Open Mic: Hog Island Adventures!

At the Mic: Nathan Martineau
Nathan Martineau is a seventeen-year-old birder from Lansing, Michigan. He started birding at the age of eleven. In the summer of 2012, Nathan did a conservation project to compete in the Young Birder of the Year contest. He spent over 200 hours monitoring migrating birds, monitoring nesting birds, removing invasive plants, leading bird walks for summer campers and more. Last summer, he spent more than 150 hours volunteering at a nearby banding station. His birding adventures have included sinking to his hips in the mud (while looking for Nelson’s Sparrows), counting over 18,000 crows at the local crow roost, finding himself awash in boreal birds in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and holding a Pileated Woodpecker at the local banding station. His other interests include butterflies, moths, plants, dragonflies, Herps, native plant gardening… well, anything that has to do with nature! You can read more of Nathan’s writing on his blog, The Crow’s Roost.

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**Editor’s Note: Registration is now open for 2014 Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens—including scholarships. Learn more here. ***
I’m accustomed to watching Nest Cams from my computer in Lansing, Michigan.  The live feed of Rachel and Steve, a nesting pair of Ospreys located on Hog Island, Maine, is one of the live cams that I have watched over the past year or so.  So I was excited, stepping off the Snow Goose III on June 23, 2013 to see Rachel and Steve in person, flying to and from their nest carrying food to their two scrawny chicks.

Rachel—the Osprey celebrity. Photo by Rosemary Kramer.

Rachel—the Osprey celebrity. Photo by Rosemary Kramer.


Meeting Rachel and Steve was not the only highlight of my four-and-a-half days on Hog Island. Everything about my stay at the second session of Hog Island Teen Camp made it one of the most amazing and memorable experiences I’ve ever had.
Immediately following the excitement of meeting the Osprey celebrities came my first lifer of the trip—already! It was a single Black Guillemot floating in Muscongus Harbor, looking like a black-and-white pigeon swimming in the ocean. Soon enough two more flew in and landed next to the first, flashing their brilliant white wing patches and splaying out their even more brilliant red feet as they came in to land. An hour and a half later, I was walking along the beach with Chuck and Terry, two other teen campers that I would get to know well over the next several days. We flipped over a rock and underneath was a Red Rock Eel, the Black Guillemot’s main food source along the coast of Maine.

My lifer Black Guillemot.

My lifer Black Guillemot.


Red rock eel--Guillemot food!

Red rock eel–Guillemot food!


That night our instructor Heather, who is majoring in marine biology, informed us that the tides were about as low as they ever get and that she would take us out into the intertidal zone to do some tidepooling in the morning.  How many people ever get to go tidepooling with someone who’s an expert in marine biology?  What an amazing opportunity and experience.
Before we start collecting, Heather instructs us on the nuances of tidepooling—and cautions us to be careful on the slippery, rockweed-covered rocks.

Before we start collecting, Heather instructs us on the nuances of tidepooling—and cautions us to be careful on the slippery, rockweed-covered rocks.


There were, of course, the requisite green crabs scuttling hither and thither across the sand, but closer to the waterline all kinds of life abounded. There were more rock eels hiding under the rocks, and those rocks were covered in gorgeous star tunicates. Under one of the larger rocks we even found a young lobster! In one of the shallow tidepools we discovered a mass of snails and snail eggs as well as several starfish and hermit crabs of all sizes. My favorite part of that morning’s tidepooling was a rough-mantled nudibranch and its egg mass, hidden on the concave surface of a large rock.
Star tunicate.

Star tunicate.


A rough-mantled nudibranch and its egg mass.

A rough-mantled nudibranch and its egg mass.


