I just got back from what was definitely one of the best experiences of my life. It was the Hog Island Audubon Camp Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens. It was amazing. In a nutshell this program is a young birder camp on Hog Island (a 304 acre island a quarter of a mile off the coast of Bremen, Maine). However, it is so much more then that. It is a great experience that is guaranteed to change your life.
On Sunday June 16th, my dad and I pulled up to the Audubon Dock in Bremen, Maine. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had heard a lot of great things about Hog Island but having never been before, I was quite nervous. I said good bye to my dad and got on the boat to head across to the island. Reaching the island, me and the two other campers that were on that boat load with me, were greeted by Scott Weidensaul (you know it’s going to be awesome when a famous bird author is the first person you meet) who gave us a quick orientation lecture before we were showed to the cabin where all the teens would be staying. After putting down my stuff in the cabin, I went out to try to do some birding around the main area. Various adult campers (one of the adult camps was going on at the same time as ours) already had a couple classic coastal Maine birds staked out so all I ready had to do was walk around and ask people what they were seeing. In this way I got my first common eiders and black guillemots of the trip. I also found a parula nest in a clump of lichen (Kenn Kaufman later told me that Peterson thought it was a red letter day if you found a parula nest). By this point though it was about time for the orientation information and lectures.
The rest of that day was a blur (not my fault, I was tired) but I do remember getting my first taste of Hog Island’s legendary cooking. It was everything I had hoped for and more.
The next day was more prepping for the rest of the week. We woke up at 5:15 to go on a morning bird walk (many black-throated green warblers, golden-crowned kinglet, parula, etc.). We also had an Intro to Ornithology course. It was taught by John Kricher and Sarah Morris and was really awesome! Getting to learn so much about ornithology from these two great ornithologists was a chance you don’t rarely get and a great chance to take advantage of. The next really exciting thing was what was called the “shakedown cruise.” This was essentially to get us used to birding by boat before we went out to say, Eastern Egg Rock. The plan was to generally keep close to the islands to familiarize ourselves with the commoner water birds. We actually got some really cool birds though. We had great looks at many surf and a single white-winged scoter and got our first looks at common terns (a species we would see a lot of the next day).
That night, after more awesome food, we had our first real evening presentation. It was given by Steve Kress who talked about the history of Hog Island and Project Puffin and went on to discuss modern threats to seabirds. It was really great and heartening to hear the difference that he was able to make for seabirds in his lifetime. He didn’t make differences for just puffins either. The work he did on puffins and terns in Maine has been modeled around the world on such rare species as short-tailed albatross and Bermuda petrel. It was very cool.
The next day found us waking up early to head out to Eastern Egg Rock. This was the day that I was really looking forward to. For those of you who don’t know Eastern Egg Rock (EER) is a seabird breeding colony (it supports breeding puffins, guillemots, roseate, common, and arctic terns, laughing gulls, and common eiders) about two miles from the nearest island. It used not to be a seabird colony until puffins were reintroduced by Steve Kress and Project Puffin. Since then the colony has taken off and there is now a huge number of terns and laughing gulls on the island with a lesser number of puffins and guillemots. The teens (collectively known as the corvids) were going to land on the rock and spend the day there (much to the jealousy of the adults). So, at about 7:00, we headed out to EER in the camp’s boat, the Snow Goose III. Kenn Kaufman and Sarah Morris were to go with us on the boat but they would then be taking the adults around the island by boat to see the nesting birds that way.
