At the mic: Dessi Sieburth, an avid birder, photographer, and conservationist, is a 10th grader at Saint Francis High School in La Canada, California. He is a member of the Pasadena Audubon Young Birder’s Club and Western Field Ornithologists. Dessi enjoys birding in his home county of Los Angeles. Last summer, Dessi attended Camp Colorado, and this summer Dessi attended the Young Birder Camp at Hog Island in Maine. Dessi was an overall winner of the 2015 ABA Young Birder of Year contest, and this year he was featured in Time for Kids Magazine as one of the Young Heroes for the Planet for his bird conservation efforts.
The American Birding Association and National Audubon Society awarded me with scholarships to attend the Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens, a young birder camp that takes place at Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine. Hog Island is a 330-acre island located in the Moscongus Bay off the Coast of central Maine and has been a summer camp destination for teens since 1936. The Hog Island Camp provides unique opportunities for teen birders to meet other young birders, to go on field trips in search of eastern birds, and to learn about bird research and conservation from ornithologists.
I attended the camp at Hog Island from June 18th to June 23rd, 2017. Hog Island is a short boat ride away from the mainland in Bremen, Maine. The camp is located on the northern tip of Hog Island. It consists of several houses used for sleeping, meetings, and dining. The camp also has an open grassy area with several bird feeders. The rest of the island is densely forested with white and red spruce, white pine, and birch trees. When I arrived in the late afternoon, I was greeted by camp director Scott Weidensaul, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and researcher. I also met our instructors: Joshua Potter, Corey Husic, and Holly Merker. I began wandering around the bird feeders, hearing and seeing a few birds such as Purple Finches and a stunning male Blackburnian Warbler, showing off its bright orange throat. That evening, I met the other fifteen young birders, who were mostly from the East Coast. I was the only one from the West Coast.
On our first day at camp, we woke up early, had breakfast, and set off for the mainland. We were mainly looking for landbirds in the forest. I immediately noticed how birds were singing all around us, but they were hard to see up in the tall, dense trees. We were lucky to get a good look at a pair of Canada Warblers, singing in a wet, boggy habitat. Their black necklaces and white eye rings were distinctive. The Canada Warbler is one of the latest warblers to arrive in spring, and it is one of the earliest to leave in fall. We saw and heard lots of Black-throated Green Warblers and Northern Parulas, and we got a glimpse of a couple Black-throated Blue Warblers, with their blue back and crown, black head and sides, and white primary coverts, or “handkerchiefs.” Another highlight was seeing a family of Ruffed Grouse—an adult and two chicks. About a month earlier, these grouse would have been doing a display known as drumming, where the male rotates its wings so quickly that it stirs up air, producing a drumming sound. We also saw several snakes, dragonflies, and butterflies. At the end of the day, we saw the small red-bellied snake, which grows to a maximum of just ten inches.
On our second day at camp, we woke up at 3:45 am to see how Scott Weidensaul geotagged Swainson’s Thrushes, which he captures in mist nets. Scott showed us how he places small geolocators on the thrush’s legs. After he geotags the birds on their breeding grounds, he tries recapture them again the following year to download data from the geolocator and track their exact migration route. After learning about the geolocators, we toured the Muscongus Bay by boat, looking for waterbirds. During our boat trip, we encountered an immature Northern Gannet. Later, we saw an adult gannet, with its buffy head, white body, and black primaries. Gannets feed primarily on fish and can dive over 70 feet underwater to find them. We also saw a male White-winged Scoter, a bit unusual for the area. The White-winged Scoter is much more common in winter than in summer in coastal Maine, and therefore, we were surprised to see it. In the afternoon, we observed songbird banding at the feeders of Hog Island. We used mist nets to catch a Black-capped Chickadee, an Eastern Phoebe, and two Purple Finches. At the end of the day, we gathered in the meeting room and heard an interesting talk by Kevin McGowan, who has been studying bird behavior for many years, especially American Crow behavior. By studying the American Crows over their life time, he has learned that they are very intelligent, and they can even recognize individual people.