Later that morning, I had a dream come true in meeting Scott Weidensaul, who took the young birders (The Corvids) out to a place called The Leech Field to do some bird banding. It wasn’t the kind of banding I’m used to. I volunteer at a banding station that does passive banding, setting up lots of mist nets and hoping that birds fly into them. This method is effective, but it’s not the only one. Scott was showing us targeted banding, where only a few mist nets are set up and a recording of a certain species’ song is played back nearby. This method targets male birds and is used in the breeding season so that the females are not trapped while they need to be on nest duty. Using this method, Scott netted single males of Red-breasted Nuthatch and Black-throated Green Warbler.
While he was banding birds, Scott regaled us with his vast knowledge of Northern Saw-whet Owls in particular and bird migration in general. We had the opportunity to place the Black-throated Green against our ears. Occasionally hearing (more like feeling!) a bird’s heartbeat is one of my favorite parts of bird banding.
Scott Weidensaul answers our questions (and questions our questions) about molt, survival rates, and migration.

Scott Weidensaul answers our questions (and questions our questions) about molt, survival rates, and migration.


While Scott was talking about the migration and wintering grounds of the Black-throated Green Warbler he was holding, our little subject suddenly lunged at a passing deerfly and (lo and behold) when its head snapped back, the hapless insect was trapped firmly between the bird’s mandibles. He held on to the deerfly all the while he was in Scott’s hand, and the moment he was released he flew to the nearest branch and dismantled the fly before us. Scott, even with his nearly endless bird banding experience, remarked that he had never seen anything like it! We compared each other and other birds with the “ninja warbler” for the remainder of the session.
Our Ninja Warbler!

Our Ninja Warbler!


While banding and measuring the Red-breasted Nuthatch, Scott talked to us about irruptive winter passerines and the reasons behind the “superflight” of the winter of 2012-2013: the preceding summer had been far dryer than was usual, so the fruit crops that were produced were dry and ran out very quickly. Because of the lack of fruit in their traditional ranges, Evening and Pine grosbeaks as well as Bohemian Waxwings were forced into areas well to the south. The same went for the cone crops, and consequently large numbers of Red and White-winged crossbills, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and to a lesser extent Pine Siskins made notable southernly appearances.  Likewise, the dearth of birch seeds sent both Common and Hoary redpolls south in uprecedented numbers.
Adult male Red-breasted Nuthatch. Photo by Rosemary Kramer.

Adult male Red-breasted Nuthatch. Photo by Rosemary Kramer.


There was plenty more to be excited about beyond the birds. Scott found a tachinid fly in one of the nets, which had a color pattern perfectly mimicking that of a bumblebee.  After looking around a little bit, my friend Rosemary Kramer and I found several brilliantly colored species of sweat bee as well as a female racket-tailed emerald, a beautiful dragonfly typical of the Hog Island latitudes.
Female racket-tailed emerald. Photo by Rosemary Kramer.

Female racket-tailed emerald. Photo by Rosemary Kramer.


After a delicious lunch, The Corvids were taken for a long “shakedown cruise” in Muscongus Bay. The boat ride was highlighted by close up views of a very historical but dilapidated old ship, Surf Scoters, congregations of Harbor Seals, a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls, and a lobster trapping demonstration by the boat’s crew. The huge flocks of Common Eiders inspired me to do a watercolor painting of an adult male when I got home from camp.
Surf Scoters in takeoff.

Surf Scoters in takeoff.


Common Eider, watercolor and ink.

Common Eider, watercolor and ink.


That night, Julie Zickefoose did a brilliant presentation on her book, “The Bluebird Effect,” in which she talked about how much smarter birds are than anyone ever gives them credit for being. It was a presentation that I had heard before, but it was still even better than I remembered it! Listening to Julie speak is something that never, ever gets old or boring. After Julie’s presentation we were treated to the stunning sight of a huge, blood-red moon, its reflection coming all the way up the water to the beach in the high tide.

“I've pulled it from a crate of crooked trees, And brought it over glossy water, greater, And dropped it in, and seen the image wallow, The color run, all sorts of wonder follow.” —From “The Freedom of the Moon” by Robert Frost.

