Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, July 1, 2016

Hog Island Audubon Camp

Hog Island

Last month, I spent two weeks on Hog Island in Maine, where I was one of the instructors for two week long programs, one about Breaking into Birding, the other about the Joy of Birding. Hog Island is a small island too close to the mainland to have many of the seabirds people associate with the popular Maine Audubon camp—a boat trip each session brings participants much further from the mainland to Eastern Egg Rock, where Atlantic Puffins have been successfully reintroduced and Common, Arctic, and Roseate Terns nest. The only oceanic birds we saw every day from Hog Island itself were Common Eiders... 

Common Eider

Common Eider

and Black Guillemots. 

Black Guillemot

I saw only one or two Ring-billed Gulls while I was there—instead, the gulls around Hog Island were mostly Great Black-backed, Herring, and Laughing. 

Great Black-backed, Herring, and Laughing Gulls

The landscape looks surprisingly like northern Minnesota until you remember that the water lapping on the shore near your cabin is salt water. Walking about the island from day to day, seeing the changes as the tide came in and out, was disconcerting for someone who has always lived in landlocked states. And when you look into Lake Superior, somehow you never see jellyfish.

Lion's Mane Jellyfish

Moon Jellyfish

The land birds on the island were pretty much what you’d expect to see in north woods forests, such as Northern Parulas, Black-throated Green, Magnolia, and Blackburnian Warblers, Song Sparrows, Eastern Phoebes. The warblers are of course tricky to see well, though when I first arrived while apple trees were in blossom, the Parulas spent a lot of time at eye level eating tiny insects in the blossoms. 

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

And a lovely water feature with a recirculating pump gave me great looks at a variety of warblers, especially during the dry spell we had the first week.

Blackburnian Warbler

Northern Parula

Yellow-rumped Warbler

A pair of Osprey nests right near the main buildings—these are the famous Steve and Rachel, the subjects of a popular nest cam. I was there when the first two of three eggs hatched. So far the chicks are doing well, but the possibility of Bald Eagles snatching the chicks is a clear and present danger—both of last year’s chicks were taken from the nest when they were about a month old.


Near the main buildings, there was also an interesting little population of meadow voles that seemed as interested in us as I was in them. 

Meadow Vole

People arrive on the island on Sunday afternoon, and after settling into their rustic cabins, we start meeting for sessions in the afternoon. Days were mostly spent on field trips with some workshops ending with an evening program.

My favorite day of all was when we spent the morning on a boat trip to Eastern Egg Rock to see puffins. We don’t get up close and personal the way I’ve done on trips to Machias Seal Island, where the Canadian Coast Guard maintains a station and allows a limited number of visitors each day to spend an hour or so in an observation blind seeing puffins and Razorbills at very close range. Only a small staff of researchers are allowed on Eastern Egg Rock, but we got to see plenty of puffins in the water...

Atlantic Puffin

along with lots of terns flying over. 

Terns over Eastern Egg Rock

On the island, we saw some Razorbill decoys but no real ones. 

Razorbill decoys near observation blind

After cruising around Egg Rock, we boated to Harbor Island for a picnic lunch and an invigorating hike.

We spent another day hiking on the mainland, a tradition of the camp since Roger Tory Peterson started it back in the 1930s. On my hike there the first week, we came upon a Hairy Woodpecker nest, the chicks sticking their heads out of the cavity entrance for feedings. 

Hairy Woodpecker nestling

By the following week, they had fledged, but instead, we found a Pileated Woodpecker nest with babies poking out.

Pileated Woodpecker chicks

Pileated Woodpecker chicks

The instructor staff was great fun to work with, including top birders like Tom Auer from Cornell who is part of the eBird team; Charles Duncan, internationally acclaimed shorebird conservationist; Pete Dunne, popular author; Steve Kress, whose seminal graduate research on Atlantic Puffins paved the way for Project Puffin; Wayne Peterson, a top birder and conservationist who is writing the American Birding Association’s field guide to birds of Massachusetts; and John Pumilio, Director of Sustainability at Colgate College.

On the windless Saturday morning between program sessions, when I had the island pretty much to myself, I set my microphone and recorder out near my cabin and let it pick up the bird songs and soft ocean waves. Oddly enough, that happened to be the only morning during the entire two weeks when a late migrant, an Eastern Wood-Pewee, showed up on the island, singing away. He apparently moved on that night, but the recording proves he was there.  That’s the background sound I used for today’s radio program; you can listen to or download the full 37-minute recording here. It’ll keep Hog Island fresh in my mind until I return next year, to Hog Island and also to speak at the LL Bean and the Acadia Birding Festivals.

Hog Island