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Monhegan Migration Report No. 1

The Prairie Sends its Birds

September 23, 2018  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  6 comments  | 

Today on Monhegan Island, 12 miles out to sea off the Maine coast, the prairie dropped in for a visit. Dickcissels, lots of them, far from their heartland in the Great Plains, descended from the skies at dawn.

These young songbirds, making the first migration of their lives, had flown off course from their usual southbound route — by a long-shot. Like most of the wayward migrants out here, they’ve got no legitimate business being on an island in the Atlantic. But, hey, this is Monhegan, after all: migration happens. And it’s among the many reasons Ruth and I (and other birders) are here for our annual ritual of flight.

Last night’s north winds carried more southbound songbirds to this outpost in the Gulf of Maine. Cape May Warblers are now on Monhegan in abundance (including a half dozen in the “Cape May Spruce” by the wharf); “schools” of Cedar Waxwings swim everywhere on the island, as Peregrine Falcons and Merlins pick off a few now and then (the young American Kestrels, well, they don’t know any better — and try their best); Purple Finches are singing their attenuated autumn songs; and Bobolinks call “tink-tink” overhead on their way to South America.

But today the skies echoed with the comical, flat-buzzy “thzziip” calls of Dickcissels. Before breakfast, I had about eight Dickcissel encounters, representing anywhere from five to eight individuals.

Here’s one of the great things about Monhegan: Dickcissel isn’t all that rare out here. In 21 years of visits to Monhegan, I’ve encountered them nearly every autumn. And it’s good to see them again, here with the friends I’ve made on this island. All the more wonderful because, like the Dickcissels, in some ways I have no business being here: from what the doctors told me a year ago, that heart attack should have killed me.

But I’ve recovered, well enough to be climbing mountains again, bushwhacking to remote bogs for rare butterflies and, of course, to return to Monhegan to watch the warblers and other castaways pour from the skies at dawn.

For a bigger view of this island, here’s my “Letter to Monhegan” after my heart attack. And find all the autumn Monhegan updates atop my blog. Onward into autumn!

  1. Maria Casey says:

    So great to see you back on Monhegan…..birding, hiking, teaching Arielle all about the monarch life stages, photography, friendship and celebrating our dear friends 50th wedding anniversary!!

  2. Donna K. Cundy says:

    Migration happens. Just enjoy it.

  3. Wanda says:


  4. Sue Cloutier says:

    Life is so special. Glad you are here to enjoy it. Thanks for sharing.

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