“I’ve pulled it from a crate of crooked trees,
And brought it over glossy water, greater,
And dropped it in, and seen the image wallow,
The color run, all sorts of wonder follow.”
From “The Freedom of the Moon” by Robert Frost.

On the 25th, the Corvids landed on an island that Scott Weidensaul said was rarely visited by humans. It’s called Wreck Island, and is the location of a large Great Blue Heron rookery. Our other instructor, Josh, let us listen to the sounds of the rookery through a sound parabola. On the way back to the beach, a few of us were able to see a red-backed salamander that someone had discovered under a small rock just off the trail.

Josh listens to the sounds of the rookery. Photo by Rosemary Kramer.

Josh listens to the sounds of the rookery. Photo by Rosemary Kramer.


Red-backed salamander.

Red-backed salamander.


We eagerly awaited what was in store after lunch that day:  a couple of local wildlife rehabilitators were visiting the island to show us a Golden Eagle, a Great Horned Owl and, most exciting for many of us, a Northern Saw-whet Owl. These birds provided great opportunities to hone our photography and sketching skills. I participated in a sketching workshop led by Julie Zickefoose. With her constructive advice, and with Rosemary’s instruction on how to draw a realistic eye, I was able to make some sketches of the eagle that I was really happy with.
Occasionally an unhappy songbird or two would come close to scold the raptors, not only providing entertainment (for the raptors and for us!) but providing extra photography and sketching opportunities as well. One of the birds that came in to scold the Great Horned Owl was a female Purple Finch, perching in the pine trees above, only feet over our heads. The big owl seemed not to care, but when a couple of juncos started scolding the saw-whet, the little predator swiveled its head towards the brush where the noise was coming from, resulting in instant silence.
A female Purple Finch investigates the Great Horned Owl.

A female Purple Finch investigates the Great Horned Owl.


A young Dark-eyed Junco looks on as its mother scolds the Saw-whet Owl.

A young Dark-eyed Junco looks on as its mother scolds the Saw-whet Owl.


As each bird was revealed, we were overpowered by the eagle’s personality and momentarily confounded by the molting Great Horned Owl’s one ear tuft. But from the moment we saw the saw-whet it was an instant cuteness overload! Perched on the rehabber’s glove, it looked so much smaller and cuter than any Northern Saw-whet Owl that I’ve ever seen in the wild. Scott, with his impressive knowledge of saw-whets, told us about a couple of the studies he has done on the species. He also talked extensively about their life history and migratory habits. Everyone who listened learned a lot as he shared his expertise.
Cuteness overload!

Cuteness overload!


The Great Horned Owl had only one ear tuft.

The Great Horned Owl had only one ear tuft.


That afternoon just before dinner, Rosemary spotted a porcupine ambling towards the compost pile. It was a real beast, well fed by the supply of leftovers from the kitchen, but with a surprisingly “cute” demeanor. I had never seen a living porcupine despite the extensive time I’ve spent looking for them in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. After a few minutes it lumbered downslope away from us in a not very graceful manner.
The very fat resident porcupine.

The very fat resident porcupine.


We regarded the next day with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety, for it was the day that The Corvids were scheduled to land on Eastern Egg Rock. We were anxious that the weather would prove to be too inclement to land in the island, while we were excited because we knew that no matter what, we would be able to see large numbers of puffins and terns. Our anxiety was well-founded, as it turned out, because on the morning of the 26th Scott broke the news that waves were too high, fog was too thick, and weather was too wet to ensure a safe landing on the island. So, he said, we would instead be making several circles around Eastern Egg, seeing what we could see from offshore. After that we would land on Arbor Island, which also has good birding but lacks Eastern Egg Rock’s spectacular breeding seabird colonies.
We knew when the Snow Goose III was nearing Eastern Egg Rock:  it was easy to notice the exponential increase in the numbers of Common Terns and Black Guillemots surrounding us in the open ocean! Once we were in sight of the island, someone shouted “PUFFINS!” and there was a tremendous rush to the starboard rail of the boat. Indeed, there was a group of five puffins just twenty feet away allowing great looks and a great way for many of us to see our lifer Atlantic Puffins.
Our first of over a hundred Atlantic Puffins.

