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E-Journal
Summer Camp Salute
A 17-year-old’s life is changed forever after she spends a week camping on Maine’s Hog Island.

Unless otherwise noted, photos by Andrea Willingham.

 

The Queen Mary Lab on Hog Island. The lab offers a wealth of books, bird-related specimens, and aquariums.
Terri Willingham

As I followed my fellow campers down the narrow, winding path, I felt as if I was walking straight into a storybook. To my left, below a steep cliff, a milieu of lobster trap buoys speckled the harbor. To my right, a fragrant pine forest shaded a dense undergrowth of emerald ferns. The air was clean and crisp, and the gentle breeze brought with it the tangy aroma of sea salt and sweet balsam pine.

This paradise was to be my home for the next seven days, thanks to a scholarship I had won to attend the Audubon Society’s Coastal Maine Bird Studies camp on Hog Island, located in mid-coast Maine. I had always been interested in birds, though I didn’t know much about birding. Little did I realize when I applied how Hog Island would change my life.

The fish house on Hog Island, where campers attended workshops, lectures, and evening meetings.
Terri Willingham

The Hog Island birding camp is primarily a residential birding camp for teens (meaning campers stay on the island for the entire week), although Maine Audubon also offers day camps, family and adult camps, educator workshops, and other programs. I was one of 13 high school students from around the country who attended the camp last summer. 

Our accommodation for the week was the Crow’s Nest, a cabin in the woods. I soon discovered that our cabin was just a few yards away from Kenn Kaufman’s. The author of the Kingbird Highway and multiple birding guides was also staying on the island for the week, along with several other famed ornithologists. While the Hog Island camp may seem like a dream come true for any birder, I had yet to fully grasp the significance of the experience. But I was willing—and determined—to learn more about birding.

Field sketch of a peregrine falcon (top) and a piping plover.

The first day dawned cold and rainy. Nonetheless, we struck off down a trail to hike Hog Island with Mr. Kaufman and his wife, Kim. Being a Floridian, I’m no stranger to biting bugs, but I still wasn’t prepared for the multitude of bloodsucking insects found in Maine. As soon as we set out, we were enveloped in a cloud of mosquitoes that glinted in the dull sunlight and whined insistently in our ears. I did my best to ignore them and instead focus on the astounding variety of birds that inhabited the island. I started my life list that very morning with a white-winged crossbill, a greater yellowlegs, a hairy woodpecker, and many kinds of warblers.

Those beginning days marked the start of my birding obsession as we went on field trip after field trip, birding constantly. People even came to breakfast wearing their binoculars. We learned about bird anatomy and migration and watched banding demonstrations. Each morning in the camp laboratory, the “Daily Mystery” birding quiz was posted, where we would use the provided clues to answer different birding questions.

Watching black guillemots at the Audubon Center in Bremen, Maine.
Mom Willingham

One of the most memorable field trips we took was to Eastern Egg Rock Island, the southernmost breeding ground in the United States for Atlantic puffins. There was a storm brewing out in the ocean, and our boat pitched sickeningly over rolling waves. Although seasickness threatened to grip the 20 passengers on the small vessel, we managed to see some fantastic wildlife: Harbor seals peered inquisitively at us from a distance, and porpoises cruised nearby. Wilson’s storm-petrels soared around the boat, while northern gannets hurled themselves headlong into the waves. A chorus of birds filled the air and the smell of guano wafted into the open-air boat as we arrived at Eastern Egg Rock. Razorbills and Atlantic puffins flew by to perch on the white-spattered rocks and bob in the rough waves.

Birding on Ross Island.

After circling Eastern Egg Rock several times, we traveled to Ross Island, a neighboring gull breeding ground. The intense sounds and smells of Ross Island made Eastern Egg Rock seem like a mild affair. Herring gulls covered every inch of the land and sky. They squawked loudly, as if in protest of our arrival.

Led by the expertise of ornithologist Sue Schubel, perhaps better known as “Seabird Sue,” we examined the eggs and nests. Baby gulls were everywhere—under nearly every rock, abandoned lobster trap, and piece of driftwood. Ross Island was so densely populated that we had to be careful where we stepped. We were permitted to handle some of the chicks. They were so delicate and warm, so fragile that you could feel their hearts beating through their downy feathers.

The writer holding a herring gull chick on Ross Island.
Doug Wentzel

The rest of the week brought more incredible encounters: I watched a peregrine falcon battle a vulture in Acadia National Park and I trekked through the Jurassic jungle of Wreck Island’s great blue heron rookery. I even held a ruby-throated hummingbird in the palm of my hand.

After experiences like these, I knew I would never see the natural world the same way again. I subsequently wrote about Hog Island in my college application essay and have now been accepted to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, with a scholarship. When I start school this fall, I plan to major in environmental studies and go birding as often as possible.

For more information on summer camps offered by Audubon, click here. For more photographs from the writer’s trip, click here.

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