We started the third day at camp by learning about how to record bird vocalizations. Recording bird songs and calls helps scientists to learn more about bird behavior and distribution. For example, analysis of the flight calls of Red Crossbills has revealed that there are at least ten types of Red Crossbills in North America. Even though the crossbills look very similar to each other, the types can be distinguished by their slightly different flight calls. I used a recorder that I brought from home to record Red Crossbill calls at the camp. At home, I converted the recording into a spectrogram, which is a graphical representation of the call. Analyzing the spectrogram showed the crossbill I recorded was a type 10 Red Crossbill.
After learning about bird recordings, we spent the day hiking around Hog Island, looking for more birds. Mid-June is the height of the nesting season in Maine. Right next to our camp was a large Osprey nest made of sticks on a pole. We frequently saw the adults flying overhead and bringing fish to the nest. Although we couldn’t the young, a webcam at camp showed there were two chicks in the nest. We also saw several other nests, including the nests of the America Robin, Eastern Phoebe, and Northern Parula. The Northern Parula uses a lichen that grows on spruce trees to make its nest. It often places its nest in the middle of a clump of lichen, making it very difficult to see. At the end of the day we watched seabirds such as Common Eiders and Black Guillemots, which we could see from the island. The Common Eider is the largest duck in North America at over two feet in length. The guillemots are distinctive with their black body, white wing patch, and bright red legs.
The final day at camp was the day I was looking forward to most–going to Eastern Egg Rock to see a breeding colony of Atlantic Puffins. We had learned about Eastern Egg Rock from Dr. Steven Kress, who gave a presentation about Project Puffin the night before. Dr. Kress explained that Eastern Egg Rock is the world’s first restored seabird colony. In the 19th century, Maine’s Atlantic Puffin population was rapidly declining due to hunting and egg poaching. Only about 30 nesting pairs remained. In 1885, egg poachers had taken the last Atlantic Puffin eggs on Eastern Egg Rock. In 1918, egg poaching was banned in the United States through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Despite the ban, the puffins did not return to the island to nest. In 1973, Dr. Kress started Project Puffin. He and his team brought nearly 1000 puffin chicks from Newfoundland to several islands off the Maine coast, hoping that they would start breeding colonies. It takes puffins three years to breed, and during that time they live out at sea. In the first few years of the project, very few returned to Eastern Egg Rock, and those that did return did not nest. To attract more puffins back to the island, the team set up puffin decoys and played puffin audio recordings. Finally, the first puffin pairs bred in 1981. To ensure the colony would thrive, Kress needed to keep the gulls from eating puffin eggs and chicks. To do this, he established a breeding colony of terns on the island. Terns are very effective in chasing gulls away from the island because they are highly territorial during the breeding season. Today, there are over 120 Atlantic Puffin pairs breeding on the Eastern Egg Rock as well as three species of terns—the Common Tern, the Arctic Tern, and the Roseate Tern. The techniques pioneered by Kress on Eastern Egg Rock are now being used to reintroduce breeding populations of seabird species to islands throughout the world.
Approaching the island by boat, we saw swarms of terns and Laughing Gulls circling the island. As we came closer, we saw about 40 puffins in the surrounding shore and on the rocks. As we got off the boat, we were met by five researchers who study the nesting seabirds at Eastern Egg Rock. They brought us to the bird blinds they use to observe the birds without disturbing them. From the blind, we saw about 250 Common Terns, about 40 Arctic Terns, and about 40 Roseate Terns. The Common Terns were so aggressive that they dove at people, lightly biting the top of their heads and sometimes knocking off their hats. Eastern Egg Rock is home to nearly 70% of Maine’s Roseate Terns. On the way back from the island, we saw one pair of Razorbills flying over the ocean. Razorbills are northeastern specialties and can live up to 40 years.
Hog Island was an experience I will always remember. I enjoyed meeting other young birders and learning from knowledgeable ornithologists. Visiting Egg Rock and learning about the history and success of Project Puffin was the highlight of my camp experience. I learned from Dr. Kress and Project Puffin that we can be successful in bird conservation if we persevere. Special thanks to the American Birding Association and National Audubon for providing the scholarships. Big thanks to the Hog Island camp staff for making the camp such a special experience for young birders.