Trip Report: Monhegan Island, ME
September 26 – 29, 2008
Travelers: Jim and Carol D., Peter and Tina G., Tom H., Howard W., Tom W.
Leader: Joe Bear
Our 3rd annual trip to Monhegan Island was punctuated by on and off rain, heavy fog, southeast winds, a low pressure system from the south followed by hurricane Kyle passing just east of us, but most notably, one group of enthusiastic and determined birders not willing to allow any of this to interfere with having a great time and seeing some cracking birds to boot. Given the far-from-ideal migration conditions, we tallied a very respectable 77 species including some goodies like Lark Sparrow (scope views all 4 days), Clay-colored Sparrow, Cape May, Tennessee, and Wilson’s Warblers, Rusty Blackbird, a flyover Dickcissel, and a very bright and obliging Philadelphia Vireo on our last morning. Ring-necked Pheasants seem to be getting on quite well with each other as the island was overrun with them. Our stay at the Island Inn was first class as usual, and the food kept us coming back for dinner all three nights.
Note – I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that some birders on the island reported seeing a Cassin’s Vireo (RARE to even western Texas) and a Hermit Warbler. From what I know (i.e. limited research), there are only a handful of east coast records of Hermit Warbler (this would be Maine’s first) and they occurred either in Nov or early spring, and of course Cassin’s Vireo has never occurred on the east coast. These are very good birders so no disrespect is intended, just some perspective for the group. Monhegan is well-known for producing rarities, and even “firsts”, so time will tell if these sightings become accepted by the Rare Records Committee, however, without conclusive evidence (i.e. photos) it’s unlikely.
Day 1 (9/26):
After a 7:20am start from Westbrook, Tom W., Tom H. and I picked up Howard off 395 shortly after 8am and headed up to Maine where we stopped for a “to-go” lunch at the Sea Basket Restaurant in Wiscasset, ME. Our ferry from New Harbor left promptly at 2pm. We encountered moderate swells, spray, and rain during the 1 hour crossing which made viewing through our binoculars difficult- it’s a good thing Northern Gannets are large seabirds as we saw plenty of them naked eye. After arriving on Monhegan and getting ourselves checked into the Island Inn, we gathered on the porch overlooking Manana Island and saw our first of several Merlins for the trip. Despite the inclement weather, we were all anxious to get out and explore, so we walked up to Ice Pond where Tina’s sharp eyes found a single female Rusty Blackbird walking along the pond’s edge. It was the only one we saw for the entire trip, and didn’t hear of anyone else seeing any, so we were fortunate. Near the Ice Pond we encountered a small flock of mixed warblers and vireos, but overall the fog and rain kept bird activity down so we walked over to Tom Martin’s feeders which as usual didn’t disappoint offering us point blank scope views of a Lark and Clay-colored Sparrow, two of Monhegan’s classic western vagrants. Our dinner reservation was at 6:30pm, so after adding a couple of “lifer” sparrows for most, we sat down to enjoy a 5-star Welcome Dinner.
Day 2 (9/27):
It rained overnight with winds out of the ESE, not the recipe one hopes for when on Monhegan in September, but we donned raingear and boots and headed out towards Lobster Cove eagerly anyway. En route we couldn’t help but stop and have another look at Tom’s Lark Sparrow (it would have been rude not to), followed by a good study and discussion of side-by-side Savannah, Swamp, Chipping, and Song Sparrows all feeding on a lawn just past Tom’s. We made it down to Lobster Cove and ran into an Eastern Phoebe tucked into a hollow of various shrubs and thickets. The fog was all around us so it was anyone’s guess what birds were out on the ocean as we couldn’t see it. The southern tip of Monhegan is especially good for raptors, esp. falcons, but none seemed to be airborne in the poor weather, and if they were we couldn’t see them anyhow. Back in the village we encountered a small feeding flock of migrants near the Monhegan Library and Tribler Cottage including Blue-headed and Yellow-throated Vireos, Tennessee and Nashville Warblers. Although the weather wasn’t great, the forecast was for it to get even worse the next day ala Kyle so to cover more territory today we walked up to the lighthouse and ball field (both very quiet) and then through the Spruce forest to the 160’ cliffs of Whitehead. Normally a breathtaking view of the Atlantic Ocean, we couldn’t see much on account of the fog but were able to make out the head shape, white throat patch, and relative size of at least 3 Great Cormorants hunkered down on some rocks below us. On our way back through Cathedral Woods, where evidence of industrious fairies kept us on the lookout, we heard the distinctive 2-part call of a skulking Winter Wren, with some catching a brief glimpse of the little brown fella. Most of us grabbed some sandwiches at The Barnacle and sat on our porch while we relaxed for a bit and enjoyed our lunch. After recharging the battery, we hiked out east again to the Burnthead cliffs- visibility was still poor, and then the skies opened so we hoofed it back to the porch of the Island Inn where we spent the balance of the afternoon scanning the harbor and what we could see of the ocean, while wondering if/how hurricane Kyle was going to effect us. We already learned that the afternoon ferry from New Harbor the next day had been cancelled and we were all thrilled with the idea of being “stranded” on Monhegan! Dinner was at The Island Inn again- no arm-twisting there.
