy quesadillas and then I headed over to the Bridge for the Intro to Ornithology Part II workshop with Sara.

We discussed the difference between evolution, natural selection, and sexual selection. We talked about Archaeopteryx, the intermediate in between reptiles and birds. Remember how Cliff Swallows are flying higher to adapt to cars? Sara explained how that is an example of micro-evolution (as opposed to macro-evolution). We looked at the definitions of systematics, taxonomy, and phylogeny. It felt like a true Throwback Thursday when we started in on Domains, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Which acronym did you use to remember that in school?

I learned that Chimney Swifts and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are closely related. We mourned Dendroica, the former wood-warbler genus. I was able to ask Sara what makes a species a species and she explained to us difference between the biological species concept and the morphological species concept. Between call types, morphs, races, subspecies, and species…they sure don’t make it easy to understand bird classifications! We also talked about breeding biology. Sara shared with us that she doesn’t like the term “mate for life” and instead explained to us that bird species are:

  • 90% socially monogamous (one pair bond + extra copulation)
    • Bald Eagles
  • 6-7% socially promiscuous (no pair bonds, in many cases 10% of these males make 90% of the offspring)
    • American Woodcock
  • 3-4% polygamous (pair bonds between more than two individuals)
    • Polyandry – Spotted Sandpiper
    • Polygyny – Red-winged Blackbirds, House Wrens, Indigo Buntings

Fun fact, female Savannah Sparrows use cues on fathering skills to decide who to mate with for their second clutch of eggs in the season. Seems like a good idea to me!

After I had my mind blown by Sara, I went to get warm by the fire in the Fish House and participate in the drawing workshop with Catherine. We explored line weight and warmed up drawing random shapes with our pencils. She discussed how field observations can “submit the bird into your head” to help with identification later. Catherine gave me a lot to think about when she talked about how to analyze bird color, the difference between structural colors and pigment colors in birds, and how a lot of field guides are published cheaply and therefore aren’t accurately displaying the proper color of birds. Think about all the different yellows on the spectrum: Prothonotary Warbler, American Goldfinch, Baltimore Oriole, Wilson’s Warbler. Wow!

I did my best drawing a Carolina Wren and was very impressed by everyone else’s attempts.

Before I knew it, it was time for the hors d’oeuvres and wine leading up to our Lobstah Feast! We all received Guillemot stripes for our “wings” (read: sleeves) and carried on with each other. Andy read a quote from Joseph Campbell that stuck with me: “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”

We filled our bellies with Seafood Chowder, Lobster, and the famous Hog Island Cream Puffins.

While the rain raged on outside, we learned from “Dr. Bird Nerd”/Sara that birds are able to have half their brain sleep at a time and that seabirds have a good sense of smell. She had many wishes for our feathered friends and hopes that education and awareness will help make a difference for birds in the future.

As we were still celebrating International Guillemot Appreciation Day, we sang the Guillemot song to the tune of the “Lollipop” song and Scott played us a recording of “I’m a Guillemot” written and performed by the late Bill Thompson III.

We sang camp songs and listened as two teens Harrison and Barlow read their poem about the essence of Hog Island which was both hilarious and heart-warming. Juanita, the President of the Friends of Hog Island told us the story of how the big, beautiful granite tables were built outside of The Bridge. Andy showed us the slideshow that he made of all the pictures and videos he took during the week set to songs like “Island in the Sun,” “Forever Young,” “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” My 28 year old summer-camp-going self was the happiest. 

Day 6

The morning of our last day was filled with lots of hugs and promises to stay in touch. I hope to see many of the campers that I met on the Island at a banding station or Hawk Mountain or at a National Wildlife Refuge in the near future. I always look forward to keeping up with the instructors and learning as much as I can from them both on and off Hog Island.

My departure from camp was more eventful than I thought. My car got stuck in the mud and was towed out by the generous and helpful Eric and a few wonderful campers, but as I started driving a branch fell on my hood and I drove over it. Then my car started to shake. The fourth auto body that I found was able to help me clean the mud which was affecting my wheel weight and get me back on the road. I highly recommend VIP Tires and Service if you’re ever in the New England area. I’m happy to report that I arrived home safely to my cat Masala just a few hours later than I anticipated.

If anything, getting stuck only proved to me that I am not meant to leave Hog Island! I can’t wait to head back for my fourth summer in a row. Catherine inspired me to maybe try the Arts & Birding session in the summer of 2020. I hope to see you there.

If you have any questions about Hog Island Audubon Camp or if you’d like more information, I’d be happy to serve as an ambassador for you. Please reach out to me at lindsay@lindsaymcnamara.com.

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