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Monhegan in May

A bird artist finds inspiration during spring migration on a tiny Maine coast island
By Barry Van Dusen | Published: 5/1/1995

Blackpoll Warbler. Photo by Hans Spiecker

Blackpoll Warbler. Photo by Hans Spiecker

The small Blackpoll Warbler has been flying all night, and overhead the moon and stars are giving way to a pale glow on the eastern horizon. The southwesterly winds have helped him along, but they have also pushed him off course, and now, in the silvery light of dawn, he can see that he’s over water, lots of water. Beneath him, the sea stretches out, unbroken but for a small island ahead.

Aboard the Laura B, I watch that same island’s form rise from the ocean. My fingers tighten on the drawing pencil in my pocket. Impatient to draw something, I flip open my sketchbook and block out the island’s shape. Rising in the north, tall spruce-covered headlands slope and roll away to the south — to the village and harbor. Born of the ocean, the island mimics a huge wave frozen in rock.

Passing over the harbor, the Blackpoll scans for a place to land. Dropping from the sky, he is joined by others like himself, tired and hungry. He hears their chips and squeaks and feels reassured. On an open slope next to an ancient cemetery, he chooses a spot amid the mosses and lichens, spare grasses, and weather-polished roots of ground juniper. Here he can rest. Soon the morning sun will warm the slope and stir the insects to activity, providing food to satisfy his hunger. But now, expanding his feathers against the morning chill, he hunkers down and dozes. Later, awakening, he sees a large form approaching. Tall and upright against the light, it stops before reaching him and remains still — looming but not threatening. The bird hops a few feet and huddles down again, seemingly in need of more rest.

From 10 feet away, I quickly slash down some lines in my sketchbook, indicating the angles of the head, wings, and tail. Still the tiny Blackpoll Warbler stays put. I work up more detail: the two crisp wing bars, the shape of the solid black cap, the neat, fine streaking on the back of the neck. I cannot believe my luck. Rarely does a small bird cooperate so well in the field. The warbler shifts slightly and I start another pose, this time noting the hunched shape of the back and the way the wings fan slightly, their tips drooping below the tail.

Most of my sketchbook drawings of warblers are rapid and gestural, just enough line to capture a fleeting attitude or to note a detail of plumage. But I am able to study this Blackpoll Warbler. As I draw, I steep myself in these moments shared with another creature.

The next morning as I slowly awaken, yesterday’s birds fill my head in a rush. Orchard Orioles and Magnolia Warblers dart across my closed eyelids. But yesterday’s birds are miles away now. Through the window I hear soft twitters and cheeps — the next wave arriving. I’m impatient to start the day’s work.

A May dawn on Monhegan Island is a birdwatcher’s version of Christmas morning. Because warblers and many songbirds travel at night, new birds appear as if by magic each morning. Anticipation and excitement are at a peak with the first excursions of the day. I scribble furiously in my spiral-bound sketchbook, trying to catch all the fresh impressions, all the new discoveries.

Breakfast is served by 7:45 a.m. at the guest house. Visiting birders have scoured the island for new arrivals, and they return to breakfast with their “prizes.” In the common dining room, the meal becomes a clearinghouse for bird information — what’s been seen, where, what species are most abundant, and what birds have arrived or departed.

“Finally got that waterthrush at Ice Pond.”

“Not a single Cape May all week. I may have to leave without one!”

“Crossbills all over — a dozen in the spruces right outside our cabin!”

“Cerulean on the Alder Trail!” The banter goes on.

At one of the island’s two beaches, I set up my sketching stool while it crosses my mind that “beach” is too generous a word. Both Swim Beach and Fish Beach are but tiny coves enclosing small crescents of gravelly sand. Here, on Fish Beach, I’m surrounded by working fishermen’s shacks and a clutter of marine engine parts, rope, buoys, traps, and nets. Heaps of seaweed strewn about the upper beach teem with small invertebrates — a magnet for hungry birds.

I work back and forth between sketches of the various species present, building my drawings in stages as I learn each bird’s unique shape and pattern. Canada, Yellow-rumped, and Bay-breasted Warblers — these brightly patterned birds strike an unexpected alliance with the equally bright colors of the scattered ropes and buoys. I’d like to slow down, make some careful background studies, but there is so little time. I photograph the piles of fishing gear for reference and move on.

A Solitary Sandpiper finds comfort at the far end of Ice Pond, where a tangle of bleached sticks rises from the mud: a sheltered niche in an alien land of rock and pounding surf. He sits quietly, the warm sun on his back. On the opposite shore, I am scanning with my telescope when the sandpiper suddenly pops into view. As still as the surrounding sticks, he merges with the landscape. The late morning light falls strongly across the handsomely speckled back, but casts the head and breast into violet shadows. My pencil fingers twitch, and the seeds of a painting burst open in my head. I record the pattern of shadows and the confused angularity of the surrounding sticks in my sketchbook. I make notes on color and fix the essentials of the scene firmly in my mind’s eye.

In the evening, a group of Bobolinks, all females, flutter nervously in a bramble above the landing. To the west, the mainland forms a thin blue line on the horizon. One of the birds flies out over the harbor, but feeling the dark expanse of water below, sweeps back to the others. Anxiously they jostle and flit. Time to get going, to move on. Driven by a powerful urge, it clarifies and strengthens as the days grow longer.

