There are few American landscapes as iconic or as bird-rich as the island-studded coast of Maine, especially during autumn migration. Monhegan Island is the perfect distillation of both natural beauty and the Maine coast’s remarkable tendency to concentrate migrants, sometimes in astounding numbers.
Every autumn, the Northeast coast comes alive with northern migrants heading south—warblers, thrushes, vireos, sparrows, shorebirds, raptors and waterfowl, among many others. Offshore, the Gulf of Maine attracts seabirds like storm-petrels, gannets, jaegers and shearwaters, some drawn from thousands of miles away. The sheer variety of habitats, from freshwater marshes and northern bogs to blueberry barrens, tidal mudflats, rocky shorelines and deep forests, means there’s a place for every bird passing through on its annual journey.
At night, many of them take a shortcut from Nova Scotia across the Gulf of Maine. But if the winds have pushed them too far offshore, come daybreak there is only place for a weary bird to land—Monhegan Island, 20 miles from shore, and one of the most famous migrant traps in North America. The numbers and variety of migrating birds that fetch up on Monhegan when the autumn winds are right can make even the most jaded birder blink in disbelief. This little village, with just 70 year-round residents, is a stellar birding site in autumn—Philadelphia vireos and Swainson’s thrushes in the thickets, red-breasted nuthatches in the spruce trees, flickers exploding in yellow sunbursts from tall snags while merlins and sharp-shinned hawks pursue their breakfast. Mixed warbler flocks—Cape Mays, magnolias, bay-breasteds, blackpolls, chesnut-sideds and parulas—roll through the treetops. (No promises, but Monhegan is also a magnet for all manner of central and western vagrants, from lark and clay-colored sparrows to western kingbirds, and dickcissels, many of which are regular there.)
Our home-base for the week will be National Audubon’s legendary Hog Island Audubon Camp, on Muscongus Bay near Damariscotta, an hour north of Portland, Maine. We’ll enjoy Hog Island’s 330 acres of dense spruce/fir forest and pristine shoreline, where common eiders, black guillemots and common loons patrol the waters, and bird neighboring mainland areas at the beginning and end of the week. But the highlight will be taking a leisurely trip in our own boat (so we can chase any good seabirds we find) for two days on Monhegan Island, where the pace is laid-back but the birding is not.
Beloved Bird Watcher’s Digest columnist and long-time Hog Island instructor Scott Weidensaul will be present on this Rendezvous along with your trusty BWD staffers Dawn Hewitt, Raymond VanBuskirk, and Emily Jones. In addition to BWD guides, we’ll be joined by Hog Island’s wonderful staff (Eva, Eric, and Juanita) who are experts on local birds, natural history, geology and astronomy, among other areas!
On the Maine coast, remember that the ultimate authorities are the weather and the waves. We will likely change some of the day-to-day details depending on sea conditions, winds, and where the best birds are being seen.
Sunday, Sept. 1, Day 1: Arrive at the Todd Wildlife Sanctuary in Bremen, ME, (the mainland unit of Hog Island) between 2-4 p.m. to catch a boat shuttle to the island. Bus service is available from Boston, MA, and Portland, ME, to Damariscotta, as well as limo service from the Portland airport; camp vans can pick you up in Damariscotta! There is a parking lot on the mainland as well if you choose to drive yourself. Get settled into your cozy cabin room, watch for migrants in the lichen-draped spruce trees, go for a hike on the miles of on-island trail, or explore the camp’s natural history lab. After Happy Birder’s Hour, introductions, and a hearty dinner, enjoy an overview presentation of Hog Island’s history and a preview of the week ahead.
Monday, Sept. 2, Day 2: After breakfast, we’ll head out by van for a day-long trip to visit a number of the best local birding spots. Where we go will depend on conditions. If the winds are right, we may stop at Clarry Hill, a high, wind-swept blueberry barrens that is the best hawkwatch in this part of Maine. We may visit Weskeag Marsh, a hotspot for shorebirds and waders (often harassed by merlins and peregrines); check out the birds and carnivorous pitcher-plants in the bogs and forests of Hidden Valley; or catch the falling tide at Thomaston, where extensive mudflats can bring hordes of sandpipers. The south-facing peninsula at Pemaquid Point boasts not only one of the most scenic lighthouses in Maine, but great views for seabird-watching, and concentrations of passerines that crowd the point’s thickets and woods after heavy overnight flights. We’ll enjoy a picnic lunch at one of our birding stops, and be back on Hog Island by late afternoon, enough time to relax before another big dinner and evening presentation.
Tuesday, Sept. 3, Day 3: We’ll eat an early breakfast, then load our gear onto the camp’s roomy boat, the Snowgoose, for the two-hour trip out to Monhegan Island. We’ll make a circuit or two around Eastern Egg Rock, home of Maine’s first restored puffin and tern colony; although by this time of year the puffins are gone, you’ll better appreciate the hardships that puffin biologists endure each year working on this isolated place. There’s lots more to watch for, though, including great cormorants mixed in with the more common double-cresteds, early-arriving sea ducks like surf scoters, and as we get to the mouth of the bay, pelagic seabirds like northern gannets, red-necked phalaropes, Wilson’s storm-petrels and Cory’s or great shearwaters.
Once we unload on Monhegan, we’ll stash our gear in our hotels (the Island Inn and Monhegan House) then hit the trails for birds. We have a day and a half to enjoy this spectacular island and its legendary hotspots like the Ice Pond, the Underhill Trail and Lobster Cove (where we’ll keep an eye peeled for Jamie Wyeth, scion of the famous artist family, whose home overlooks the cove). Some of us may hike to the cliffs at White Head or Black Head, which have gorgeous views of the ocean, and from which you can watch plunging gannets and—if we’re lucky—spy a passing whale or a pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. Often, though, the best birding is right in the village. Monhegan is justly famed as an artists’ colony, and you may want to take a break from birding to check out some of the small, rustic galleries. And if you’re thirsty, a local lobsterman started the Monhegan Brewery, conveniently situated on the trail to Lobster Cove; enjoy a beer (or a non-alcoholic ginger beer) and watch for warblers in the spruces overhead.
Lunch will be a picnic, while dinner will be by lamplight in the Trailing Yew, after which the stars may be blazing overhead, far from the mainland’s light pollution. If the birds are moving, some of us may hike up to the lighthouse to listen for nocturnal flight calls.
Wednesday, Sept. 4, Day 4: We’ll gather at 6 a.m. to watch the morning flight, as birds that have been migrating all night try to find their bearings—and the right habitat—as they come down to land. Early morning birding on Monhegan will be one of the highlights of this week. After breakfast at our hotels, we’ll be birding again until lunch, another picnic at the Trailing Yew. We’ll depart Monhegan in early afternoon and poke around Muscongus Bay on the way back to Hog Island, exploring and looking for new birds. There will be an evening presentation after dinner.
Thursday, Sept. 5, Day 5: We’ll bird on the mainland in the morning; visiting fresh locations we weren’t able to include on Monday like Medomack or Hidden Valley Nature Center. Lunch will be on Hog Island. The afternoon will feature workshops, guided hikes on Hog Island itself, and time to relax in an Adirondack chair overlooking the bay, if you prefer.
Friday, Sept. 6, Day 6: This is departure day. After early breakfast & coffee, the boat will be shuttling everyone to the mainland by 8 a.m. to head home. Bus and limo passengers will be shuttled to town for their pick-ups.