Ninety-seven species of birds, including 16 species of warblers. Yellow-headed Blackbird, Lark and Clay-colored Sparrows, and Dickcissel from the mid-west. Blue Grosbeak from the south. Kettles of Peregrine Falcons, clouds of Yellow-rumped Warblers, good food, great beer, and fantastic camaraderie. Yup, it’s another installment of our annual “MonhegZEN Birding Fall Migration Weekend.”
There are few places in the entire Northeast that I would rather be in fall, especially during the peak of migrant diversity. Our annual tour takes places to coincide with the last waves of warblers, first waves of sparrows, peak of raptors, and the beginning of “Rarity Season.” Check, check, check, and check…and it was hot! In fact, I believe I received the first ever complaint of a room at the Trailing Yew being “too warm in the morning.” Of course, “complaint” is used loosely here, for the record. But it was an unusually warm weekend, and although the birding was not epic by Monhegan standards, great diversity was thoroughly enjoyed – as was the weather (well, at least until the boat ride home a day after the tour ended!).
Two Red-necked Grebes just outside of the harbor were a nice way to start the trip on Friday, as were plenty of Northern Gannets, several Common Loons, and glass-calm seas on our way across. Arriving at 10am via the Hardy Boat from New Harbor, we hit the ground running, and after dropping our bags off to be taken to our inn, we immediately began to bird. Two vocal, dogfighting Peregrine Falcons got us started, and we soon spotted the single continuing Dickcissel. That’s how I like to get things started!
Although we did find a Yellow-breasted Chat (frustrating as usual, although at least everyone saw twigs moving), the bird of the day was definitely Peregrine Falcon. A bona fide kettle of 8 were soaring overhead at lunch time, and a steady parade of birds was passing overhead throughout the day. There was a lot of swirling as well, however, which made tabulating an actual count of Peregrines impossible. We know we had at least a dozen birds, but likely multiple times that. Some birds were clearly hunting, but most were probably rising high on the thermals and then soaring off to the south, using the light headwind to efficiently move out to sea, and likely not making landfall until Cape Cod!
Unexpectedly, very light southwesterly winds shifted to west overnight, and as a result, we had a very good arrival of birds to the island. Yellow-rumped Warblers – as expected for the date – dominated, with a conservative estimate of 250 birds observed, with many dozens in the air over the Trailing Yew at sunrise. Three Cape May Warblers, including a couple at the edge of the Yew were the highlight of dozen species of warblers we recorded today. The immature male Dickcissel continued in his favorite seed pile, and we had a fly-by Yellow-billed Cuckoo over the Ice Pond. Unfortunately, a short time later, it was found dead below a nearby window, not just sobering our sighting, but punctuating the fact that up to a billion birds a year meet their death at windows each year – and that’s just in the US!
Good diversity and good (but not, by Monhegan standards, great) numbers made for a fun day of birding, but it was definitely a lot more relaxing once we finally caught up with the Yellow-headed Blackbird! This immature male (a lot of folks were calling it a female, but the blackish body, extent of yellow, face pattern, and every-so-slight touch of white on the wing point to this as being a male) had been present for about 4 days, but since it was a “State Bird” for me, and a “Life Bird” for several, it was obviously a priority.
But on Monhegan, you can only do so much to chase most rarities. In fact, more often than not, you have to simply relax and let the rarities come to you! I call this my “MonhegZEN Migration Birding Weekend” not for any existential reasons – or mandatory meditation or yoga – but simply because we (try) to kick back, focus on the bird(s) in front of us, and let good things happen.
But yeah, we wanted to see this bird, and after missing it by about 5 minutes on a brisk, pre-breakfast (but don’t worry, post-coffee!) walk, the MonhegZEN kicked in. A friend spotted the bird as it flew overhead, alighting nearby in the center of town. Good looks were had by all (I apparently said, “Oh, thank God,” in response to the bird’s arrival, feeling as much relief as joy, apparently!) but about a half hour later, we had even better views as it perched atop a spruce along Dock Road.
A moderate-strong flight developed on clear and calm skies overnight, but come sunrise, the morning flight over the Yew was a little less busy than Saturday. Nonetheless, there were plenty of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Pine Siskins, and noticeable increases in Cedar Waxwings overhead and White-throated Sparrows in the woods and brush. Although overall numbers of birds were lower today, diversity was fantastic, and our trip list grew with the likes of Tennessee Warblers, a Warbling Vireo (I always wonder if these late Warblings out here are all “180-degree misoriented vagrants” as opposed to simply “lingering/late” birds – the local breeders on the mainland are long gone by now afterall), and we finally caught up with the Lark Sparrow that was visiting the seed with the Dickcissel.
Lark Sparrow with Dickcissel – a classic Monhegan juxtaposition.
We found a female Blue Grosbeak in the marsh behind the grocery store, and we enjoyed another short visit from the Yellow-headed Blackbird (minutes after Jeannette, arriving on the mid-day boat with Sasha, walked away of course).
The eagle was present and accounted for on the way in.