Up the coast and farther west, the memory of a meadow beckons. Bobolink country. The males are there already, fighting over prime real estate, staking a claim — waiting. All at once, the females launch themselves from the bramble and rollick out over the harbor. In the fading light I watch them turn into flying specks over the vast ocean. Moments later, another flock follows — smaller birds, probably warblers. Turning my binoculars to the north I watch as all along the shoreline small parties of birds strike out over the water and head for the mainland.

At dawn I stumble over the island trails, my eyes diverted by small movements in the spruce. A Blackburnian Warbler dances in and out of view only inches from my face. My pencil jabs and scratches. A Red-breasted Nuthatch resembles a Christmas ornament as it hangs motionless from a spruce bough. Holding my breath, I scribble furiously.

Island rest stop

Read tour leader Will Russell’s April 2011 article about birding on Monhegan Island.

As I work my way up the rugged eastern shore, the light intensifies into the hard glare of midday, then mellows into the ripe, glowing hues of late afternoon. Glancing at my watch, I suddenly realize that I’m miles from the guest house with the dinner hour nearly at hand. I march double time back through the island’s interior, allowing only a brief moment to stop and admire the ravens sweeping like dark spirits through the high forest canopy.

The days blur together. Keeping up my frantic pace, I find I must refer to the dates in my sketchbook to orient myself in this quirky island time. Amid the chaotic tumble of new impressions, however, I notice patterns emerging. I am intrigued by the American Redstarts and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, most of which display odd plumages not shown in the field guides. I realize these must be young birds. I diagram the variations in my sketchbook and wonder why one-year-old birds outnumber adults. Is it simply a matter of seasonal timing? I know that younger birds generally migrate later than adults. Or is it perhaps inexperience that causes so many young birds to waste their energies on a 20-mile detour to a remote island?

As I spend more time on the island, I also begin to sense the rhythm of the island year. Late May is still early in the season. Summer people have not yet returned, and trim, well-maintained cottages silently await their arrival. Neat piles of screens are stacked beneath porches, deck chairs are overturned and lashed down against winter winds. Through the dark windows, ghostly forms of furniture veiled with sheets rise in the gloom.

For the island’s year-round residents, many of them fishermen, birdwatchers must seem both a blessing and a curse. New faces probably are a welcome sight after the isolation of a long Maine winter, if only because they signal milder weather ahead. But birders also represent the start of the summer tourist season — the first lapping waves of a human tide that swells to a daily flood by midsummer, threatening to inundate their island home. I have not been to Monhegan in “high season,” when a carnival atmosphere prevails, when boats discharge their payloads of day-trippers every few hours, and the village and trails swarm with people.

Some year I will visit Monhegan in the fall, when the warblers wear puzzling, somber plumages, when Merlins and Peregrine Falcons stream across a deep azure sky above Green Point, and when the chance of seeing a rare bird is greater than at any other time of year.

But now, as I leave the island, my thoughts are still of springtime. With my gear loaded aboard the Laura B and Monhegan’s shape receding on the horizon, I sit back and savor the memories of the last few days. Even now, the images sharpen with the selective distillation that memory performs. The images are many and jumbled. Some are tucked away safely in my sketchbooks; others are just as secure in the file drawer of my imagination. I eagerly anticipate the days ahead in my studio when I can sift through this precious bounty. Carefully I’ll pick and choose, order and compose. I’ll ask myself how best to tell this story — the story of a tiny island in a vast sea, visited by a magical flight of birds.

Why Monhegan?

People visit Monhegan, a 700-acre island 10 miles off the coast of Maine, for many reasons, but a growing number come for one of two things: birds and artistic inspiration. As an artist who paints birds, I have come for both. For the past several years I have traveled to Monhegan each May to experience the spring bird migrations and to record them in sketches and paintings.

The birds that most people associate with the Maine coast are ocean birds. Every coastal gift shop boasts a selection of carved gulls, ducks, loons, and puffins. But these are not the birds that birdwatchers seek on Monhegan in May. Instead, they come to witness songbirds migrating north from their tropical winter homes: grosbeaks and tanagers, orioles, sparrows, and especially wood warblers.

Tiny, energetic, and sporting a dazzling variety of patterns and colors, wood warblers are unique to the New World. Of the 53 species found in North America, roughly three-quarters occur primarily in the east. Little wonder they are the principal pride and delight of many New England birders.

Unfortunately, but no doubt adding to the excitement, the spring songbird migration is urgent and brief — too brief for artists like myself who wish to capture its essence. A visit to Monhegan in late May is a way to stretch out time. A few hours of driving, an hour’s boat ride, and one can turn back the season, regaining those precious days of migration.

Monhegan has a way of intensifying the spring migration spectacle. The island’s geographical location — offshore and isolated — and its small size both contribute to creating remarkable concentrations of birds. Because these migrants arrive fatigued and hungry, their natural caution is lowered, making them easier to approach and study. Such is the lure of Monhegan in May.

How to get there:

Visitors to Monhegan Island usually arrange for ferry service from Port Clyde, Maine. Schedules for the one-hour boat ride vary with the season. For a schedule or for more information, write to the Monhegan Boat Line, Box 238, Port Clyde, Maine 04855, or call (207) 372-8848.

Wildlife artist Barry Van Dusen specializes in natural history subjects. He has also illustrated various publications, including A Birder’s Guide to Eastern Massachusetts, and Bird Finding in New England.