Of merlins and monarchs (and more…)

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Monhegan Island eastern view

I knew I was going to Monhegan Island a few weeks in advance, so there was plenty of time to dream a version of the island visit that I could write a column about. The most likely scenario I imagined was a day full of interactions with hard-core bird watchers, interactions that would inspire a column rich with a heavily sarcastic take on their behavior. You see, a combination of several factors—location being an important one—makes Monhegan a bird magnet, and thus a magnet for birders. During spring and fall migrations, many a bird observer heads to the island for the day or for an extended stay (two weeks or more) because the birds can be so “good” out there. My good friend Mike and I have been planning a trip ever since my family moved to St. George for that exact reason. The birds. With that in mind, and my experience from years past, it seemed fair odds that the column would just write itself. But it didn’t take long to recognize that I may need corrective lenses when “envisioning!”

First off, there were hardly any birders out there. We spotted a few strolling the stroll, easily identified with their binos, books, cameras and funky vests and hats. There was a single, organized “birdery” (group of “birders”) that moved in an amoeba-like fashion in an effort to have the entire group catch a glimpse of every tweeter. But the birdery was from mid-coast Audubon, so I actually knew (and kinda like) some of the folks, and the individual, floating birders seemed pleasant, even with their distracting vests on. I would have to abandon the column vision, that much I could see!

The second situation was how incredibly quiet it was, bird-wise, on the island. There seemed to be more birders than birds, which may have played a role in the low number of birders venturing to Monhegan that day. Mike and I strolled the town stroll and quickly found ourselves heading to the woods to search for mushrooms and views. The column would write itself, as it rightfully should, just that this one wouldn’t be about birds.

Monarch butterflies, on the other hand, were a species of being that could not be denied that day. They were, are and have been everywhere for weeks (as of this typing), and that day on Monhegan was no different. From the eastern clifftops you could watch the monarchs coming in from over the ocean, or wave goodbye to them as they headed over to Manana and beyond. Migration is so cool, and monarch migration is so crazy—it’s the king! We saw a couple hundred that particular Saturday, and several other butterfly species and still heard the “you should have been here a few days ago …” stories. Nothing is cooler than butterfly stories.

Young Peregrine Falcon

There was also no shortage of raptors that day, with falcons, accipiters and the random bald eagle making up most of the lot. A steady flow of merlin falcons to the island from the east, provided quick sightings as they zoomed by, flying low on sneak attacks (classic merlin style). Merlins feed on birds (and dragonflies, etc.), and their hunting ways combined with the random peregrine falcon flyby undoubtedly added to the songbird silence. To add to the fun, sharp-shinned hawks were the accipiter of the day—several sighted—which is as prestigious an honor as it sounds. The airborne action was fast and furious.

Eastern Subterranean Termites

We crossed paths with the mid-coast Audubon group about mid-day, and you can tell how the bird watching is going when a birdery only talks about a dragonfly situation they observed. Don Reimer, one of my favorite people, was leading the field trip and gave us the scoop on a large gathering of large dragonflies over the Lobster Cove trail. Don noted that the odnonates looked to be hunting “flying ants” that were emerging in one spot along the trail. His description matched the reality we came upon. Comet Darners (Anax longipes)—large, green-headed and red-abdomened dragonflies—numbered in the dozens, hunting what appeared to be Eastern Subterranean Termites (Reticulitermes flavipes) with several darners clearly flying with termite wings sticking out of their mouths. We watched for a bit, but when we returned a half hour later the scene was all quiet, not a darner to be seen nor a flying ant as well. I think Don’s interpretation was right, which is usually the case.

We tried one last trail before heading to the boat, and crossed paths with a small, mixed species songbird flock that was “user friendly” in the sense that the birdies allowed great views. A handful of warblers, Baltimore Oriole and a Olive-sided Flycatcher rounded out the day and we could officially say we saw some songbirds on Monhegan. The day had already been a success and the late wave of birds just made things “more successfuller.”

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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