Hog Island 2017
Hog Island 2017: Jason Cowen
Story & Photos by Jason Cowen
Thanks to everyone for sending me to Hog Island. It was definitely an experience I will never forget. Some people believe Hog Island is just about learning about birds or nature for a week. I can definitely say it is so much more than that. It is a peaceful island a quarter mile off the Maine coast that is home to almost a century of Audubon pride. When Mabel Todd approached Audubon about use of her land, it was with the mission of giving people, especially teachers, a place to be inspired. Decades later, it is still fulfilling that original mission.
As you drive through a series of small towns you realize how unique the Maine culture is. If I could describe it in three words, they would be: kindness, pride, and lobster. As you get to the dock to take the boat over to Hog Island you learn that all of the islands were named after animals. Why? They used to be used to house farm animals because no fencing was needed, there are also nearby Cow Island and Sheep Island. Also, Island names repeat; there are multiple Hog and Cow islands. I suppose when there are thousands of islands off the coast repetition is bound to happen.
As your group pulls into the boathouse dock, you realize your life is not going to be the same for the next several days. Although so close to the mainland, there is something special about being on an island, nothing else seems to matter in the moment. Your phone doesn't have service...but does it really matter, look at what is around you and forget about everything else for a while. You are assigned your room, some are nicer than others but all are simple, a bed and a small dresser which is all you really need.
People start to mingle and get ready for dinner, you learn that people came from across the country and for all different reasons. This week will be filled with great birders along with people that have never hiked or held binoculars in their life. It is important to remember that everyone has something unique to offer, even if they seem out of place. You can learn something from every single one of your camp mates. You eat your first meal and you realize that everything you heard about the amazing food was absolutely correct, this will be the best week eating you have ever had. Three incredible cooks that use almost all local foods and many greens from their own onsite gardens. That night you go through the standard "tell me something about yourself" intro followed by an introduction to the instructors. Three incredible Raptor experts, even just one would be awesome to learn from but you have three. Even better, you live among them and eat with them. They are regular people that love to talk and make jokes which will make this week so memorable. You will not just be in a series of classes taught by the best, you become friends with them and sit next to them at dinner and get to talk to them as a friend. You go to bed Sunday night waiting for the real adventures to begin.
On Monday, you have a boat ride around the island scheduled. All of the boat rides are done by the same local captain who in his words is "no birder" but after decades on the water, he will put your entire group to shame with his eagle eye finding stuff. His local knowledge of the entire area is incredible. You will see many birds you have seen before as well as new ones, you will also see seals. You will get back and after lunch you will attend a couple of presentations from the instructors. Raptor Rapture week is heavily focused on Osprey due to the world famous nest of Rachel and Steve that is live streamed with thousands of followers watching it. Fun fact, Rachel is named after Rachel Carson and Steve after Stephen Kress. Kress is known as the current "father" of the island, he started the Puffin Project in Maine decades ago and was instrumental in bringing camps back to Hog Island. The nest of Rachel and Steve is something you will walk under several times a day and you will learn that many of the people in your group attended camp to see this nest in person. After dinner you will hear a talk from Rob Bierregaard, your lead instructor and an Osprey expert.
Tuesday morning is the day that the chicks of Rachel and Steve will get banded. You wake up to lean that one of the three chicks was take by a Great Horned Owl. Furthermore, you stumble on the remains of the chick that morning. This is an important lesson about nature for a lot of people. Your lead instructor, Rob Bierregaard, places a tall ladder against the platform and begins step toward the nest. He carries a grocery tote on a rope and two hoods to put on the remaining chicks. With the group below cringing at the shake in the ladder, Rob is a pro and lowers the chick to the ground within a few minutes. With the help of a local wildlife non profit, the chicks get measured and banded. With Rachel and Steve panicking, Rob places the chicks safely back in the nest. The vet from the local non profit offers to do a dissection of the Osprey remains that were found earlier that morning. Some of your fellow campers are uncomfortable with this due to their connection to the nest. Most come around and choose to make it a learning moment. That afternoon you have a lot of free time which gives you a chance to explore the island, something you have been waiting to do since you arrived. That night, you will get to hear a talk from Tim Gallagher about Falconry. Tim has an extensive and diverse background, a lifelong falconer and birder. Fascinated with the history of Falconry he breaks down his book Falcon Fever and explains the steps he took to trace the history of falconry.
**The following presentation contains images from the osprey necropsy.**
Wednesday is a special day. it is dubbed "Birding in America Day" because you will be on the mainland for the day. You will visit a handful of local spots and find many unique birds you have never seen before. Additionally, you will learn techniques from some of the best. From a heavily wooded mountain to a massive field of wildflowers, Wednesday will be an incredible day. You will even visit some unconventional places like a concrete plant to find certain species like Peregrines. You will dodge traffic and face other urban threats as a group, all with the goal of seeing something new. In the evening you get to hear from instructor Iain MacLeod who has a extensive knowledge of Raptors from around the world. He is from Scotland but lives in New Hamshire, in his presentation he will take you on a nature tour of Scotland.
Thursday is a day you have been waiting for, a day on the water. There are two goals, Eastern Egg Rock Island is the first one. This is where Stephen Kress made the first restored Atlantic Puffin colony. This will be first most of the group will see Puffins. The second stop is Harbor Island. The first stop does not disappoint, there are Puffins everywhere. You can see the shack on the protected island where the Interns out there have a little command post. This colony is so special, every year interns live on the island, brave the weather, and ensure the Puffins are protected. As you approach Harbor Island you realize the Dory boat you have been towing is because at low tide the big boat can't make it to the shore. Somehow you fit 8-10 people in this tiny boat at a time and row to shore. You have a choice of a bird walk in the middle of the island or a hike around the perimeter walking along all of the massive rocks. You are one of the few that chooses the tougher route but why not make an adventure out of it. The weather is not great as a light sprinkle never seems to let up but this is the Maine you envisioned and you take in every second of it knowing this moment will never repeat. The rocks are slick and you work together to make sure everyone is safe.
After your adventure you ride back to Hog Island taking in as much as you can. A dinner of local lobster and and homemade pizza awaits your soaking wet self. After dinner you have final words from everyone and the night comes to an end.
Friday morning comes too fast and after a quick breakfast you are on a boat looking back at an island that is now forever a part of your life. Everyone goes their separate way, divided by distance but friends forever.
Header Photo:Terrence Malick