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“Virtue lies to the north. Don’t wallow on the sands.”
– Dorothy Pitkin

With this advice from her mother, Jane Curtis pointed her compass toward the North Pole and, over the course of her exuberant life, onward to Earth’s wild extremities. Yet here on Monhegan Island, during supper with Jane, now about 92, we ventured no further than the frontiers of books and art and conversation about people on a tiny island.

Jane (second from left) at the Monhegan Harvest Festival Wednesday.

Jane (second from left) at the Monhegan Harvest Festival Wednesday.

It was sometime during apple crisp that Jane mentioned that quote from her mother, herself a writer and widow who left city life to buy an old farmhouse in New Hampshire, where Jane grew up before moving to Vermont to farm and write books with her husband Will, whom we lost a few years ago. I myself will write about Jane and her life of accomplishment. But here on Monhegan, as birds head south, I welcome this lovely quote about going north. It is my most memorable lesson so far this fall on Monhegan.

Insights from Jane allow me to meander into this short dispatch below on lessons of comportment for birders who wander to Monhegan Island, where we are guests in a small place.

Before those lessons, here’s some news: Western Kingbird yesterday at Tom Martin’s cottage and Minke whales off Black Head. I’ve also updated my trip bird list on the Monhegan Island Migration Reports home page. 

Okay, here are a few lessons (rules):

  1. Move. Two dozen or more pickups surge and sputter along Monhegan’s rugged dirt roads. That’s it for traffic (not counting golf carts and Matt Schweier’s two Bobcats). Soon they’ll be hauling lobster traps to the wharf. By way of respect for hardworking islanders who drive, birders would do well to get out of the way of pickups pronto – no matter how rare the bird in sight.
  2. Rump” is what we call Yellow-rumped Warbler. It’s not an insult (until perhaps you’ve seen 1,000 Yellow-rumped Warblers). When the island is lousy with Rumps, which is now, your challenge is to not look at a Rump. When you don’t, you’re more likely to find other warbler species. (I’ll blog soon on how not to look at a Yellow-rumped Warbler.)
  3. FID = Flicker in Distress. Monhegan is a waypoint south for Northern Flickers. Lots of them. They’re feeding on insects, and various fruits, including viburnum and (I think) dogwood. Merlins chase Flickers as yellow labs chase tennis balls. And when they’re fleeing and flapping for their lives, flickers let out a plaintive, quavering distress call. FID. I rarely hear it elsewhere.
  4. Black-capped Pipidees. Nope, that call is not an American Pipit (well, sometimes it is). But the chickadee dialect here includes a distinctive “pipit!” vocalization. Took me five years to discover this.
  5. Buy Stuff. This island economy depends in part on visitors. In their determination to see winged beauty, birders sometimes forget to leave money. Mention birders, and some of the locals make their own bird calls about us: “cheap-cheap.” So, yeah, buy stuff.
  6. The Rope Shed. Find it on the main drag. Tacked to its clapboards is island news and events – massage at The Trailing Yew, a found lens cap, gallery hours, the next Jamboree in the church. It’s also a reference point for birders, where a Sora might be in the wet spot on the wharf side of the Rope Shed or an Orange-crowned Warbler could be across the way. I’ve only now realized I have no photos of this landmark, other than me with a Red-eyed Vireo with a corner of the Rope Shed in view. So be it.

I’m out the door for more migrants, and thinking about Jane and points north.



  1. Pat says:

    Just stumbled upon this website because I was looking for more info on Dorothy Pitkin. The next time you talk to her daughter Jane, please tell her I loved Dorothy’s book AND LIVE ALONE. I found it on the shelf in a public library several years ago and figured such an old book that had been rebound and kept for so long instead of being weeded must be worth reading. I was right. Now I own my own copy and I’ve read it twice. She was a wise woman. Thanks for posting those lovely words of hers here. I’m also delighted to learn that Jane’s a writer and will look for her books as well.

  2. Tobey says:

    Great rules for birders, Bryan, and thanks for the plug!

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