Friday, July 20, 2012

Appreciate the Guillemot!

As I stepped out of the Crow’s Nest cabin early on Wednesday morning, I saw that clouds once again filled the sky over the island. With my rain gear packed in my bag, I headed over to the main lawn where Dr. Sara Morris was setting up mist nets for a morning of bird banding. Before long, a large group had gathered around the banding area in hopes of seeing some of the island’s gorgeous birds in the hand. As we sat around waiting for a cooperative parula or Purple Finch, Dr. Morris discussed the process of bird banding and some of the information that has been gathered through years of banding records. As we sat listening, we became aware that nothing was responding to the recordings. The nets sat empty. Finally, as we were passing around a box of bird bands, something hit the net. Everyone turned their head and suddenly became excited that they would get to see a beautiful bird up close, perhaps a male Blackburnian Warbler in his flaming orange hood or maybe a Golden-crowned Kinglet with his tiny, fiery beret!

When we moved close enough to see the bird tangled in the fine netting, it was clear that this bird was not a warbler, a kinglet, or even a finch. We had caught a Song Sparrow. A brown, streaky, common Song Sparrow. A few people seemed disappointed at first, but as soon as they really got to see the sparrow, see its beady eyes up close and soft feathers arranged neatly on the bird's body, they realized that this was far from a disappointing catch. Many of the people gathered had never been bird banding before, so they had never had the opportunity to observe a wild bird up-close. Through this experience, even a plain sparrow had transformed into a beautiful creature.

As it would turn out, the female sparrow was to be the only bird we captured in the nets that morning. We tried and tried to get something to come down from the treetops with no avail. Nonetheless, we were satisfied that we had been able to witness the subtle beauty of the abundant Song Sparrow.

As the Song Sparrow flew out of the hand and into the nearby gardens, I noticed that Sara Morris and Scott Weidensaul were wearing weird red things on their shoes. Hmm...

As soon as I walked to the dining hall for breakfast, the sign beside the door reminded me: it was June 27, Guillemot Appreciation Day!

All who entered the hall were greeted by two guillemots illustrated on the kitchen wall, while streamers of guillemot colors, black, white, and red, hung from the ceiling.

Everyone was given a "I <3 Guillemots" pin and two little red feet, just like Sara and Scott were wearing!

After breakfast, with little red feet securely attached to our hiking boots, we got on the boats and journeyed out to Harbor Island, a small island situated about 4 miles from mainland. Since we had such a large group, a few of us got to ride in the smaller, faster boat. The ride was quite fun, with waves splashing over the bow and the wake from lobster boats tossing us back and forth.

As soon as we reached Harbor Island, small groups headed to the island in the row boat, in which we made a landing on the shore covered with dark, flat rocks.

We moved quickly across the rock- and moss-covered paths. A pair of White-throated Sparrows began chipping very loudly when we entered the open woods. These birds probably had a nest tucked carefully next to the path in the brambles growing over the fallen birches. As soon as we passed, the sparrows became silent and slipped back into the brush.

From the far end of the island, we had an incredible view out towards the ocean, lobster buoys and tiny islands dotting the choppy water. 

Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens group on Harbor Island

The far side of the island also held some interesting rock formations and a small cave-like passageway. We crawled through the rocks, got back on the trail, and worked our way back to the boat, occasionally stopping to look at a patch of bunchberries or lady's-slippers. Although we only had a brief time on the island, it was worth it. In just half an hour, we were able to see birds, plants, and geologic formations that were completely different than those on Hog Island!

Hog Island campers waiting to get back on the boat

After lunch back at Hog Island, Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, interviewed a few of the teen birders about the camp experience and about birding along the coast of Maine. It was a real privilege to be interviewed for a story that may appear on Bill's "This Birding Life" podcast in the future!

With the rain still holding off into the afternoon, the adults split up for various workshops and the teens ventured into the woods for more birding banding. With high hopes (after catching only a single bird in the morning), we helped Sara Morris place mist nets and play recordings in order to target specific species known to be in the area. We tried for different species in the woods than we had out on the lawn near the buildings. The songs of Black-throated Green Warbler, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Blackburnian Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, and Yellow-rumped Warbler radiated from the iPod tucked next to a spruce tree along the net.

Sara pointing out the kinglets singing above the mist nets

After a while of waiting, Sara's banding assistant, Kristin, returned from a net-check with a bag in hand. Success! The crowd oohed and ahhed when she pulled out the stunning male Black-throated Green Warbler. We had heard plenty of these treetop jewels during our hikes through the woods, but our only views were brief glimpses as a bird fluttered onto an open branch just long enough to grab an insect.

After determining that the bird was a second-year male, Sara demonstrated how to hold and band the tiny bird.

Once we all had great looks at the bird and all of the information was recorded, the warbler was released and it immediately took off into the spruce forest. About an hour later, as we were sitting close to the mist nets, we heard a Black-throated Green Warbler singing over our heads. When we found the bird, we noticed a small, metal band around its leg--we were probably looking at the bird we had just banded!

Although we waited for a while and played recordings of a variety of species, we were unable to catch and band any more birds. However, we did have a good time discussing banding, bird biology, and bird research. We also spent a good amount of time catching (or for some, attempting to catch) the dragonflies zig-zagging over the meadow.

Fellow camper, Hunter, standing proud with his insect net, scanning the horizon for a distant darner or skimmer

We only found two dragonfly species, but they were both ones I had not seen before this trip!

Four-spotted Skimmer

Mantled Baskettail

Later in the evening, we once again gathered in the Fish House for the evening program. We added a few new species to the week's running bird checklist, the started the Guillemot Appreciation Day song. After an interpretive guillemot dance and a poem from the teens, the entire group sang the official Guillemot Appreciation Song and enjoyed lovely photos of these awesome, red-footed seabirds.

Then Lang Elliot began his program. Instead of giving a typical talk or simply lecturing about bird songs, Lang played a sampling of recordings that campers had made on the very-early-morning recording sessions. Although the number of species on Hog Island is relatively low, we had done a great job at recording a large percentage of them. During the program, Lang discussed bird vocalizations, using the camp recordings as examples. Many intriguing birds were recorded during the past three mornings, including a Dark-eyed Junco that switched between two songs of different pitches and an incredible intricately-voiced Winter Wren.

Perhaps the best part of Lang's program was hearing the slowed-down versions of various bird calls. The lower speed allowed us to hear each individual note in the complex songs of Winter Wrens and Swainson's Thrushes. Everyone in the audience was amazed to hear how the songs were eloquently composed, even beyond what our ears can normally detect in the field.

As soon as the program ended, the "corvids," as the teens became known (we were staying in the Crow's Nest cabin) had a quick meeting, then got some rest before our final full day of the camp.

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