Our first good bird of the day came in the form of a greater shearwater (my first shearwater species!) that winged past the boat about halfway to the rock. This boosted the anticipation for the rest of the day and the great seabirds that would be coming up. As we approached the island, we could see large numbers of terns circling around the island and out over the ocean near it. Someone called puffin but it turned out to just be a guillemot. We didn’t have long to wait however, until a real puffin appear and flew past the boat towards the rock! It was awesome. I really love alcids and puffins are pretty much the epitome of cool alcids. We pulled up along side the rock and waited until the dorry we would be landing in could be pulled along side the boat. As we waited, we got killer views of puffins flying past and of our first roseate terns of the trip. The dorry was pulled along side and the first load of corvids piled in. I decided to go on the second group so I could watch how they landed and gauge how hard it would be. It looked hard, so with a small (or large) bit of trepidation, I boarded the dorry to land on EER. If your wondering how a landing on an island could be hard, I’ve got news for you. The central and northern Maine coast is very rocky and it is also covered with very slippery seaweed. This combined with the swells hitting against the rocks, continuously pushing you towards them and then pulling you away from them, made for a very tough landing. Eventually, thanks to some skillful dorry navigation by Eric (who pretty much keeps the camp running and wrote the geology section for This Book), we all made it onto the island safely. While waiting on the rocks for the other corvids to arrive, we got good views of our first arctic terns of the trip.
Arctic Tern on EER
We then proceeded to hike towards the cabin/shack/building (called the Hilton) where the interns on the island stay (technically they sleep in tents outside the Hilton but they store stuff in it and spend time in it). On the way, we got our first experience of being mobbed by terns and laughing gulls. They will peck at you and poop on you and they have gotten very accurate.
Two of the Interns Being Mobbed by Laughing Gulls
Campers and Interns Being Mobbed by Terns and Gulls (Photo by Emma Rhodes not by me)
If you have never been in the middle of a seabird colony, there is no way for me to accurately describe my experience to you. It is the most incredible experience and one that I will not soon forget. There is nothing like the sound of hundreds of breeding seabirds, or the sight of a huge flock of terns rising from the grass. It is awesome.
Despite the terns, we arrived at the Hilton mostly unscathed. We then split into two groups, one group going out to the blinds on the island, and the other going to do tern nest surveys. I was in the group going to the blinds. On the way the blinds, one of the interns found a Savannah sparrow nest hidden in the grass.
Savannah Sparrow Nest
Being in the blind was incredible. It was great to be so close the the birds. I spent my time in the blind taking copious field notes and field sketches of the birds as well as taking a ton of photos, a few of which are below.
Roseate Tern (Such Pretty Birds)
After about two hours in the blinds (it felt like 10 minutes) we switched with the other group. My group then split in half again and one half went off to do nest surveys while my half sat on the roof of the Hilton and watched the terns. We were almost always accompanied by one common tern who had a habit of sitting on one corner of the roof and scolding us for coming on to his island.
Common Tern on the Roof of the Hilton
The highlight of sitting on the roof was seeing a razorbill out on the ocean. We then switched and went out to do nest surveys.
One of the problems the terns on the island are facing is that they are fertilizing themselves out of good breeding habitat. There is so much guano on the island that the grass has grown really long, making it hard for the terns to nest. To combat this, the interns have started putting down carpeting on the island to cover over the grass and kill it. Also, the carpeting does a good job of imitating rocks so the terns continue to nest on it. We went out to monitor vegetation height, percent of area around a nest covered by vegetation, and a few other things on the carpet plots. This was when the terns really started to get viscous. Since we were in such close proximity to their nests, they really were not pleased with our being there.
Around when we were done with the survey though, the coolest thing happened. A bald eagle flew over the island. This freaked out the nesting birds and they all took to the air in an attempt to scare the eagle off. Until they all took off, I had no idea how many birds there were! There were tons! It was also while the birds were still in the air that a laughing gull nailed me with guano on my hat, on my shorts, and on my sweatshirt. They really are quite accurate!
Shortly though, the adult group came back to pick us up in the Snow Goose and we had to leave Eastern Egg Rock. On the way out, a northern gannet was spotted flying across the island providing another unusual sea bird.
Nothing of particularly unusual was seen on the boat trip back though we were so tired we might have missed something.
That evening, we had another evening program, this one by John Kricher on the balance of nature. Actually, it was technically on how the balance of nature doesn’t exist. It was a very good talk.
That ended my first few days on Hog Island. Another post detailing the rest of the trip will be posted in a few days.
Group Photo of Hog Island Campers (Photo by Nathaniel Sharp and not by me)