Saturday, July 25, 2015

ME: July 20 - 25 Trip Log: Part I - Hog Island Audubon Camp and the Outdoor Teaching Tradition

In the tradition of the Maine "Great Camps", Audubon's Hog Island continues to inspire and drive environmental and natural resources education for teachers from all over the world. I finally had my chance to join a summer session - one of my life-long dreams - certainly as a naturalist and natural history educator, but also as a conservation historian. This great camp experience did not disappoint and made me love all the more the impressive tradition of teaching that came from the nature study era of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Pog, a treasured family moose, travels with me to Hog Island. Scott gives him a lift!

I have to state up front - I am a lover all things north in natural history, so you know I was as giddy as a little kid to step on to the Snowgoose, the big charter boat that ferries campers and guests to the camp and out to the bird islands of Muscongus Bay. My love for pelagic birding and riding aboard big boats is hard to hide and I always take the 'spotters stance' with binoculars in hand no matter how short or long the ride is. It was a short hop to the island but I saw black guillemot ('gillies'), common loon, double crested cormorant, and common eider right off! Yes - it feels like home before ever stepping off the Snowgoose!

Black Guillemot chick losing her down for adult jet black plumage

I tried to maintain a conservation historian's eye-view of the experience from the moment I walked up the dock ramp past the great shingled teaching lab and staff housing building The Queen Mary, to the gathering commons at The Bridge. How many great teachers and renowned birders have walked up the plank path to The Bridge? Rachel Carson, Roger Tory Peterson, Peter Dunn, Allen Cruickshank, and just a week ago, Scott Weidensaul (conservation author and founder of Project SNOWstorm). I thought about how many incredible naturalists and writers who've walked up that ramp are/were from Pennsylvania. I was right proud!

Hog Island, Maine.

Before I knew it, over 60 people had gathered on the island and were setting up their rooms with new roomies and instant friends. I will say something about the Great Camp tradition - you cannot help but make instant friends when abiding by dearly-held rules for family style meals and changing tables at every gathering (though I did try to position myself close to the windows at two particular tables whenever possible - I cannot stop birding...). My roomate Jen from Norfolk, Virginia, and I instantly hit it off and by the end of the week my face hurt from laughing so much!

Field sessions are an important part of learning the science of natural history.
Educators from all over the nation were split into four working cohorts to learn the natural history of the island and we were soon familiar with the grand old plank-built hall The Fish House where much information was shared, songs were sung, and deep thinking was thought about. I enjoyed sharing my PhD work in conservation history with many teachers, and two teachers in particular, Deb and Frankie, really were drawn to socio-ecological complex systems analysis and Buzz Hollings' infamous Figure Eight. A fellow PhD student Fanny and I talked up our field work incessantly and became each cheerleaders for the other as we work this year to finish our programs. She's doing some amazing work with finch song in Central Park, New York, bringing her love of music and music history to ornithology - a true transdisciplinarian.

Natural history illustration is a critical part of how we collect and understand ecological systems. Sherry York, instructor.

Although the Hog Island experience is now often associated with heading out on the Snowgoose to see seals and puffins, the tradition of the Audubon naturalists camp for teachers often goes undetected by those unfamiliar with the long history of nature and science education through the Audubon Society. In the late 1800s the Nature Study Movement arose in response to a growing interest conservation efforts and the realization that more people were city dwellers than from the country - a trend that has continued as America's demographic is certainly more urban/suburban than rural. Progressive educators and conservationists  Cornell's Anna Botsford Comstock and Liberty Hyde Bailey, and the American Museum of Natural History's Louis Agassiz and Wilbur Jackson launched a series of summer camps for teachers in 1895 with the hope that inspired teachers would bring nature study to their students. The idea  borrowed the Great Camp style of communal living and combined it with field sessions for natural history, science education, and conservation education - a recipe that continues to serve educator's camps very well all across the nation each summer. 

