Hefner Spotlights

This picture contains the outdoor scenery of Hog Island showing a rocky beach surrounded by dark evergreens.
Julie Robinson stands at the boat dock entrance to Hog Island, Maine.

Hands-On Bird Science  

National Audubon Society and

Project Puffin

Hog Island, Maine, with its nearly 80-year legacy of nature camps and environmental education, provides inspiration to so many people. Fortunately, I am now one of them—thanks to Audubon Miami Valley, a local chapter of the Audubon Society, that sponsors local educators to programs hosted at Hog Island.  You should know that I am, at best, a novice birder. I participated in Hands-On Bird Science this past June, an Audubon program geared specifically toward museum professionals—the first of its kind.  It was a natural fit for me since I work at the Hefner Museum of Natural History (HMNH) at Miami University. As part of my duties at HMNH, I teach our undergraduates how to clean the specimens to encourage the longevity of our collections. With proper care, our collections can live on in perpetuity for future generations to learn from and admire. 

Hands-On Bird Science offered four different educational sessions, including preparing study skins, making nature sound recordings, banding birds, and using migratory tracking technology. I hoped to learn how museum specimens, the study skins, are prepared and to take that skill back to the Museum. I also wanted to learn how to make nature recordings. And, with any luck, I secretly hoped to see a double-crested cormorant in the wild, the first specimen that I ever cleaned at the Museum.

The journey to Hog Island is an experience in itself. I flew into Portland, Maine to catch a van (with other Audubon participants from around the world—in my case—Missouri, Washington, New Jersey, and South America) that would take me the hour and a half drive to the dock. We arrived at the dock ready to catch a pontoon to the island. This land-locked Indiana girl jumped at just the thought of ferrying the last leg of the journey to the island. After 9 hours of layovers and travel, I finally made it to Hog Island, beating the camper from South America by only 2 hours. She took 11 hours to make her journey.

My roommate and I shared a room in a refurbished building called the Queen Mary. Most participants arrived within a two-hour span. Campers met as a large group in the Fish House, which served as a daily gathering place for all meetings, evening seminars, and announcements.

Each day roughly followed the same schedule starting with early morning hikes at 5am, educational morning and afternoon sessions, morning boat rides to other research sanctuaries, and evening seminars. Of course, I can’t forget the delicious meals sprinkled in between for good measure.

We immediately started our first seminar Sunday evening, before I even unpacked my suitcase! This program provided the hook for the week to reel in all participants—Project Puffin. We learned how Dr. Steve Kress worked to reintroduce the puffins, starting back in the 70s, after excessive hunting exterminated them from the area in the late 1880s. His fascinating story supplied the common thread of environmental education woven throughout the entire week and I was truly humbled to be in his presence. Throughout the week, Dr. Kress would stop in to see how the workshops were going and to answer questions about his work with the puffins.

An all-star cast of instructors and lecturers included field guide, Tom Johnson, Brad Walker from Cornell University; ornithologist and author, Scott Weidensaul; OSU Curator at Borror Lab of Bioacoustics, Angelika Nelson; migratory tracker of hummingbirds, Fred Dietrich; Sandy Lockerman, birdbander; and finally Steve Kress of Project Puffin and Seabird Restoration Program. (Project Puffin now administers and runs the Audubon camps at Hog Island.)

Day One: I started the day at 5am learning how to do a Point Count with Tom Johnson. During a Point Count, record all sounds, jotting down all birds seen and heard, for four minutes. This is usually a solo activity, allowing the participant to cut down on external noise. Since we had a larger, talkative group participating in this survey, we simply compiled our group data into one Point Count, discussing the different species documented.

Mr. Johnson also introduced us to http://www.eBird.org, an excellent tool that allows for online and offline recording of data. Birders can keep track of their bird lists and share their findings with the community of birders. It is also a great tool for determining “hot spots” of areas where specific birds are located.Tom Johnson, an accomplished field guide educated at Cornell University, leads our group in a point count.

The rest of the day included programs that campers could choose to attend as often as necessary to perfect their skills. With temperatures in the 70s, most of us chose outdoor activities. I attended the bird banding session with Sandy Lockerman. Camp leaders conducted the actual banding while campers identified birds, documented weight and measurements, and helped to set up and take down the nets used for catching the birds.

At the end of the day, in place of the seminar, camp organizers led a meet-and-greet. We shared the island with an outstanding group of teenage birders. What wonderful students! I interacted with them throughout the entire week at breakfasts and meals. While our sessions did not overlap, we got to discuss each other’s different programs when together. These students really gave me hope that the earth will truly be in good hands in future years to come. We then began our first Bird Count of the Day, with all participants in attendance. In order for a bird to be counted, at least two people had to confirm the sighting from that day. We held bird counts daily before the evening lectures.

