Hmm…how do I spin this one? Well, it could have been colder, and it could have been a lot wetter. The crossbills were pretty amazing, and it was fun to find that Purple Martin.
But yes, as far as Monhegan Spring Migration Weekends go, this was a pretty slow and cold one. In fact, the 77 total species and only 10 species of warblers were both record lows (in 10 years of doing these trips on the last weekend of May). But it is not spin to say a slow day of birding on Monhegan is better than a great day of birding most everywhere else.
The very early spring this year had rapidly advanced vegetation. On many of our Memorial Day weekends, apple trees – one of the most important bird-magnets out here – are not yet blooming. This year, they were just about finished. Meanwhile, the dry and benign weather of the past few weeks have allowed migrant birds to proceed unimpeded. They were either going right overhead or stopping on the island only briefly before continuing onward. No traffic jams of birds held up by unfavorable weather, no concentrations at few and isolated foodstuffs, and certainly no fallouts. Well, at least the abnormally dry conditions we have been experiencing began to break this weekend.
More importantly, while the above complaints made for slow birding, they really made for a great migration for birds who don’t want to get stuck on an island or other migrant trap. Instead, they got to where they needed to go and many seemed to get right to work in order to catch up with the advanced season.
When we arrived on Friday, we found relatively few birds as expected given the preceding week’s beautiful weather. We quickly caught up with the pair of Blue-winged Teal that have been hanging around and possibly breeding out here – a very good bird on offshore islands. I was also happy to finally see my first Tennessee Warblers of the spring. And while diversity was not overly high, it was really nice out and we enjoyed really good looks at a lot of what we encountered, including the aforementioned Tennessee Warblers, Blackburnian Warblers, and our daily dose of the confiding and stunning Scarlet Tanager that was lingering around the village’s south end.
I had really high hopes for Saturday morning. With very light southerly winds and partly cloudy skies at dusk (I enjoyed a Common Nighthawk and an American Woodcock while watching the sunset with a friend), the winds became very light southwesterly after dark. Then, around 2:00am, some light rain began to fall, and the winds shifted to the northeast. The hopes for a fallout kept me awake as I listened to those first showers in the early morning hours.
Upon sunrise, it soon became clear that my hopes and dreams had been dashed. There was minimal bird movement visible on the NEXRAD radar before the rain arrived. A large area of low pressure passing to our south, with the northern edge of rain moving much further north than forecast, suggested the possibility of fallout conditions. But were there even any birds on the move before the rain? Or, were they cut off to our south by the approaching storm? Or – as we have been surmising on the mainland as well – have they just mostly passed by already?.
Light rain continued for our pre-breakfast walk, and it was very slow. There was definitely not a fallout, and there did not seem to be many birds around at all. That Scarlet Tanager stole the show again though. Great looks at things like Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, American Redstart, and Northern Parula soon followed.
Rain slowly tapered off during the morning, and while cameras were mostly sealed away, it was more than birdable. We heard a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (my first of the year), a Virginia Rail, and even briefly saw the vociferous Sora that incessantly called from the marsh throughout the weekend. Then, just before lunch, we found a female Purple Martin. Unexpectedly late, and rare out here in general, this was a nice find, and when we relocated it at Swim Beach, we had some great views to make sure it was indeed a Purple Martin.
The afternoon was dry, but the birding remained slow. We did get a better view of the dapper male Blue-winged Teal, and spent some real quality time with the flock of 18 Red Crossbills that contained a single White-winged Crossbill. Many folks got one, if not two, life birds in this flock, and we saw them as well as one could ever hope.
With a light northeasterly wind overnight, little to no migration was detected on the radar Saturday night into Sunday morning, but it was not yet raining. It was a little birdier than the day before, but the pre-breakfast walk only yielded two new species for us: a fleeting glimpse of a Lincoln’s Sparrow and a fly-by American Black Duck. But the crossbills entertained us once again! Also, Smooth Green Snake and Redbelly Snake side-by-side.
A large area of low pressure was rapidly developing off the mid-Atlantic coast, and the rain was heading our way. So we were grateful for another dry – albeit chilly – morning. A couple of late Bobolinks and a Merlin were new for us, and we glimpsed a less-than-cooperative Short-billed Dowitcher that had arrived and played hard to get for the next couple of days. With so little shorebird habitat out here, most shorebirds are noteworthy, even species common on the mainland. According to Brett Ewald, this was only the 16th record for the island, and 10th for spring. In fact, this was my 218th species on Monhegan! Even on a slow day, you never know what might show up out here.
