Reflections from the Audubon Camp in Hog Island, Maine
This piece originally appeared in the September 2021 edition of the GOSHawk, Newsletter of the Georgia Ornithological Society (www.gos.org). It details my experience spending five days at the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine (https://hogisland.audubon.org/) which I attended on a full scholarship from the GOS.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived at Audubon’s Hog Island Camp in Maine was, ironically enough, nothing. As I stumbled onto the mist-shrouded island following a shorter-than-expected boat ride, I took a moment to remain quiet and simply listen. Even as I heard the ocean waves crashing onto the shore and a faint Black-capped Chickadee singing in the trees nearby, it still felt like I was hearing nothing. As someone who has spent my entire life living in the city, I have become used to the consistent hum of human noise that seems to fill the backgrounds of most of our lives. Here at Hog Island, there was no such background noise, only the sounds of nature, creating a version of relative “silence” that I would find so magnificent. It was against this tranquil backdrop that my camp cohort would spend the next few days birding. And, oh, how amazing the birding was! Set within Maine’s Muscongus Bay, pressed right up against the coast of the mainland yet still surrounded by the ocean, Hog Island was primed to be an ideal locale for birding waterbirds and songbirds alike.
On our first day at camp, we took a boat ride to our most far-flung destination of the trip, Monhegan Island. I saw many incredible birds, most of which were new to me, both at Monhegan and on the way there. But perhaps no species was more memorable than the enchanting Wilson’s Storm Petrels. They were quite abundant in the deeper parts of the bay, and their behavior was truly something to marvel at. Each bird was no bigger than my hand, and they had a great energy to them. The petrels darted all over the place, swooping and climbing above the water with great speed. Every few seconds, they would buzz across the water’s surface, skimming for plankton. Their youthful energy was refreshing, thrilling, and comforting all at once. Seeing these birds perform their acrobatics out over the water, I was reminded of how unique of an experience this boat ride was. If not for the generous and rewarding scholarship provided by the Georgia Ornithological Society, I would not be off the coast of Hog Island, watching these storm petrels at play in their inaccessible habitat.
After spending an afternoon on Monhegan Island, we boated back to Hog Island, circling the esteemed Eastern Egg Rock along the way. Egg Rock was a bustling metropolis of seabirds and among the thousands of Common Terns breeding on the island, we spotted Roseate Terns, a Razorbill, as well as a pair of the species I had most hoped to see on this trip: the unflagging Arctic Tern. But perhaps the most fabled bird to be seen on this trip was that magical alcid, the Atlantic Puffin! One could feel the excitement peaking on the port side of the boat as puffins floated into view along the coast of Egg Rock. These pudgy birds were a marvel to watch in flight, beating their wings with great urgency and flying in impossibly straight lines as their intricate and colorful beaks gleamed in the sunshine. The puffins of Egg Rock weren’t just any normal ones, however. This colony was the product of Project Puffin, the first seabird restoration project in the world. Founded almost forty years ago, the project has aimed to restore puffins to the islands of southern and central Maine where their natural colonies were largely wiped out. Egg Rock was the first island where these extraordinary birds were successfully resettled. During a leisurely morning bird walk on the mainland a couple of days later, my group would happen to run into Steve Kress himself, the founder of Project Puffin. Kress had dreamt up the idea for the restoration project after reading a book from the Hog Island library, located in the very same building where we campers convened every night for the bird tally. Occurrences like this one truly display how much history and scientific importance surrounded us at Hog Island. It was both a secluded birding getaway and a place to be near the most cutting-edge research and many of the best birding minds in the world.
While birding during camp was certainly marvelous, I equally enjoyed many of the non-birding aspects. The food, always grown locally, was absolutely delicious and was served graciously by the selfless volunteers from Friends of Hog Island. They were part of the community on the island that consistently made everyone feel welcome, comfortable, and simply happy to be there. The instructors, guest speakers, and fellow campers all contributed to an incredibly friendly atmosphere, making Hog Island an experience to cherish and remember for birders of all types.
On our last full day on the island, we refrained from birding for the afternoon, instead spreading out across the island to write alone. One of our instructors was a talented nature artist, and all campers received sketchbooks in which we would sketch and write about the natural world around us. Throughout the week, I sketched more birds than I can count, wrote poems about the landscape of the island, and journaled about myself whenever I could. On that final afternoon on the island, as I sat cross-legged, pressed up against a log at the spot where the dense forest met the rocky beach of Midden Cove, I began to write about what the instructors had told us earlier that day. They told us to remember that life operated in cycles, similar to the seasons. This cycle of my life — the Hog Island one — was coming to a close. Nevertheless, the experiences and knowledge I took from it would give birth to a new one, lasting for the rest of my life. As I wrote about my cycle, hearing nothing but the waves gently lapping up on the shore and the distant croaks of a Great Black-backed Gull, I felt fulfilled, knowing that I would return to Georgia a richer man. Hog Island didn’t just show me dozens of spectacular new birds, it showed me how to coexist better with other humans, how to find peace wherever I looked, and, most importantly, how to better exist within and be a good servant of the natural world that surrounds us.