Monhegan Island, Maine
CT Audubon Society EcoTravel
September 24-27, 2009
Travelers: Carolyn C., Tina G., Denise J., Kris J., Barbara K., Wendy K., Sara Z.
Leader: Joe Bear
Our 4th annual trip to Monhegan Island will be remembered in many ways: we witnessed a major fallout, set a new CT Audubon species record, saw a very rare western species and perhaps an even rarer (to Monhegan) eastern one, had an unbelievable 4 tubenose pelagic experience on our ferry ride back to New Harbor, and may, just may, have even observed a new species undocumented by modern day science (kudos to Sara and Wendy!). Add to this the gorgeous Autumn weather, sumptuous food at The Island Inn, and the camaraderie of a fantastic group of keen, enthusiastic, and gregarious travelers, and you have a trip that I personally will never forget.
Day 1 (9/24):
After a 6:45am start from Westbrook, we made one other pickup off I-95 and then a final one off I-395 before we headed north to Maine arriving at the Sea Basket Restaurant in Wiscasset for lunch just before noon. Our ferry left New Harbor promptly at 2pm, and given the clear skies, our destination- Monhegan Island- was immediately in sight. The one hour crossing was smooth and as we approached our destination a few Northern Gannets got our excitement going- little did we know we’d end up seeing a few hundred more during our stay. As has happened countless times in the past, despite the short 100’ walk to the Island Inn from the ferry landing, it took us a while to actually check in as our attention was diverted to yet another western rarity on Monhegan- this time it was a Say’s Phoebe (thanks to a fellow birder for tipping us off as we arrived). The bird was apparently discovered that day and could be seen a couple of hundred yards away on Manana Island actively fly-catching from the top of a red-roofed storage shed. Although the front-lit lighting wasn’t ideal, scope views allowed us to discuss and study the bird, and occasionally get a glimpse of its rusty flanks. Of note was its rather long black tail, and profile- which was decidedly more slender and elongated than that of Eastern Phoebe. A heck of a way to begin the trip, and we still hadn’t checked in. After sorting out our rooms, keys, etc., we strolled down the single dirt road in town and came upon a Bay-breasted and Nashville Warbler in a dense stand of Lilac bushes. Another 50’ down the road we were at Tom Martin’s “feeders”, legendary for attracting a host of rarities over the 50 years that he has been frequenting the island during Sept/Oct. All, however, was rather quiet at Tom’s feeders (except for colorful Tom himself). Over the entire weekend, there was an unusual dearth of sparrows on Monhegan which gave the odd Mourning Dove and Blue Jay at Tom’s feeders little competition. They must have been wondering where the usual Clay-colored and Lark Sparrows were, as were we. We closed out our first day with a 6:30pm Welcome Dinner at the Island Inn- some of the best food one can hope for. We retired for the night in great anticipation of what the night’s NW winds might bring; our dreams were soon to be answered.
Day 2 (9/25):
The previous 3 nights winds had been out of the SSW, preventing any significant migration. On the day we arrived, however, they had shifted to WNW setting the stage for a large movement of migrants that night. The winds started out fairly light at 8mph which encouraged the log-jammed migrants to take flight, and so they did. Around 1am, however, the winds shifted to a more westerly direction and picked up speed gusting upwards to 20mph thus blowing 1000’s of birds offshore. When we met outside at 6:45am, we quickly realized what we had been hoping for- a fallout was in the making! We stood at one corner, which we named the junction or magic corner, and did not/could not move as wave after wave of migrants poured through the stand of shrubs and small trees just a stone’s throw from us. While our bins were seemingly fixed to our eyes, we couldn’t help but notice 3 adult Bald Eagles as they lazily lifted off from Smutty Nose. And while there were huge numbers of overall birds and nice diversity, too, there were exceptionally large numbers of Nashville, Parula, Palm, and Black-throated Green Warblers over the course of the day. Red-eyed Vireos were like vermin they were so common (even “REV” Barbara couldn’t look at them any longer!). Other notables on the day were Tennessee (a lifer for Denise) and Wilson’s Warblers, Philadelphia Vireo (next time Denise!), a few Swainson’s Thrushes, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (50+) seemed to adorn nearly every tree. Small flocks of Rusty Blackbirds flew overhead giving all of us many opportunities to note their call, a useful tool in the field when trying to pick them out amongst a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds or Grackles. Merlins were common, and a few Peregrines kept them company as they patrolled the skies as well. The beauty of Monhegan is that it is small, and the birds are concentrated in and around the village where food is most plentiful; as a result, while the fury of the early morning abated somewhat, birds were still everywhere throughout the entire day. Somehow, 1:30pm crept up on us- not wanting to stop, but needing the break, we grabbed some sandwiches and gathered on the porch of the Island Inn for a well deserved reprieve. On our way out to the 160’ cliffs of Whitehead after lunch, we came upon a couple of very obliging American Pipits near the Lighthouse. Crossing the ball field we noticed a hawk being harassed by a few crows, nothing unusual there but this was Monhegan and the hawk appeared to be a Buteo. After closer study and discussion we concluded on an immature Broad-winged Hawk, a very rare raptor for Monhegan and undoubtedly blown out over the ocean that day by the 20+ mph winds. Broad-winged Hawks prefer to migrate along inland mountain ridgelines to take advantage of rising thermals- they avoid water at all costs- so this one on Monhegan was totally unexpected and an excellent find for the trip. Not many others on the island got a chance to see it as it appeared to be a one day wonder. (Of note was that 1,379 Broad-wings were counted at Lighthouse Point in CT on that day- a very large number for this coastal site). Continuing our hike out to Whitehead, we passed thru the Spruce forest that dominates most of Monhegan Island. A Winter Wren gave its jip jip call revealing its location, and our first of several Red-breasted Nuthatches for the trip sounded off with its nasally call. It’s a fairly short walk to the cliffs of Whitehead and when we arrived the views were nothing less than spectacular. There’s something very humbling about gazing out into the deep and vast blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean from on top a 160’ cliff on an island 10 miles out at sea- if you didn’t know it before, you’d know then that “it’s not about you”J. While enjoying the serenity surrounding us, we scoped a Great Cormorant sitting on the guano-stained cliffs below, and Tina’s ever sharp eyes picked up a distant Cory’s Shearwater. Northern Gannets were everywhere, plunge-diving as they fed on bait fish. We headed back to the village to conclude a very memorable day; fallouts don’t occur often, so we really felt lucky to be part of this amazing experience on this amazing island. Dinner was at The Island Inn again- no arm-twisting there.
