I sat in the bottom of a small wooden rowboat with several other teen birders as we were rowed over the water of Muscongus bay towards the rocky coastline of Eastern Egg Rock. Thousands of terns circled and called over the island. Razorbills and black guillemots perched on the rocks around the base of the island. An Atlantic puffin flew by, heading for its burrow somewhere under the rocks, its oversized bill stuffed with fish. Our boat bumped up against the rocks in a small cove, and we scrambled out. The interns studying seabirds on the island greeted us, and told us to wait until the rest of the campers were rowed to shore, so we wouldn’t accidentally step on any tern eggs. Indeed, just a few yards away, we could see common, arctic, and roseate terns guarding their nests.
Visiting Eastern Egg Rock was the highlight of the Audubon Society’s Hog Island “Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens” camp. Hog Island is a 300+ acre island just off the coast of Maine in Muscongus bay. It has been owned and run by Project Puffin — a program of the National Audubon Society — since 2000, and by National Audubon or Maine Audubon since the early 1900s. Since the Audubon Society first acquired Hog Island, they have used it to run programs and summer camps to inspire people to care about nature.
Soon after I first heard about Hog Island from friends in the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club, I read Project Puffin, which tells the story of how Stephen Kress restored Atlantic puffins and terns to their former breeding colony on Eastern Egg Rock. In the 1970s, when Stephen Kress started Project Puffin, puffins survived on only one of their former breeding colonies in Maine, having been extirpated primarily by hunters from all the others. Stephen took young puffin chicks from a large colony in Newfoundland and raised them at Egg Rock with the hope that they’d return to breed there as adults. Eventually birds started returning, and now there are several hundred puffins breeding on Eastern Egg Rock, as well as numerous arctic, common and roseate terns, and Leach’s storm petrels. The seabird restoration techniques that Project Puffin developed have been used successfully elsewhere in Maine, and also in other countries.
I arrived on Hog Island late in the day on Sunday, June 9, after a long day of travel. I was ferried across the small stretch of water separating Hog Island from the mainland, along with several other campers, on the Snowgoose 3, the boat we would travel on for the rest of the week. Several buildings were scattered around a clearing and bird feeders, including a dining hall, a lecture hall, several dormitories, and a building called the Queen Mary, where the camp’s bird collection was housed. All the teens were staying in one building, called the porthole. I threw my stuff on my bed, went outside to meet my fellow campers, and quickly got my first lifer of the trip, a black guillemot.
Every night after dinner, all the teens and the adults from a camp running concurrently to ours would hear a talk on some aspect of seabird biology or conservation. The first night it was Stephen Kress himself speaking about the history of Hog Island and Project Puffin. Other speakers talked about seabird senses, seabird families, and the effects of warming ocean temperature on seabird breeding success. That last one was one of my favorites, as I learned a lot about puffin and murre conservation. Apparently, having a good supply of food is one of the most important things for alcid survival and breeding success, and when the fish species that the alcids eat are overfished or forced to move — potentially away from breeding colonies — by changing ocean temperatures, the effects on the alcids can be devastating. Many of the talks were inspiring to me, because the speaker’s enthusiasm and love for the seabirds really came through. The story of Project Puffin’s success is amazing, and hearing research with such clear and direct potential to help seabird conservation was fascinating.
During the day, we were busy with many different bird related activities. We went back over the channel to the mainland, where we birded several different habitats, including a bog. The mosquitoes were horrific, but we did manage to hear several warbler species, including Canada, Nashville, magnolia, and northern waterthrush, as well as a yellow-bellied flycatcher. Back at Hog Island, we did some birding, bird art, and played ultimate frisbee with someone’s new Hog Island baseball cap. One morning we set up mist nets around the feeders, and watched as the staff banded the birds we caught. It was a great opportunity to see the details of their plumage up close. We banded American goldfinches, purple finches, black-capped chickadee, red-breasted nuthatch, black-throated green, and yellow-rumped warblers, and a northern parula.
Finally the day arrived for us to land on Eastern Egg Rock. After reading about it in Project Puffin and hearing about it from my friends and now from Stephen Kress himself, I — and I think all the other teens as well — was very excited to actually get to see it in real life.
The five research interns living on the island for the summer led us slowly up the rocks and onto the island. Every several feet, we could see one or two large, cream colored, brown speckled tern eggs on the rocks. The noise of the terns calling as they circled overhead was deafening. Occasionally a tern would swoop at us, hitting our heads with its beak. As we climbed away from the surf, we began to see plants growing in cracks in the rock. We arrived at the headquarters for the researchers on the island — a tiny building they used as a lab, an outhouse, and several tents.
We split into two groups — I was in the group that was first to go to the blinds located around the edges of the island. The blinds were chest high wooden boxes, with a ring of windows to look out of from the inside. Mine was called “Arizona,” although I don’t have any idea why. A landscape less like Arizona is difficult to imagine. Waves crashed and churned on the rocks below, sometimes spraying water up onto the ledge of flat rock immediately below me. Common and arctic terns were everywhere, some protecting their nests, some flying frantically back and forth from the island with fish in their beaks, and others just loafing around on the rocks, seemingly unconcerned with the world. Common eiders swam in the surf. Several puffin burrows were marked in red paint on the rocks next to me, so I was unsurprised when I saw my first puffin land with three fish in its beak only about ten feet from me. It looked around in a furtive way, then hunched its shoulders and scurried into one of the burrows.
I saw many other puffins over the hour I had in the blind, bringing fish into the burrows. One bird didn’t even stop on the rocks, but flew directly into the burrow. I worked on getting a flight shot of a puffin flying down the island’s coast with its beak full of fish. Razorbills occasionally flew over the water, and black guillemots were abundant on the rocks.
Later, as the whole group was eating lunch outside the main building, the island suddenly went silent. All the terns stopped calling at once, and flew low over the rocks and out over the water. A group of terns suddenly scattered, revealing a peregrine falcon flying swiftly towards us. It flew overhead and then back out to sea, and soon the noise of the terns returned to normal.
Before we left, one of the researchers pulled a Leach’s storm petrel out of its burrow to show us. I knew they bred on Eastern Egg Rock, but I hadn’t expected to see one because they’re usually underground during the day. We got to see it in the researcher’s hand, and even smell it — it smelled very good, almost citrusy. We said our goodbyes to the Leach’s storm petrel and Eastern Egg Rock, and made our way back down the rocks to our boat for the trip back to Hog Island.
All too soon the day came for us to leave. We packed our bags, ate a quick breakfast, and then went down to the dock to wait for the boat to take us back to the mainland. We stepped onto the snowgoose 3 for the last time, and said our goodbyes to each other as we crossed the channel.
I continue to find the story of the Audubon Society, Hog Island, and Project Puffin very inspiring — a testament to the positive impact a dedicated group of people, or even a single person, can have on conservation. Project Puffin took Maine from having barely any puffins left to multiple thriving colonies — all in one lifetime. It continues to work on seabird restoration and conservation sites all over the world, and Hog Island continues to serve its vital education function, as group after group of campers come to love it, and Egg Rock, and the birds. Some of those campers return to Hog Island as staff or researchers — I don’t know the exact number, but several of our councilors were previous campers. I know I’d like to go back if I get the chance. I think all who go to Hog Island come away with greater knowledge, new friends, and more hope.
Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank the National Audubon Society for awarding me an Ambassador Scholarship to attend the camp.