Trap day is coming!
Due to my schedule, the official weekend tour was only three days this year (instead of the usual four), so most of the group departed on the 3:15 ferry back to New Harbor. Al stayed until the 4:30 Port Clyde boat, and his bonus time (three leaders: me, Jeannette, and Kristen Lindquist who assisted me throughout the weekend as I added a second leader when I added a 9th participant – I, and my clients, prefer a small group, especially on Monhegan!) was partially spent watching a few of us struggle with the identity of a dull warbler who really did not want to give us a good look. It was eventually determined to be an immature female Pine Warbler (actually, quite a good warbler out here), and when Jeannette, Kristen, and I saw it later that afternoon in good light, its ID was much more readily apparent.
The always-successful “MonhegZEN Birding Fall Migration Weekend” had officially come to a close, but the birding continued for Kristen, Jeannette, and I. Another hot (80-degrees on the last weekend of September on Monhegan!) and somewhat quiet afternoon relegated our birding to the porch of the Monhegan Brewing Company. Their new delectable DIPA and Pale Ale was thoroughly enjoyed, as was “Brewery Pewee” (a single lingering Eastern Wood-Pewee that was a daily feature of our Brewery List…OK, we didn’t actually keep a brewery list this time, but if we did…and no, this was not my first visit to the brewery on the weekend – it is an important destination for the full MonhegZEN Birding experience) capped the end to a fine and productive day.
After dinner, the three of us walked to and from the dock (a big school of fish, presumably Herring (?) attracted by the lights provided the post-dinner entertainment), but the mere four migrant call notes heard overhead foreshadowed the very light flight overnight that saw many more birds depart than arrive on a diminishing southwesterly wind.
In fact, the skies were nearly devoid of birds undergoing “morning redetermined migration” or “morning flight” come Monday morning, and although there were still plenty of Pine Siskins and Cedar Waxwings overhead, the skies were the quietest that they had been all weekend. But there was little doubt more White-throated Sparrows arrived overnight, and there was not a shortage of Yellow-rumped Warblers.
We slowly added a few species to the checklist, including the Clay-colored Sparrow that we had spent all weekend trying to catch up with. The Dickcissel and Blue Grosbeak were present and accounted for as well, and a Prairie Warbler was a nice addition. But as northeast winds began to pick up, we decided to head into the woods. Cathedral Woods offered scattered Golden-crowned Kinglets and more White-throated Sparrows, but our primary destination was this “Fairy House,” or more accurately, palace, that was not to be missed.
It was definitely worth the walk, and made even more so by how strong easterly winds were blowing (hmm, that water is looking a little choppy) upon our return to town. It was simply too windy to bird – and rather chilly – after lunch, so we relaxed with a coffee, and then later – just because we “had to” have one more DIPA… err, check of the Brewery Pewee.
The day’s birding was slow, and we had not been able to relocate the Yellow-headed Blackbird…until the literal last minute. The boat was loaded, and we were hustling to the dock, when we asked two birders what they were looking at in the yard of one of the first houses uphill on Dock Rd. “The Yellow-headed Blackbird.” Of course.
And it was, let’s say, confiding, as it walked around the lawn and in some weedy patches a mere 10-15 feet from the gawkers. Sasha even saw it (I would have had a great photo over her head, with her ears up and her face focused on the bird had my phone not just run out of power) – her 127th life bird! It was an exciting way to finish the trip, but the excitement was actually yet to come.
“How high are the seas running?” I asked as we boarded the boat. “6-8 feet or so, they’ah sure comin’ up fast today. It’s gonna be a wet ride.” Uh-oh; was that last beer a good idea? While Sasha has only been on a boat a few times, she has never been “tested,” but we thought it was best to keep her outside. Plus, a hot and stuffy cabin was the last place any of us wanted to be in high seas, so we donned our raingear and moved outside. We were amply warned about splash-over, but none of the four of us wanted to head inside.
Unfortunately, Sasha was not happy with the vibration on the stern, so we headed upstairs to the exposed top deck. 6-8ft seas? No, they were still growing; more in the 8-10ft range now…by far (actually, well more than double) the highest seas I have ever experienced on a Monhegan crossing. But it was surface chop, and not a deep, rolling swell, so it was actually kind of fun. Except for Sasha and except when a series of waves crashed over the boat and smacked into the four of us. I have never seen our tough dog look so miserable, and frankly, soaked to the bone, none of us were all that comfortable anymore. If any of my group had regrets about leaving on Sunday, I can assure you: be glad! It seemed like forever (OK, it was about an hour) before we passed into the lee of the outermost islands. But don’t worry, in between troughs and huddling over Sasha, I kept my eyes open as much as possible for skuas!
That was a wild ride, and very un-MonhegZEN! But once in the sheltered bay and harbor of Port Clyde, we couldn’t help but laugh with the crew. Seas like this are rare – and rarely do they come up so darn quickly – so please do not think that this is part of a Monhegan birding experience! In fact, glass-calm seas were enjoyed by every member of the group on their return trip on Sunday. I guess we might have stayed just one day too long this time.