Day 3 (9/26):
Just as they arrived en masse, they left en masse. While winds continued out of the NW during the night, they were light giving the displaced migrants on Monhegan a chance to get back on shore, and so a mass exodus ensued during the night. Some of us met at the meadow at 6:15am where a Wilson’s Snipe did a circular landing pattern before it settled into the meadow itself. Although much quieter than the previous day, there were plenty of good birds still around. On a tip from another group, we relocated a Lark Sparrow spending its day on a dirt track behind the Novelty. After another relaxing lunch on the porch of the Inn, we ambled back toward the ball field where Tina found a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that seemed content with only showing itself once (to her). In our efforts to relocate it, we found an actively feeding Empid of undetermined species. It wasn’t a Least or Yellow-bellied for sure, and although the greenish back color looked good for Acadian, its primary projection was too short (we were also later told that Acadian would be extremely rare for Maine). So it goes down as a Traill’s Flycatcher and only he/she knows for sure whether it was a Willow or Alder. We spent the balance of the afternoon on the southern part of the island- we first hiked out to Burnthead cliffs where along the way Sara spotted a large bird perched in a tree some distance away. A quick scope view revealed it to be a Northern Flicker, but not just any Flicker, a potentially new-to-science Super “Wendy” Flicker. At Burnthead itself, 100’s of Northern Gannets put on quite a show. From there we took Underhill trail back to “town” and marveled at the vibrant red color of the Mountain Ash berries- I think at least a few CT homes will be sporting this fine looking specimen in their gardens next year. At Lobster Cove we were treated to a Minke Whale breaking surface a few times just offshore. We dined at the Island Inn once again, and thanks to the many open bottles of wine that we worried wouldn’t keep on our drive back to CT (hee hee), we all had a lot of laughs on this our last night together. We may have even bordered “rowdy” I later found out- go figure.
Day 4 (9/27):
The winds had shifted to the SSW which didn’t bode well for new migrants to Monhegan, but our eager group assembled early a.m. anyhow to cover the usual spots. After giving it a 2hr bash and with the skies beginning to cast a fine drizzle on us, we decided that time would be better spent having Lobster Scramble so we heartily headed back to the Island Inn a bit earlier than usual. There was news of an impending storm today with heavy seas so alongside the blueberry pancakes for most of us was some Bonine. Our ferry trip back to the mainland began on the wrong foot (but ended on the right one!) as the stern line got wedged into the dock as we were casting off. The captain and deck hand quickly sorted that out. The next 1 hour journey back was perhaps as exhilarating as the fallout 2 days earlier, but in a different kind of way. As we were passing Smutty Nose looking at Common Eiders and Black Guillemots, I was surprised as anyone to see a Caspian Tern sitting on one of the rocks- not exactly what you expect to see on Monhegan in late September! We all got great looks at its massive red bill as the boat flushed it off the rocks. The captain then paused at another cluster of rocks where many Harbor Seals and a Grey Seal were resting. About halfway into our trip the first of 3 Greater Shearwaters made its appearance foreshadowing what was to be a thrilling 2nd half of the journey. Shortly after we spotted a couple of Cory’s Shearwaters flying by at fairly close range allowing us to make out all the field marks, but who needed to strain when minutes later 4 of them were sitting on the water just 20’ off the starboard side of the boat giving fantastic views of their tube-nosed yellow bills. This was really getting fun- there’s just something neat about pelagic birding, and the best was still yet to come. Keeping the search from the bow, I was looking for that scoter species or Red-throated Loon that we were missing from our list, so when I suddenly yelled out “Fulmar, Fulmar” I could hardly believe what I was saying but there it was, a light phase Northern Fulmar only 150’ off the bow. The excitement was incredible with everyone exchanging high 5’s and cheers. Still searching ahead for that darn scoter, a small distant dark bird flying low on the water with a bounding flight caught my eye- Leach’s Storm Petrel I blurted out but no sooner than I called it, it vanished. Urghhh- I didn’t want the ride back to end that way. We all had our bins trained on the water seeing if we could pick up the 8” bird, but no luck. It was then that I relocated it but this time flying straight at us coming within feet of the bow- a Leach’s Storm-Petrel for sure (and a lifer for Kris)!! You couldn’t ask for better looks as it showed off its browner (than Wilson’s) upper wing coverts, and notched tail, not to mention its nighthawk-like flight. Alas, we arrived at New Harbor without a new scoter, but with some awesome pelagics instead.
Thanks to everyone for making this such an enjoyable 4 days on Monhegan Island, and a special thanks to Carolyn for playing avian nurse to a tiny Nashville Warbler followed by an even worse off Brown Creeper. It’s just amazing how small these birds really are when you’re not looking at them through binoculars.
I look forward to seeing you all on future CT Audubon trips.
Thank you again. My very best,