American Birding Podcast



Open Mic: The Magic of Hog Island

At the Mic: Julia Zarankin

Julia Zarankin is on her way to becoming a birder. In her other life, she is a writer, editor, writing coach, and lecturer to later-life learners in Toronto. In her former life, she worked as a professor of Russian literature and culture at the University of Missouri. She is a regular contributor to Ontario Natureand also reviews books for Birding. She also blogs about her misadventures in bird identification, and offers trenchant analysis of avian coiffures on her own blog Birds and Words (


Four years ago, I hadn’t yet picked up a pair of binoculars and I couldn’t distinguish a robin from a cardinal (I lived an exclusively indoor life). If someone had told me that I would one day end up at Hog Island Audubon bird camp, I would have stared in disbelief, shaken my head in total confusion and dismissed the prediction as complete insanity. BIRD CAMP? What did that even mean?

My interest in birds crept up on me incrementally. What initially began as curiosity – as much about the bird watchers in their multi-pocketed vests and wide brimmed hats as the birds themselves – transformed into something much more gripping when I saw my first Red-winged Blackbird. I couldn’t believe that the bird’s brilliant red and yellow epaulets had been within my reach all these years. It turned out I just hadn’t bothered to look.

Slowly, birding taught me to notice the world around me, to look intently, with wonder. And the more I saw, the more I wanted to see.

By the time I googled Hog Island Audubon Camp online (thanks to an engaging, photo-filled chapter in a charming coffee-table book called The Bird Life), I knew enough about the bird-world to be impressed by the camp faculty, which includes such birding luminaries as Kenn Kaufmann, Scott Weidensaul, Steve Kress, among many others. The genealogy of instructors at Hog Island is indeed awesome – Roger Tory Peterson and Alan Cruickshank both taught there in the 1930s; photographs, camp legends, and memorabilia keep their memory very much alive on the island.

Thanks to a generous scholarship from Hog Island, I was able to attend a 6-day September Fall migration session called Living on the Wind, taught by Scott Weidensaul (assisted by Benjamin Clock, Tom Johnson, and Peter Vickery).


Upon signing on for a week of birding with pros, I was intimidated. From what I knew, fall warblers presented notorious challenges for the novice birder; in my limited experience, they all seemed uniformly greenish-brown, camouflaged with the leaves, and flew at a velocity that rendered them just about impossible to identify. But once I arrived at camp, I realized that my fears had been for naught. I immediately remembered why I loved being in the company of other birders: their generosity and willingness to share knowledge with a beginning birder is incomparable and instantly put me at ease.

The magic began with my first encounter with Muscongus Bay, on the boat-ride from the dock to Hog Island, when I was greeted by crisp September Maine air, glistening, golden-leaved birch trees, and wooden camp buildings that resembled a quaint and welcoming fishing village. My fellow campers pointed out Yellow-rumped warblers, Common Eiders, and the nasal sounding Red-breasted Nuthatches in our midst. I put on my binoculars and began to get my bearings. I was in the company of enthusiastic, eager, friendly birders and surrounded by the sounds of gulls, loons, and a lone Pileated woodpecker in the distance. The frenetic city pace I’d left behind now seemed like a memory and I quickly adapted to Hog Island time, rising before the first hints of sunlight and falling asleep by 9:30 pm. It felt right.

Cormorant Hangout

And the birds! One of the highlights of the week included an overnight trip to Monhegan Island – a colossal stopover point for neotropical migrants on their way south. We saw close to twenty warbler species just minutes after stepping off the dock. Birding epiphanies abounded on our warbler quest and we even dared to challenge Roger Tory Peterson’s term “confusing fall warbler” when we were reminded that many warblers recognizable even in the fall (Northern Parula, Black and White, Magnolia, Black-throated Green, Chestnut-sided, etc). And then, on our search for yet another songbird, we unexpectedly came face to face with a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night heron relaxing in a tree, virtually at eye level. As if he’d been waiting for us to take his photo all along.


I didn’t part with my binoculars for six days. Too numerous to list, the spectacular bird sightings included a miraculous Parasitic Jaeger appearance, Northern Gannets performing nose-dives for us, as if on command, Great Cormorants posing with their wings outstretched, Surf scoters fluttering along the water, a lone Virginia Rail soundlessly scampering amidst the high grasses, a prolonged Northern Flicker-Kestrel chase.

And yet the week held much more than just birds. Part of the magic of being on Hog Island involved being part of an informed community both passionate and concerned about birds and their habitats. Every night concluded informative lectures that covered such topics as the miracle of migration, conservation issues, night calls, pelagic birds, and the history of Hog Island and the Project Puffin. The instructors showed impressive dedication; they were on hand from morning to evening – starting with daily bird walks at 6:30 am – and regaled us with knowledge, expertise, and a wonderful sense of humor.


I’ve saved one of the most incredible surprises for last – the food. Our delicious, unforgettable meals included a particularly memorable grilled tuna steak with salsa, exquisitely prepared duck, fresh-baked bread and danishes, and fresh lobster! The farewell feast wouldn’t have been complete without the ingenious and delectable Cream Puffins, which would have made Julia Child proud.


The best part of spending a week at bird camp on Hog Island? An omnipresent sense of excitement in the air. Apart from improving our ID skills and adding birds to our life-lists, Hog Island epitomized what I love most about birding: taking the time to really look at the world around us and relishing in the pleasure of being out in nature, with birds. And because we love birds, it helps to be reminded of our imperative to make our world a safer place for them.

Registration for Hog Island 2014 camp sessions opens on October 15th. Scholarships are available.