Actually, no, we just regretted not staying just one day longer!
Kristen and I tabulated the final day’s checklist on the drive to dinner, bringing my four-day total to 99 species, including this final non-tour day. My 4-day weekend tour averages 102 species of birds, so this was just a little below average (this year’s tour officially ended on Sunday with 93 species, which is just below my 3-day average of 95 species).
Here’s the complete, daily checklist. These numbers only represent what our group observed, making no attempt to actually judge the number of birds (at least the common ones) on the island, or summarize the sightings of others and does not include birds tallied on the boat ride across either way.
Wood Duck: 1,0,3,2
Mallard x American Black Duck: 0,1,0,0
American Black Duck:0,2,0,0
Common Eider: x,x,x,x
White-winged Scoter: 1,0,0,0
Ring-necked Pheasant: 4,1,3,2
Double-crested Cormorant: x,x,x,x
Great Cormorant: 0,2,2,2
Red-necked Grebe: 2,0,0,0
Common Loon: 3,0,0,0
Northern Gannet: 15,50,20,50
Great Blue Heron: 1,1,1,1
Bald Eagle: 1,1,2,2
Northern Harrier: 1,0,0,2
Sharp-shinned Hawk: 1,4,6,3
American Kestrel: 0,2,2,1
Peregrine Falcon: 12++,10+,10+,8
Semipalmated Plover: 0,1,0,0
Greater Yellowlegs: 0,0,0,1
Ring-billed Gull: 0,0,0,2
Herring Gull: x,x,x,x
Great Black-backed Gull: x,x,x,x
Black Guillemot: x,x,x,x,
Mourning Dove: 4,4,4,3
YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO: 0,1,0,0
Belted Kingfisher: 0,0,1,1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird: 0,2,0,0
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: 2,12,15,4
Downy Woodpecker: 0,1,2,2
Northern Flicker: 10,12,10,20
Eastern Wood-Pewee: 0,3,1,1
Least Flycatcher: 1,2,1,0
Eastern Phoebe: 0,0,3,5
Blue-headed Vireo: 0,0,0,3
Warbling Vireo: 0,0,1,0
Philadelphia Vireo: 1,0,3,3
Red-eyed Vireo: 12,25,30,30
Blue Jay: 4,11,11,6
American Crow: 4,4,4,4
Common Raven: 0,2,2,3
Black-capped Chickadee: x,x,x,4
Red-breasted Nuthatch: 4,12,15,35
White-breasted Nuthatch: 1,0,0,0
Brown Creeper: 0,1,1,2
Carolina Wren: 5,6,8,7
Winter Wren: 0,0,1,3
Golden-crowned Kinglet: 6,8,12,25
Ruby-crowned Kinglet: 3,20,20,6
Swainson’s Thrush: 0,2,1,0
American Robin: 1,5,4,1
Gray Catbird: x,x,4,5
Northern Mockingbird: 1,0,1,0
European Starling: 10,12,12,8
American Pipit: 0,6,2,1
Cedar Waxwing: 40,40,80,50
Black-and-white Warbler: 1,1,1,3
Tennessee Warbler: 0,0,3,0
Nashville Warbler: 2,0,2,1
Common Yellowthroat: 10,6,x,x
American Redstart: 3,3,2,0
Cape May Warbler: 0,2,1,0
Northern Parula: 1,2,3,2
Magnolia Warbler: 0,3,1,1
Yellow Warbler: 0,1,1,1
Blackpoll Warbler: 1,6,5,4
Black-throated Blue Warbler: 0,0,1,1
Palm Warbler: 0,6,3,7
PINE WARBLER: 0,0,1,0
Yellow-rumped Warbler: 40,250,200,175
Prairie Warbler: 0,0,0,1
Black-throated Green Warbler: 4,10,3,1
YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT: 1,0,0,0
Scarlet Tanager: 1,0,0,0
Eastern Towhee: 1,0,0,0
Chipping Sparrow: 7,9,8,9
CLAY-COLORED SPARROW: 0,0,0,1
LARK SPARROW: 0,1,0,0
Savannah Sparrow: 0,9,6,2
Song Sparrow: x,x,x,x
Lincoln’s Sparrow: 1,0,2,1
Swamp Sparrow: 0,1,3,3
White-throated Sparrow: 8,20,100,100
White-crowned Sparrow: 0,3,4,3
Dark-eyed Junco: 0,10,6,10
Northern Cardinal: 2,3,4,4
Rose-breasted Grosbeak: 0,2,3,1
BLUE GROSBEAK: 0,0,1,1
Indigo Bunting: 2,1,1,1
Rusty Blackbird: 0,4,4,4
Common Grackle: 0,6,6,8
Baltimore Oriole: 1,2,3,1
Purple Finch: 0,2,8,6
Pine Siskin: 0,80,50,40
American Goldfinch: 2,2,4,4
Daily Total: 58,72,81,79 Total: 97