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Scarlet Tanager on Monhegan Island by Bryan Pfeiffer

The Falcon and the Flycatcher

Spring Migration on Monhegan Island, Maine

May 19, 2019  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  44 comments  | 

With the climate catastrophe upon us and biological diversity under siege, with our politics and civil discourse in shambles, and even with the finale of “Game of Thrones” (which I have never watched) happening tonight, where might we turn for respite or strength? Well, here at sea on Monhegan Island, at least you can turn in any direction and find strength in warblers.

Not that warblers will solve the world’s troubles. But spring migration on this outpost 10 miles off Maine’s midcoast renews my faith in the curative powers of nature and flight. Had I written this post on Friday, when the year’s first wave of birdwatchers landed on Monhegan, I might have offered you Northern Parulas, the second most abundant bird out here that day, each displaying a second sunrise on its breast. Maybe instead I’d regale you with full-frontal views of Blackburnian and Magnolia warblers. Or I could have gloated about the Hooded Warblers, at least two of them, we’ve discovered far from their normal breeding range. All the warblers — we’re up to 20 species now — indeed offered us respite and strength (and fuel for this blog post). But then a falcon snatched a flycatcher from the skies and began to eat on the wing.

Magnolia Warbler / © Bill Thompson

That killing alone might have been enough to convey to you a remarkable morning on Monhegan. But before I get to that, I should mention a few things that happened before the flycatcher met the falcon. First, I met a white spruce adorned with no fewer than: 3 male Scarlet Tanagers, 3 Baltimore Orioles (2 males and a female), 1 Orchard Oriole (a year-old male), a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and an American Goldfinch. That too would have been enough to describe my epic morning. But then a Yellow Warbler, about 20 feet away, launched to catch an insect about 6 feet from my face. (With insects and deciduous leaves not yet in abundance here on Monhegan, most of the warblers are flycatching.)

During spring migration, Monhegan declares to the skies: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to fly north and breed. Accordingly, boatloads of Scarlet Tanagers, navigating by night, were among the beleaguered immigrants arriving Saturday morning. We’re still finding them at nearly every turn, many too tired to fly away from us (like that male above who dropped to the stump as I passed him by on Horn Hill). Along with them were a load of Gray Catbirds, which joined an infantry of Red-breasted Nuthatches (now the most abundant songbird on the island) marching along tree trunks and branches. It’s all rather routine on Monhegan this time of year.

So is a falcon snatching a flycatcher. All three of our eastern falcons are zooming around the island now. When I first spotted the Peregrine Falcon, with breakfast in her talons, floating overhead not far from Jaime Wyeth’s house, I alerted my pals Josh Lincoln and Bill Thompson, who promptly started shooting photos through their giant lenses. Hanging on a north wind above us, the falcon began to eat its prey, which you can see in Josh’s first pair of images. Seconds after I wondered aloud about the identity of her meal, the Peregrine proceeded to drop it, which you’ll see in Bill’s two images. Limp and lifeless, feathers and flesh weighing less than an ounce, the songbird floated gently to earth. Through my binoculars I tracked its descent.

Before it had met the falcon, this songbird had almost certainly flown all night, ending up off-course over the Atlantic here in the Gulf of Maine. Monhegan was to be its safe harbor. It perished instead not at sea but in the grip of a falcon’s talons, only to be released for reasons I cannot know. I located the songbird lying in a thicket beside a Green Alder. A Least Flycatcher, still warm.

That’s me giving the flycatcher a more respectable pose so that Bill could photograph it.

This drama of life and death and migration here on Monhegan plays out in the sky and in large part in naked trees. As I’ve been writing all May, I’m enjoying the reluctant arrival of spring and its leaves — so that we may more easily see warblers. Monhegan, slow to leaf out, is in the Red Alert stage, with Red Maples just now in flower and the shad snowstorm yet to begin. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are turning to Fly Honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis) for nectar, with at least one trying out a dandelion. It feels like late April or early May out here.

Even so, in the sunshine yesterday, American Lady and Red Admiral butterflies, both migrants, were on the wing. Other avian highlights: Turkey Vulture (rare out here at sea), Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a calling Catharus thrush that I swear was a Bicknell’s, and lots of Bobolinks in places we don’t usually see them — on the road, on stumps, on feeders, in spruces and in gardens.

The clouds and cold returned this morning. Many of the warblers departed last night. But even if I now cannot find warblers in every direction, Scarlet Tanagers are still posing on stumps. I’ve got a report of another Hooded Warbler to investigate. And tonight, during the finale of “Game of Thrones,” the winds are supposed to blow hard from south. Which means on Monday morning, once again, I might temporarily turn away from the world’s problems and find warblers in any direction. No dragons, please — maybe some dragonflies. I’ll leave you for now with a few more images of tired migrants.

44 comments
  1. Patricia says:

    Thank you for offering such a gorgeous glimpse of beloved Mon’egan, and so glad you were there for a fallout! Here in another beloved place, Plum Island, it’s also been the best birding of a lifetime! The big 3 (so I’m told): Cape May, Bay Breasted,& Blackburnian all chilling branch-by-each snatching bugs…plus scads of Canada, Tennessee, Parula, the Black Throated brothers & sisters, Blackpolls, Flycatchers…It is truly heartening to see and hear.