Day Two: Again, we started in the early morning with the birds at 5am. This day we had a morning hike to identify birds by their calls. After breakfast, we prepared for our much anticipated boat ride to Eastern Egg Rock to see the puffins. Remember the 70s from the day before? This day, impressive waves accompanied pouring rain and splashed over the sides of the boat, while the temperatures plummeted to the 40s. We downed our Dramamine, donned our rain suits, wool hats (yes, wool), and gloves, and had the most extraordinary experience seeing the puffins flying overhead and diving in the water. On this outing, our captain encouraged us to embrace the weather. The brilliant colors of the puffins easily overshadowed the weather. In addition to seeing the puffins that day, I spied many cormorants flapping their gangly wings. I treasure this memory.

That evening, the weather subsided, but the temperatures dipped into the 30s. No heating or air conditioning graced the buildings of Hog Island. Participants bundled up to enjoy the night lecture by Fred Dietrich. Mr. Dietrich discussed the tracking and migration of hummingbirds. Consider the size of a Jelly Belly jellybean. It parallels the size of a hummingbird egg. So you can easily imagine the minute size of the bands required for tracking these tiny creatures. We learned hummingbirds embark on their migratory flights as soloists. To make their migratory flight of nearly 400 miles, hummingbirds gain an additional 40% of their body weight beforehand. Many begin this staggering endeavor at only three months of age.

Days Three and Four:

Intensive workshop days followed in which I learned how to prepare the study skins and make nature sound recordings. A study skin is a bird preserved on a stick—which provides the tail stability while being handled by curious learners. To prepare for our session, instructor Brad Walker, froze dead birds to stop decomposition and to kill any insects present. I learned the steps from preparation to skinning, how to sex the birds, to determine the amount of skull ossification, to prep skeletons, to wash and dry skins, and how to make simple spread wings. These sessions averaged three to four hours per day. I am very pleased with the skills that I acquired at Hog Island in study skin preparation. It isn’t feasible to prepare all birds brought in to a museum as a mount. At the Hefner, we prepare study skins of birds that faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students borrow for classroom use. We also include study skins in educational Discovery Trunks that local schoolteachers checkout to utilize in their classrooms. This gives students of all ages the ability to see nature up close and enables students to observe more “real-life” examples at their fingertips.

During the remaining sessions, I studied nature sound recordings. A unique group of individuals wakes up at 5am to record bird sounds and I was one of them. I carried in one hand, equipment resembling a large megaphone, only capturing sound, not amplifying it. In the other, I grasped a microphone and a sound box, the size of a brick, to regulate volume. (I truly needed a third hand.) I wore a headphone set that amplified all sounds recorded. Leader, Angelika Nelson, instructed trainees to stand in one place along the trail for ten minutes to zero in on any bird sounds. That morning the roaring lobster boats in the nearby waters competed with the birdcalls, so I expected lesser quality recordings. I was completely wrong. During our follow-up session, Dr. Nelson introduced us to the software, Raven, that enables one to record and analyze bird vocalization and block out extraneous noise. I could immediately see the possibilities of creating sound recordings for our museum exhibits—to bring the sounds of nature to our visitors—even as an uncoordinated, beginner sound technician, such as myself.

On Thursday, we ended the weeklong camp with a bird hike to Damariscotta Nature Preserve. We identified many different species of birds and the flora of the area that attracts them there. What a beautiful way to end our week of productive, educational programs!

That evening, we joined together for our last bird count, seminar, and a farewell video compiling our week’s activities. Scott Weidensaul of the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Pennsylvania and contributor to http://www.projectsnowstorm.org gave a riveting talk about snowy owls. These territorial raptors are remarkable predators that care for their young—surrounding their nests with up to 74 lemmings and mice to minimize how often a parent leaves the nest in search of food. He discussed the use of backpack transmitters harnessed to the bird’s back that help researchers document the snowy owl’s behavior and habitat. This information serves as the catalyst to increased conservation efforts.

The next morning, all campers departed Hog Island. However, the experiences and skills that I learned at Hog Island did not end that day. Since that week, I established collaborations with nature centers and museums in attendance. I continue corresponding with the leader of the study skin preparations, using his tips and suggestions. I am incorporating many of the recommendations and activities from the week into projects our Miami undergraduate volunteers will tackle in the fall. Finally, I am incorporating information from the seminars into new inquiry lessons offered at the Hefner to use with visiting school groups. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to attend the Hands-On Bird Science Audubon camp. I will be reaping the benefits of new work relationships, exceptional resources, and cherished memories for many years to come. Thank you, Audubon Miami Valley, for making such an incredible experience possible!