Day 3 (9/28):
It had rained hard overnight with winds still out of the ESE as hurricane (cat. 1) Kyle approached from the south. The road west of Monhegan House leading to the harbor produced our first Blackpoll Warbler, and an unidentified Empid. With seemingly not much around on the south end, we headed back towards the Monhegan library which had been the most active area since our arrival. On Blackhead (we agreed that the founder of Monhegan must have been a Dermatologist) trail a warbler flew ahead of us and into a Spruce- having just looked at a couple of Yellow-rumps I dismissed it as another one and kept walking. Jim, on the other hand, decided to keep me honest and got his bins on the bird quickly and exclaimed, “this is not a Yellow-rump.” After a few steps backwards I was looking at a nicely colored adult female Cape May Warbler- thank you Jim! We made our way down to the path behind the Monhegan Library and had superb views of a very yellow first year female Tennessee Warbler, followed by an even more yellow Wilson’s Warbler. This was the area where the Hermit Warbler and Cassin’s Vireo were reported. In the late afternoon as Kyle was far out at sea north and east of us, no sooner did the ever-present fog begin to lift than we had our first Peregrine Falcon. Thinking we could actually see the ocean for once, a few of us high-tailed it back across the island to Whitehead with hopes of Shearwaters or Scoters but we settled for beautiful views (at last), rafts of Common Eider, and more Gannets than we could count. On our return to the Island Inn, Tina reported seeing a Shearwater from the porch, so we’ll log it as a Greater given the likelihood. With skies finally clearing and winds reportedly shifting at night to the WNW, we gathered for dinner at the Island Inn with high hopes for the coming morning.
Day 4 (9/29):
We met on the porch a tad earlier than usual wondering what the night skies might have delivered. We were quite surprised to see that it was actually drizzling a bit, although the skies (and fog) in general had cleared enough as evidenced by a rare bright glow in the east. Winds were out of the WNW. It didn’t take long before we knew what we had hoped for- there was finally a night flight. Near the Ice Pond we encountered our first flock, producing a couple of new species including Chestnut-sided and Black-throated Green Warblers. Over the meadow we had our first accipiters in a Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawk. Caught out over the water, birds were still wheeling in the skies looking for a place to land on Monhegan as late as 8:30am. A couple of Bobolinks gave their “bink” calls from above, while a less discriminate Dickcissel passed (no pun intended) overhead with its own special call. We passed Tom’s feeders and made what had become our obligatory stop to see the Lark Sparrow one last time, but we found it feeding in the nearby grass this time. On our way towards Lobster Cove, Tom H. found what was arguably the rarest bird (for Monhegan) of the trip- a Red-bellied Woodpecker. Breakfast and the ferry beckoned our return but not before we enjoyed fantastic views of a bright Philadephia Vireo- the bird did a perfect job of fitting Sibley’s illustration (or was is the other way around?) as well studied it well. Ahhh, what a difference a clear night makes. Our ferry ride back was a good one and shortly after leaving the harbor we encountered 2 adult Bald Eagles on the small islands just outside the harbor, and 4 Greater Yellowlegs accompanying some Harbor Seals on another island. Closer to New Harbor we added Osprey to the list, not to be outdone with our last (and rightly so) member to the list, House Sparrow at the dock.
Thanks to everyone for a very enjoyable 4 days on Monhegan Island, despite what Mother Nature had to offer us. I look forward to seeing you on future CT Audubon trips.