Naturalist and Keystone College (PA) professor Dr. Jerry Skinner

I've been teaching natural history for a long time, especially that of the northern woods, bogs, and coasts, and I was impressed with the suite of teachers we had for this session. Tradition is a big deal at Hog Island, and though most of the visiting teachers to Educator's Camp were unaware, I was totally tuned in to how our instructors utilized the hands-on and experiential approaches to outdoor education which were critical to the success of nature study movement under Comstock, Bailey, Agassiz, and Jackson.

Craig Newburger, excellent field educator and long-time Hog Island instructor teaches at Germantown School, PA.
The legacy of early nature educators who taught experiential methods to thousands classroom teachers who, in turn brought nature study back to their own students, influenced and inspired many of our most revered conservationists of mid-century including Rachel Carson, Olaus Murie, Aldo Leopold, and Roger Tory Peterson - among hundreds of other well-known names in the natural sciences. I wondered how many teens and educators who attend the summer sessions out here have gone on to be scientists in conservation work? 

A fellow natural resources educator popping out of Port Hole - our shingle sided great camp lodge for the week.

The 330 acre island off the shores of Bremen , Maine, was gifted to the Audubon Society in 1936 by Millicent Todd Bingham, who inherited the island from her mother, Mabel Loomis Todd, writer, editor, and biographer to Emily Dickinson. Since then the Audubon Society has maintained the island for its historic great camp charm and function with all emphasis on bird conservation and environmental education. The buildings are historic and the original camp of the Todds, including Mabel's writing cabin, still stand on the island. Artists and writers-in-residence can apply to stay in the Bingham camp. This year, one of my instructors, Sherry York from Colorado, will be spending a blissful month at the Bingham cottage to work on her printmaking.

Juanita and Ruth - carrying on the Great Camp tradition in important ways.

Critical to this effort has been the work of volunteers, especially with the backing of Friends of Hog Island (FOHI) and literally hundreds of people who donate their time and money to keeping the spirit of this Audubon camp alive and well. You can't help but feel like family as FOHI volunteers serve wonderful meals, attend to the workings on the lodges, and walk along with you on a late afternoon bird hike. I revived a little of the great camp spirit myself when I decided to make my Project Puffin (2015) book my 'autograph book.' I asked Ruth Woodall and Juanita Roushdy to be the first signers, though Ruth was so busy in the registrar's office I had to wait till supper to track her down! I had Juanita right at the check-out in the camp bookstore as I was buying the book, so she was naturally the first. (She got a little teary-eyed!)

My new hiking buddy Pachell - we can't wait to meet up in the NJ Pine Barrens for some day hikes.

Here's a nice video (featuring several of our instructors I was unable to capture in my own pics) that gives a great introduction to the experience at Hog Island:

I'll follow up with a few more posts about the actual conservation work and history of the Muscongus Bay region, but for now I wanted to get the education post in first. The instructors were excellent and the content an context of the camp truly was life changing for many of the teachers who came from everywhere. Great emphasis was placed on teacher diversity and I applaud the Audubon Society for sending so many teachers of color to this camp. We need to work harder to include the voices and experiences of ALL environmental educators and their students and I am impressed with Audubon's efforts to make the Hog Island Educators Week available to them.

A proper Eastern Egg Rock send-off from our cohort ashore Hog Island.

Before I close out this post I want to thank the Maryland Ornithological Society, and in particular my friend Dr. Dennis Kirkwood (MOS) for sponsoring my trip and my organization the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation (MAEF) for allowing me the time to attend. Though I have many stops along the way as I continue my northern summer naturalist's expedition, this was a most excellent way to come home to New England!

More posts to follow for this week on bird conservation and the Atlantic coastal environment, but in the meantime check out the sites below.


Friends of Hog Island - this should be your first stop! Support FOHI!

Scott Weidensaul, author and founder of Project SNOWstorm -

Instructor bios at Hog Island for this year can be seen here:

Hog Island Audubon Camp main site:

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