Our first of over a hundred Atlantic Puffins.


It wasn’t long before somebody spotted a Razorbill, looming larger than life against the rest of the accompanying flock guillemots and puffins and appearing even larger than some nearby Surf Scoters. The hulking bird’s enormous bill and muscular profile left us all very impressed. Ten minutes later a tern flying just six feet off the starboard side turned out to be a Roseate. A lifer for many, its pale underparts, long black bill, and effortless flight were all very striking.
Most of our attention, however, was still focused on the scores of puffins both in and out of the water. On multiple occasions a group of puffins approached to less than ten feet from the boat, alowing spectacular close-up looks at their gaudy bills and facial patterns. Several of the birds, on whizzing wings, came so close we could have reached out and touched them. Much more inspired by the them than I was by the eiders, I did a watercolor painting of a puffin once I got home. All in all, The Corvids came away very satisfied, having seen well over a hundred puffins, countless Common Terns, and even a Razorbill and a Roseate Tern!

Roseate Tern flyby. Photo by Rosemary Kramer.

Roseate Tern flyby. Photo by Rosemary Kramer.


We got amazing looks at puffins both on the water and in the air.

We got amazing looks at puffins both on the water and in the air.

After Eric (he’s awesome!) landed us on Arbor Island, we split up into three groups: some of us went on a birding walk, others went on a hike around the shore of the island, and the rest stayed on the beach. The hike around the shore was led by Eric, who I knew was a geologist, so I joined his group. I learned a lot about geology on that hike!

Eric talks to us about coastal Maine’s geology.

Eric talks to us about coastal Maine’s geology.


We missed out on most of the birds that the others saw, but did manage to see one that the other groups didn’t. It was an tern flying close overhead. The moment I got my binoculars on it and realized what it was, Rosemary exclaimed “Arctic Tern!” and the others looked up in time to get a glimpse of it. It was a lifer for most of us, and it in addition Eric’s extensive knowledge of the area’s geology made us all glad we had chosen to walk around the island!
Arctic Tern flyover. Photo by Rosemary Kramer.

Arctic Tern flyover. Photo by Rosemary Kramer.


The next day was the 27th, and it was the day that we birded the mainland. The place we birded is called the Damariscotta River Association, a beautiful mix of forest, marsh, and prairie. The prairie was full of bobolinks and bluebirds while the marsh harbored Sora, Virginia Rail, Willow and Alder flycatchers, and a few dozen swifts and swallows. On that chilly morning, these aerialists were forced to feed unusually low to the ground, and as a result we had Cliff, Barn, Bank, Northern Rough-winged, and Tree swallows as well as Chimney Swifts flying literally inches above our heads!
Bobolink.

Bobolink.


Bill Thompson III, who led our group, had us all sit still when we heard a couple of Virginia Rails calling in the reeds nearby. Taking out an iPod, he played the species’ song over and over, hoping to entice the birds to come out onto the trail at close range. They never did while our group was there (they did come really, really close) but they made a spectacular appearance for the group after us.
A very focused BT3 tries to entice a couple of Virginia Rails onto the trail.

A very focused BT3 tries to entice a couple of Virginia Rails onto the trail.


Scott Weidensaul more than made up for not seeing the rails by spotting an American Bittern hidden in the cattails. It stood there motionless, and some were only able to see it once he had gotten the scope on it.
American Bittern.

American Bittern.


The next day, sadly, was time to go.  The rainy weather seemed to match the mood as we said our farewells. At the same time, we were all so glad for the incredible experience that we’d had, glad to have made the friends we did, and glad to have learned as much as we did. I suspect that none of us will ever forget the time we spent on Hog Island. I miss it still.

2014-01-14T12:44:27+00:00