2020 Fall Monhegan Migration Weekend Tour Report

It sure felt good to have a normal tour run, well, normally, in 2020! Other than the requirement of wearing masks all day – despite the annoyance of fogged glasses in the 100% humidity, and some logistical and safety changes at mealtimes, it was as close to normal as 2020 gets. And that felt good.  The birding was great, too! 

Most of Friday’s participants arrived with me on the early Hardy Boat out of New Harbor, and we sure hit the ground running!  A strong flight the night before yielded tons of birds, and it was very birdy right off the bat.  Yellow-rumped Warblers were still darting overhead and were in every bush. White-throated Sparrows virtually littered the ground in places. Small flocks of Purple Finches seemed to be everywhere.

Yellow-rumped Warblers were definitely the migrant of the trip, as they often are at the end of September. Only White-throated Sparrows seemed to give them a run for their money on most days.

A continuing juvenile Cooper’s Hawk (a very good bird out here) and a Dickcissel got us started, while in the afternoon we found two Lesser Black-backed Gulls (a juvenile and a really messy 2nd Cycle) and at dusk, a fly-by from a late Common Nighthawk. We ended up with 63 species on the day, which isn’t bad for arriving at 10:15, and likely there were many other species around; we just couldn’t see them through all of the Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows.

This Lesser Black-backed Gull was not exactly a stunning specimen of fresh feathers, but it was a very instructive study subject.

But before you ask, I’ll let you know: No, you will not find the gratuitous annual photo of Novelty Pizza in this blog this year. It was different, and it was terrible. I was sad. But the handpies for lunch at the Trailing Yew made up for it (but I repeatedly remembered to take the obligatory photo only after it was rapidly consumed in its entirety).

But that evening’s sunset was absolutely delicious!

We awoke to very dense fog on Saturday morning, and with very light southerly winds overnight, only a very light migration had occurred.  There was a decent amount of call notes overhead (mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers) at what was supposed to be the time of sunrise, but these birds could have just been moving around.  Nonetheless, throughout the day we found plenty of Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows once again, along with ample number of Purple Finches and Red-breasted Nuthatches. It was birdy, but the diversity remained rather low.

Ring-necked Pheasants were mysteriously common and conspicuous all weekend, once again.

By the afternoon, things had slowed down quite a bit, but we grew our triplist steadily with pockets of activity here and there.  Two continuing Rusty Blackbirds put on a good show for us, as did an unusually cooperative Ovenbird. It’s always nice to see Indigo Buntings; we had two today.  Although it seemed rather slow and lacking in diversity, our thoroughness accumulated 64 species by day’s end.

Rusty Blackbird at the Ice Pond.

We awoke to more dense fog on Sunday morning, with no detectable migration overnight on a southwesterly flow.  But sometimes slower days allow us a chance to be more thorough, and by covering a good amount of ground today, we caught up with – and discovered – several very good birds.

Banded Tussock Moth caterpillar.

We began with coffee in hand as we marched down to the Ice Pond to catch up with the three continuing Yellow-crowned Night-Herons which we had someone missed each of the previous two days. The drake Wood Duck – very close now to full-spiffiness (technical term!) added to the joy.  Then, after breakfast we had the thrilling discovery (OK, Tom discovered it; he deserves the credit) of a Yellow-breasted Chat. Glimpses were fleeting, and through fogged glasses, were not always satisfactory.  We then found a Marsh Wren at Lobster Cove, and continued to slowly add birds to the list, such as an Eastern Towhee, a few more warbler species, and the fog finally lifted enough for us to see the water and nearby islands to sort out Great Cormorants from Double-cresteds.

Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. Now, just about annual on Monhegan in fall.
A Lobster Cove marsh stomp often produces a surprise or two, like today’s Marsh Wren.

On Monday, our last day of the group tour, we had significant turnover in participants from the weekend, but less turnover in birds.  With another night with little to no nocturnal movement on persistent southerly winds and fog. Only a few Yellow-rumped Warblers were calling overhead at coffee pot o’clock, and it was very slow on our pre-breakfast walk. Northern Flickers were definitely moving around though, so it’s possible a few of these birds were new arrivals overnight. 

Like all of Maine, Monhegan is desperate for rain, but of course we selfishly were hoping it would not fall on us!  The forecast was looking good to get most of the day in, rain-free, but when we reconvened at 9:15, there was a steady light shower. It did not last long, however, and we continued on, unimpeded. Once again, we spent a lot of time sparrow-workshopping, as we regularly encountered fun mixed flocks all weekend of Song, White-throated, Savannah, and often one other species, be it Chipping, White-crowned, Swamp, or Lincoln’s. The side-by-side comparisons are very instructive, and as a guide, I tend to pivot to whatever the birds were offering, and this weekend, they were offering a chance to study, learn, and appreciate the diversity and beauty of sparrows.

We covered a fair amount of ground in the afternoon, checking in with two of the three Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, the continuing Wood Duck and 2 Rusty Blackbirds, and some blooming Fringed Gentian. At least 6 Baltimore Orioles were still present (we had a high of 9+ on Friday), and we had some really good looks at Cape May Warblers and others. Partial clearing in the later afternoon was just enough to get our first view of town from Lighthouse Hill. A mere 56 species by day’s end showed the lack of overall diversity after three full nights with some birds leaving, but very little arriving.

Autumn Meadowhawk (I believe) visiting Barb’s cap.

