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Birding with Don Reimer: Visiting Monhegan—

In late September we spent time on Mohegan Island, hoping to catch the zenith of the fall bird migration. We knew that variable influences, such as wind speed and direction and shifting weather patterns, affect the timing and flow of optimal migration. And although Monhegan can dazzle us with birds on a given day, even this magical birding destination has its temporary dry spells. But as the saying goes, when given lemons, squeeze out some lemonade!

With summer-like temperatures and a lingering cloak of thick, green foliage, bird activity was quite low at our arrival. The lack of several bellwether species, the typical scores of migrant Red-Eyed Vireos, Northern Flickers and Yellow-Rumped Warblers, confirmed the situation. So you might conclude that, bird-wise, there was little to see. On the contrary, slow birding conditions are an invitation to scrutinize familiar birds we might otherwise take for granted.

I was fortunate to bird alongside people with very high level observation skills. Most elite birders share a common practice that holds the key to learning birds well — they look carefully beyond the initial identification of a bird, noting subtleties of its size, body shape, feather characteristics and unique behaviors. For example, rudimentary descriptions of our commonly known Black-Capped Chickadee and White-Breasted Nuthatch could sound basically similar: “A small bird with grayish back, white belly and face and a black cap.” A few additional descriptors, such as where the black head feathering is located, specific bill shapes, body posture, plus completely different foraging styles, would clarify any identification questions.

One fall I watched a man patiently observing a vagrant Lark Sparrow on a Monhegan lawn. For over 10 minutes, this persistent fellow studied the sparrow through his spotting scope. The man was David Sibley, a world-famous birder and author of “The Sibley Guide to Birds.” Since Mr. Sibley had previously drawn this species for his field guide, he obviously knew the sparrow in detail. He simply wanted to refine his impressions to a finer degree.

During the latter part of our island stay, some welcome weather changes improved the birding fortunes. Migrant warblers are a primary attraction for many birders. Ah, all those “confusing fall warblers” that exit the northern boreal forest in late September. By this season, these little “feathered jewels” have swapped their bright, crisp breeding plumages for faded, duller suits of feathers. Warblers are also renowned for hyperactive feeding habits, fidgeting and flitting acrobatically through branches in pursuit of tiny insects. As one frustrated birder once lamented, “At first I couldn’t see it and then it disappeared!”

All is not lost, however. Several species retain recognizable portions of their springtime glory. Fall Yellow-Rumped Warblers still show a prominent yellow rump patch, while others such as Common Yellowthroat, Ovenbird, Black and White Warbler, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, Northern Parula, Black-Throated Blue and Wilson’s Warbler stay essentially unchanged.

Year to year, rosters of migrant warblers are subject to fluctuation, but spruce forest specialists, Tennessee, Bay-Breasted and Cape May warblers were found in higher-than- usual numbers this time. Birders were treated to stunning eye-level views of Cape May warblers, normally found foraging in tall spruces. A current spike in spruce budworm populations in northern forests may be a contributing factor here. Our final warbler tally was 23 species this year, about a quarter of the 102 species we saw overall.

And so, once again, Monhegan did not disappoint. Daily aerial displays by plunge-diving Northern Gannets and an unanticipated flock of 10 adult Snow Geese gliding over the village were icing on the cake. And, by the way, the cake was not lemon flavored!