My husband and I are such avid birders that we planned our wedding in mid-May so that we could offer a bird walk as part of our wedding activities. I had figured I probably wasn't going to be able to sleep in that morning anyway, so why not be out looking for birds to help calm my nerves? Our dear friend and birding buddy Ron Joseph led a small group of us around Merryspring Nature Park in Camden at a very early hour, where a singing cardinal helped start our wedding day on just the right note.
When we told people we were honeymooning in Arizona, they assumed we were going to begin our life of wedded bliss at the West's equivalent of Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon. Yes, we did spend a few days at the Grand Canyon, where we were delighted to observe California condors soaring right over our heads at the South Rim.
A Western Kingbird as viewed on Monhegan, part of the Eastern flyway.
But our primary goal was to squeeze in as much time as we could in southeastern Arizona, one of the premiere birding hotspots in the United States. My new husband and I spent ecstatic hours not gazing into each others' eyes but staring through our binoculars at dozens of new bird species we would never see in Maine: painted redstart, sulfur-bellied flycatcher, flame-colored tanager, elegant trogon…birds as exotic to us as their names sound. We saw half a dozen hummingbird species; here in Maine there's only the ruby-throated hummingbird. At a particularly romantic spot-a large sewage treatment pond in the middle of the desert-my husband added twelve species to his life list. And a simple roadside rest area yielded three more new species for him, including a first look for both of us at the strikingly beautiful blue grosbeak. All in all, a memorable, and colorful, honeymoon.
We returned home to Maine just before Memorial Day weekend and immediately prepared for our annual spring birding weekend on Monhegan Island. (I guess at this point it's become obvious that most of our vacations are planned around birds.) Monhegan Island, an hour's boat ride from Port Clyde, sits by itself out in Muscongus Bay, right in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway-the path migrating birds follow up and down the coast each spring and fall. Because it's the only visible spot of land amid miles of open ocean, night-migrating birds caught out over the water at dawn congregate there to feed and rest for the next night's flight. The island's small size, and the fact that migrating songbirds prefer the insect-laden spruces, apple trees, and lilac bushes that surround the village, make it a relatively easy place to discover birds. On some mornings, colorful songbirds seem to drip from every branch.
Our friend Ron joined us for a day. We spent hours on that perfect spring morning walking back and forth from the Ice Pond on one side of the village to picturesque Lobster Cove on the other. The apple trees still held blossoms, and we delighted in watching the bold orioles feeding among them. Yellow, chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, and parula warblers gleaned among the boughs, as well, like bright, living flowers. I'm particularly fond of warblers, tiny songbirds that sport tropical-seeming plumage and present interesting visual and song identification challenges. In Maine one could expect to see at most maybe twenty-six species in a typical year. For me, a spring visit to Monhegan isn't successful unless I see at least twenty warbler species.
But that day was to hold more than warblers for us. Hiking up Lobster Cove Road yet one more time, Ron spotted "something different." We got our binoculars on it, and I knew I'd never seen anything like it. Its plumage was blotchy red on yellow, like it couldn't make up its mind what color it wanted to be. Ron watched it for a long moment and then excitedly announced, "It's a summer tanager! A first spring male!" We all watched with awe until the bird flew out of sight. We had just seen our "lifer" summer tanager in Arizona a week before, and here we were on Monhegan seeing one where they weren't even supposed to be! That was our first real lesson in the bird magnetism of Monhegan, a place where you can see birds that you wouldn't expect to find anywhere else in Maine, a place where you can never rule out the possibility of seeing a bird that is supposed to be found south and/or west of New England.
Since that summer tanager, I've seen several species on Monhegan that I had first listed as "lifers" in Arizona. Along the banks of Arizona's San Pedro River, we had observed yellow-breasted chats singing their hearts out amid the riparian thickets. Several years ago on Monhegan, I stood on a small bridge over a shrubby gully and waited patiently till a rumored chat briefly revealed itself-my first chat sighting in Maine. Another island regular for me in fall has become the lark sparrow, a bird my husband first spotted for us in a backyard in Patagonia, Arizona. Last spring my husband and I were delighted to discover our old friend from Arizona, the blue grosbeak, his eye-catching breeding plumage a deeper blue than the surrounding sea.
Black Head on Monhegan Island.
In fall 2006 I was among an excited throng of birders who chased down a Virginia's warbler, a bird I first saw in the forests of Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. I believe that sighting was the second New England record. This past fall, I was one of a handful of people to catch sight of an itinerant Say's phoebe, a common western bird that has been reported in Maine only a couple of times before. An hour later, trying to re-find the Say's phoebe, we spotted a western kingbird, a species easily found on every other fence post in the western half of the country-but certainly not on a rockbound Maine island.
So now every time I step off the boat onto Monhegan, binoculars in hand, I know I have to be ready for anything. Who needs Arizona? With time and patience, a migrant trap like Monhegan can be just as rewarding for crazed birders like myself. And if you're not yet as crazed a birder as I am, one visit to Monhegan might be all it takes!
Kristen Lindquist is Development Director for Coastal Mountains Land Trust in her hometown of Camden. She writes a monthly natural history column for The Camden Herald, and can be found birding on Monhegan every spring and fall.