The Falcon and the Flycatcher
Spring Migration on Monhegan Island, Maine
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.
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.
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.