Monhegan. If there is one birding site in Maine where anything can happen, this island is it. For most of the summer, it is a quiet island, allowing vacationers to get away from it all. But in spring and fall, it’s Maine’s premier birding hot spot. Even when it isn’t.
I spent last weekend there. The truth is, I saw more birders than birds. You could title today’s column “Hurricanes: Part Two.” Last week, I talked about how birds deal with hurricanes. Mostly, they try to avoid storms. On Monhegan, I witnessed the result. The last half of September is usually awe-inspiring. Migrating birds can get caught offshore, and they look for safe havens. Monhegan offers them food and shelter.
A lot of birds end up on Monhegan, including rare wanderers. These vagrant birds may have faulty compasses and travel east when they meant to travel north or south — or they may be driven off course by adverse weather. When they get to Maine’s coast and overshoot land, Monhegan is their last refuge. Therefore, Monhegan has a reputation for being a migrant trap. Birds and birders flock there.
Last weekend, the birders flocked there, but the birds didn’t. Bill Sheehan was among the many birders I chatted with on the island. Bill is famous, or infamous, as one of Aroostook County’s foremost birders. He admitted to watching radar reports for the previous week, which can recognize swarms of birds in flight, and he was chagrined to see huge flocks leaving Maine just before his Monhegan birding vacation. Furthermore, these birds all seemed to leave at once and followed a more inland route than usual. He surmised the birds were aware of the hurricanes and were taking urgent advantage of the lull between the storms.
Derek Lovitch was on Monhegan. Derek runs Freeport Wild Bird Supply, and is one of Maine’s top guides. In this instance, he was on the island to lead a tour for an internationally famous company, something he has done for several years. The tour takes advantage of the tremendous number of birds that can be seen during the last two weeks of September. But not this year. It was a struggle to find anything out of the ordinary. Sadly, I have firsthand knowledge of what it is like to lead bird trips for paying customers when the birds aren’t cooperating.
Derek could probably sense trouble coming. Sandy Point is a birding hotspot on Cousins Island in Yarmouth. Migrating birds often touch down on the islands of Casco Bay when they finish their nocturnal flights. In the morning, birds make adjustments on where they are going to settle down to rest and feed before flying off again, and these adjustments can take hundreds of songbirds over this one beach on a good morning. Derek monitors this spot when the winds are favorable, and the week before our mutual Monhegan experience stunning numbers of birds were crossing the channel, smashing all previous records. It was more evidence that birds sensed trouble and were fleeing south while they could.
Fortunately, Monhegan is lively even when quiet. There may not have been a superabundance of species present, but there were still plenty of interesting birds on the island. Ruby-crowned kinglets kept me amused. It would be easy to overlook such a tiny bird, but they have a habit of calling while foraging. It’s a quick “chit-itch” sound. Once you knew what to listen for, you discovered they were all over the island.
Dickcissels are grassland birds of the central United States. They rarely wander into Maine, but when they do they often turn up in the meadow behind the village. Finding such a small bird in such a large field would be nearly impossible if they didn’t have their own funny call note. The “pffft” call sounds like a Bronx cheer. I watched one disappear into the grass — the 326th species I’ve seen in Maine.
Unfortunately, 326 is fewer than have been seen by Kristen Lindquist. She’s an author, poet and avid birder from Camden. We’ve had an informal competition for the last decade to see who could find the most birds in Maine. She’s now way ahead, mostly because she birds Monhegan every spring and fall and has notched many a rarity out there. I ran into her on the island. But then, I ran into everyone on the island.
In migration, Monhegan is the place to go.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.