  2. Craig Line says:

    The migration continues unabated here in Calais, also. Yesterday morning was sunny and quite warm (back to 45 today) and the cacophony going on was almost deafening! From my usual morning perch on the back porch, with coffee, I saw or heard myrtles, northern parulas, black- throated greens (at literally an arms length away!) bt blues, yellows, phoebes, ovenbirds and a prairie, with a female turkey walking through the field gobbling every few yards—ah, spring!

  3. Lovely recap, as always. (Although I first read that one sentence as “Many of the warblers were deported last night.”)

  4. Joan Thompson says:

    What a treat to share Monhegan in spring via your writing. Many thanks.

  5. Amy Lake says:

    Wish we were there! Always wonderful writing and great pictures…
    Especially the falcon feast…or not! Keep up with prose about life on the rock!

  6. Sharon Lazerson says:

    Bryan, next year a birding tour on Monhegan? I visited that special place one summer and recall the rocks, the artists, and of course the ocean. Such a lovely retreat.

    • My days of guiding are over, Sharon. For 20 years it was a wonderful career. (Now I guide myself in new discoveries 🙂 ) But you’ll find other guides doing trips there — spring and fall.

  7. Louanne Nielsen says:

    Your writing is always entertaining, informative and inspiring. Thank you. However, I have to give Josh and Bill a significant amount of credit for capturing your story with photos.

    • You bet, Louanne. In fact, when they’re around, I basically don’t photograph birds. Actually, when the birding’s this good I don’t photograph at all. That will be a topic in my next post.

  8. Marci says:

    Wow – your report makes me long to get to Monhegan in May – hope that was a Bicknell’s Thrush you saw!!!

  9. Hi Bryan – Great article. I wonder why the Falcon let go of the Warbler?Sounds like a great place for birding.

  10. Debbie Bushey says:

    It’s a feeding frenzy here at Lake Carmi in my yard. I’ve never had so many Baltimore Orioles, and Rose-breasted Grossbeaks, my first Scarlet Tanager here. Pine Sisken’s and Goldfinches, Warblers, along with many other species. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Sally Edwards says:

    Wonderful article–beautifully written.

  12. Barbara Christiano says:

    Thank you, Bryan, for describing the beauty and
    Wonder that you see. It does settle the soul in these
    Trying times… and to not take nature for granted!
    I particularly appreciated your bringing in the allegory of
    Migrants and their trials. I am currently in coastal FL enjoying
    Birding here. Safe and happy travels! Thanks again; Barbara, Warren VT.

  13. LIke the falcon, the songbirds are very hungry; like the songbirds the insects are very hungry; like we are very hungry to see all the arrivals to the dinner table. Food web of life – a beauty to behold.

    TY Bryan for inviting us to dinner!

  14. Joyce Kahn says:

    Your entertaining writing left me chuckling, Bryan. I hope those immigrants to Monhegan are faring better than those at our southern borders. I was sorry to hear about the flycatcher. I love those birds.
    A pair made a nest in the corner of a lean-to at Ricker Pond last summer, and I’ve got some great photos of them feeding the 3 young.

    • In many ways, a migrant bird’s journey can be just as rough and tragic: arduous, with perils along the way, and sometimes with no actual destination because the habitat has been destroyed. (I might have to write on this.) Thanks, Joyce.

  15. Vicki Henderson says:

    I loved reading this, and the photos. Saddened about the swift demise of the flycatcher, but I understand. And I agree that with these times comes the need for such fodder for the soul that nature gifts us. Thank you for giving me mine with this beautifully written prose.

    • Thanks, Vicki. Very kind of you. I have to admit to a major incongruity in the state of the world and how fortunate I am to be enjoying nature out here — something, as it turns out, I’m exploring in more writing.

  16. CATHERINE C WILLSON says:

    The birders up in Craftsbury heard a pair of No. Parulas, spotted Blackburnian and a Chestnut-Sided warblers (one each).

  17. Peter says:

    Beautiful prose and photos

  18. Karl Bissex says:

    I love scarlet tanagers. We have only seen once up here on the hill.
    My stepmom, Glenda, had a grouse or partridge smash through her double pane window at her house na die. Can i send you a few pictures to confirm what it is?

  19. Sheri Larsen says:

    Wonderful story!

  20. Sue Wetmore says:

    Nature can offer many unusual and exciting scenarios. What a great story!

  21. Catherine Crawley says:

    Wonderful report from Monhegan! Poor flycatcher. What a rewarding white spruce. Good medicine for the soul in these trying times indeed. Please send some of those scarlets over to North Central Vermont. Just reading your dispatches lifts the spirits! Thank you!

    • Yep, those tanagers should be showing up in our hardwoods — singing from the treetops like an American Robin with a sore throat! Thanks, Catherine! (Get good photos! :-))

  22. Rollin Tebbetts says:

    Outstanding!

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