Island stop


BRD-B0411-500As a kid on the coast of Maine, I loved islands, especially ones that were little visited. I never knew what I might find along the shore – perhaps a delicate glass float from an offshore Portuguese fishing boat or the skeletonized remains of an unlucky porpoise. As an adult, I continue to be fascinated by islands. The simple pleasures of my childhood are now augmented by the bittersweet feeling of being cut off from the larger world, transported to a simpler life where the finicky rules of the continent don’t apply. That’s not strictly true, of course – most inhabited islands I know of now have internet access – but the sense of wonder and the unexpected still exists, especially for birdwatchers.

Take Monhegan Island, Maine. It lies about 10 miles southwest of Port Clyde, midway along the west-east axis of the state’s coast, isolated and quite small, about 1.75 miles long and a half mile wide. Most of the island is covered in spruces or spruces surrounded by tangles of raspberries. It has a small pond, a modest wet meadow, and several narrow red maple swamps. The village of Monhegan, population 75, occupies a small indentation on the southwest side. It may not be immediately obvious that such features make the island a place for migratory birds. par excellence, but as you will see, they do.

Mecca of migration

Let’s discover its enviable reputation as a center of migration. It’s offshore but not too offshore, secluded but not too secluded, and small but not too small. Think of it as a migratory bird, blown away from land at night by southwest winds in the spring or northwest winds in the fall: when it’s bright enough to see it, our bird knows that it deviates from its trajectory. Turning back to the northwest and towards the earth, he finds a speck of greenery. Having flown all night and who knows how long during the early hours of the day, our bird is ready to rest and feed, so it lands on the southeast coast of Monhegan.

If the birds feel relieved, I’m sure our bird would, just to fold its wings, but the spruce tangles on the southeast side of Monhegan don’t have enough resources to refuel. In autumn, spruce trees are not a rich source of food for birds without a cross beak, so our bird goes in search, and it finds food and water in red maple swamps and plantations of leafy trees, the fruit-bearing shrubs and the well-watered tangles of the village.

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So think about it: hundreds of birds find themselves above the water at dawn and turn back. Seeing Monhegan, they then hunt the relatively few pieces of the island that can sustain them. It’s a double multiplier. And many birds are tired and hungry and more interested in catching a caterpillar than you and your friends watching them from 20 feet away.

How to get there

Monhegan is accessible from three Maine ports: Port Clyde, New Harbor and Boothbay Harbor. Hours vary by company and season. In summer, they run up to three times a day. Check here for more details:

Welcome to Monhegan

Bird tours

Several businesses and non-profit organizations offer guided birding tours on the island, usually in late May and late September. Check out these sites for more details:

Freeport Wild Bird Supply

Maine Audubon

Mass Audubon

Wings Birding Tours around the world

when should we go

In late May, you can expect to see many migrating songbirds – vireos, thrushes, orioles, phoebes, flycatchers, tanagers and almost all oriental warblers. Other spring highlights include Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers and Black-bellied Plover.

Most of the same species cross again in the fall, especially in late September and early October, and they are frequently joined by southern, midwestern, and western vagrants, including Dickcissel, Blue Grosbeak, Lark Bunting, Horned Lark, Clay- colored and Lark Sparrows, and Bobolink.

So lots of birds are coming and they’re not particularly wary, but there’s more: some birds have come from very far away. They started their migrations with an incorrect compass heading and found themselves over the ocean coming from the west or south or from a distant location. On the mainland, such birds disappear into the expanse of forest, but on Monhegan, with its multiple multipliers, they seem preternaturally frequent.

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It can be almost awkward, sitting on a lovely porch in the late afternoon, overlooking the city and harbor, munching on a good Gouda and sipping a 12-year-old whiskey, when someone rushes over to say a Say’s Phoebe, a western flycatcher, is across from the Carina grocery store and Deli. All of Maine can have only eight recordings of Say’s Phoebe. Something like this seems to happen every few days during peak migration.

While Monhegan is primarily a place of migration – and the ebbs and flows of migration – there is always something to see: a passage of falcons, herds of gannets swooping over herring, minke whales below the high cliffs on the southeast side, or flocks of Common Eiders feeding on blue mussels. After dozens of visits, I have never been bored.

Now I go bird watching in landfills, sewers or wherever they congregate, but I much prefer bird watching in beautiful places, and Monhegan is a beautiful place. The central elements are the moody spruce forest and rocky shore, some of which are spectacular, and a village so charming it’s indecent, but I love the general calm of the island.

The few resident fishermen, innkeepers, and traders own only a handful of vehicles, which produce minimal harsh sounds. At night, the calm is almost eerie: the lap of the waves, the sound of a distant buoy and the hum of the wind in the trees form the full orchestra. The steady sweep of the headlight beam keeps time.

Of course, the final unspoken wonder of Monhegan is its accessibility. Ferries serve the island from three mainland towns, and at least three separate hostels and a number of seasonal home rentals are available. In late spring and fall, many birdwatchers are there, providing information and occasional company, and you might encounter David Sibley or the ghost of Roger Tory Peterson watching a Philadelphia Vireo eat viburnum fruit.

Learn more about Monhegan Island

Read Monhegan in May, artist Barry Van Dusen’s article on finding inspiration on Monhegan Island.

Will Russell is Founder and Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide. Now semi-retired, he conducts field research, writes and occasionally hosts tours.

Read Seabirds by Sail, editor Chuck Hagner’s 2014 article about birding in the Gulf of Maine on a historic schooner.

Updated April 22, 2016: We’ve updated our links and added a link to Barry Van Dusen’s article.