Light rain had arrived by the time we regrouped after lunch and the northeasterly wind was picking up. We called it quits as the rain picked up in earnest around 3:00pm, retiring to our respective rooms – or, mostly, heated common areas – and got some reading and relaxation time in.
Overnight rain ended just about as our pre-breakfast walk got underway on Monday, with only light showers and a little drizzle for the next couple of hours. Given the forecast, this was most definitely a win. We checked gull roosts and other sheltered harbor nooks, turning up only a Savannah Sparrow as a new addition to our list. The rest of the morning was spent enjoying some of the birds we have been seeing for the past days, like the Blue-winged Teal and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
After the weekend tempest, those of us who survived were rewarded with calm, following seas for our ride back to New Harbor. It was foggy, but we had some great sightings on the easy ride back with single fly-by Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin, and a feeding Bonaparte’s Gull. Adding these three excellent birds helped our paltry list to a total of 77 species. With a long-term average of about 95 species in four days, you can see that we really did have a weekend of low avian diversity.
So alas, the weekend came to a close. A few good birds, lots of great looks at regular birds, and a few lingering chills. But, as usual, we ate well. Perhaps too well. But hey, we were burning off calories thermoregulating! Hey it happens, and the regulars all know that there will be a “bad” weekend once in a while to make the “best” tours that much sweeter.
Since folks who have been reading several years of these trip reports, I figured I would include the gratuitous food porn photo as usual. However, without the Novelty open, there was no pizza. Besides, we like to class it up once in a while, in this case, at the Island Inn.
(* denotes seen from the ferry only. **Seen only by the leader outside of group time)
The Purple Martin is an iconic bird of the Northeast and has long had a “relationship” with people. Their large apartment-style houses grace the yards of many homeowners. However, this large swallow species reaches its northern range limit in Maine, so nesting colonies in our state are very localized and spread out. One such colony has been active since at least 1909 in Belgrade. Over the years, Maggie and Carl Yeaton maintained several martin houses on this property, most recently with assistance from Hammond Lumber Company workers. But, there has come a point where even those houses started to fall into disrepair. Without these houses would this colony that birders from far and wide come to see disappear, as other colonies this far north have done? Many of Maine’s birders, including myself, saw their first Purple Martins here, and the colony is frequented by birders working on their state and year lists, or just want to enjoy one of the state’s rarest breeding birds.
Last summer, I stopped at the colony with a client, John Alexander, visiting from Sheffield, MA. After noticing the poor state of the houses, Alexander offered a donation to replace them. That got the ball rolling. I then contacted local resident, birder, and active member of the Belgrade community, Don Mairs to assist with the project. Don was instrumental in getting this project going; we couldn’t have done it without him. He arranged for all of the permissions necessary, and began to drum up local support for the project.
The martins have been returning annually to houses that are now beyond repair. Something needed to be done before this vibrant colony no longer had adequate housing.
One year later, in May 2015, our store, Freeport Wild Bird Supply procured a new steel pole with pulleys (to facilitate cleaning) and plastic gourd array, which is now the preferred style of martin dwelling. With the additional help of local volunteers, Bob Lewis and Ed Slattery, this new set-up was established at the old Yeaton property, now owned by Don and Mary Hammond, of Hammond Lumber.The new gourd array in the background of the colony between Depot Road and Rte 27.
But, the plan does not stop there. Alexander and FWBS supplied a second array to be placed in another location. The thought here is that as martins from the original colony are out foraging, they may notice this nearby housing and eventually establish themselves in this “suburb;” starting an auxiliary colony as a back-up in case the original colony was to fail due to some catastrophic event or circumstances changed. After consultation with Belgrade Librarian Janet Patterson and her Board, and President Mike Barrett of the Friends of the Library Board, it was decided to put this other gourd set-up in the open space behind the library. This pleasant and bird-friendly location has the advantage of proximity to Belgrade Central School, with obvious potential for collaboration.
It was obvious that Maine birders do not have much experience installing martin poles. The second installation, however, took about 1/4 of the time than the first, so clearly we are learning…slowly.
Sasha’s supervision must have made the difference.
Although it is probably too late for nesters to use the new set-ups this year, the idea is to give the inhabitants of the old houses a chance to check out the new arrays, which they are already doing, along with allowing prospecting immatures to check out future homes. And, as of last check at the library, a pair of Tree Swallows had taken up residence in one of the gourds – a good sign. We at FWBS are excited that this collaboration between us, the Hammonds, the Belgrade Library, and several local residents has resulted in what may just be the beginning of a project to maintain and grow this Purple Martin colony.