With the last boat of the day at 4:30, the Monhegan Fall Migration Weekend officially came to a close. However, one of Monday’s participants stayed on for a day of private guiding, so Kate and I continued on for a full day of birding on Tuesday. But, like the weekend, we awoke to more fog and another night of little to no migration on SSE winds. There was, however, some more swirling of Yellow-rumped Warbles around dawn, coming to and from Manana. It was very suggestive of zugunruhe (migratory restlessness) after four days of being stuck on the island with unfavorable winds.  Or, it could have been some birds had indeed arrived overnight.

The extensive southerly winds had finally started to pay dividends, however, with the delivery of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The Dickcissel continued, and we had our best look at it since Friday. With only two of us, we covered grown more quickly and efficiently, so we tallied several species that the group had not seen together, such as the two ridiculously cooperative Soras at the Pumphouse. We also found an unusually-cooperative Mourning Warbler, which is always a treat in migration.

Dickcissel.

With a storm a’brewing, Kate and I departed together on the 3:15 Hardy Boat, and were treated to a Cory’s Shearwater and a Northern Fulmar that materialized out of the still-thick fog. Once a rarity in these waters, the Cory’s was rather late in departing, while the fulmar was on the early side of their arrival. I don’t recall having seen both species on a boat trip on the same day before, and any tubenose is “good” in these nearshore waters.

So that officially brought the 2020 Monhegan Fall Migration Weekend tour to a close; ending on a real high note. Below, I will include Tuesday in the list, but I have separated out the species count for the four-day weekend for comparison sake. Please let me know if I missed something (it’s easy to do as I sit down and try to recall the day as the bed is calling my name!), but our tally for now was a solid 92 species – just two species below our average for the past 10 years.  

However, the 12 species of warblers were well below our 10-year average of 18 species for the weekend. But given the accelerated migration season (food supply shortages due to drought and/or benign weather allowing migration to proceed relatively unimpeded), this was expected. And we made up for it with more sparrows than usual, and an impressive irruption underway. This was the most Purple Finches and White-breasted Nuthatches I can recall on the island, and along with a goodly number of Red-breasted Nuthatches and the first few Pine Siskins of fall, our island sample reflected what we are seeing on the mainland, and throughout the East.

25-Sep26-Sep27-Sep28-Sep29-Sep**
Wood Duck01111
American Black Duck22233
Mallard1215121616
Mallard x American Black Duck Hybrid00011
Common EiderxxxxX
Surf Scoter6*0000
Ring-necked Pheasant71518189
Mourning Dove64141610
YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO00001
Common Nighthawk10000
Sora00002
Black-bellied Plover01000
Wilson’s Snipe01000
Solitary Sandpiper10000
Black Guillemot2*0636
Laughing Gull01002*
Herring GullxxXxx
LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL20101
Great Black-backed GullxxXxx
Common Loon00001*
Northern Gannet10*6248*
NORTHERN FULMAR00001*
CORY’S SHEARWATER00001*
Double-crested CormorantXxxxX
Great Cormorant00222
YELLOW-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON00320
Osprey03000
Bald Eagle11000
Sharp-shinned Hawk61221
COOPER’S HAWK10000
Belted Kingfisher11110
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker2088815
Downy Woodpecker00210
Northern Flicker4020152015
American Kestrel41000
Merlin106662
Peregrine Falcon62100
Least Flycatcher00100
Eastern Phoebe64462
Red-eyed Vireo86443
Blue Jay12812126
American CrowxxxxX
Common Raven42111
Black-capped ChickadeexxxxX
Red-breasted Nuthatch1515202015
White-breasted Nuthatch34578
Brown Creeper10000
House Wren00012
Marsh Wren00100
Carolina Wren21224
Golden-crowned Kinglet26208
Ruby-crowned Kinglet02100
BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER00001
Swainson’s Thrush20000
Hermit Thrush10000
American Robin02444
Gray Catbirdxx81010
Brown Thrasher11111
European Starling1622282424
Cedar Waxwing151616128
American Pipit01000
Purple Finch2040404040
Pine Siskin10111
American Goldfinch28663
Eastern Towhee00100
Chipping Sparrow66644
Dark-eyed Junco48441
White-crowned Sparrow63463
White-throated Sparrow7560503530
Savannah Sparrow10610810
Song Sparrow1520202025
Lincoln’s Sparrow22012
Swamp Sparrow41022
YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT00100
Bobolink11000
Rusty Blackbird12222
Common Grackle 4161818
Baltimore Oriole83669
Ovenbird01000
Northern Waterthrush10112
Black-and-white Warbler11000
Common Yellowthroat32661
Cape May Warbler11440
Northern Parula00102
Yellow Warbler11112
Blackpoll Warbler22863
Palm Warbler62112
PINE WARBLER10000
Yellow-rumped Warbler1501251006040
MOURNING WARBLER00001
Scarlet Tanager10000
Northern Cardinal22546
Rose-breasted Grosbeak01101
Indigo Bunting01011
DICKCISSEL11001
Day Total6765635865
*Denotes Ferry Ride Only. **Private Tour.
We enjoyed ample time to study many common species, such as separating young gulls. Here’s a juvenile Great Black-backed Gull (L) in the background showing its much whiter overall appearance with bold marbling above. Compare that to “the brown one,” the juvenile Herring Gull (R). It wasn’t the only one yawning from another gull lecture!

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