Monhegan Island, ten miles off the Maine coast from Port Clyde, is noted as a premier birding locale as it lies on the Atlantic flyway. The counts &
variety of birds that can be spotted at any given time during spring and fall migration makes it exceptional with the possibility of seeing many species
not normally viewed on the mainland. It had been perhaps thirty years since I was last on the island and I knew this trip with Derek would be well
worth the effort.
After a time Derek worked his schedule out to free up a weekend and I was informed of the perspective dates - September 29th and 30th. The informal format he proposed was for interested parties to make their own travel and lodging arrangements and the group would plan a time to meet once everyone gathered on the island. I was disappointed to learn Jeannette couldn’t make the journey; she was required to stay in Yarmouth to tend the store while Derek served as our guide.
I talked with my friend Paul Beauchesne to see if he had any interest in this weekend, which he emphatically did... Afterwards I spoke with Linda about it, never thinking she’d be interested, but surprisingly she indicated she’d like to go. Her birthday was in early September and I indicated this would be a present from me. I called Paul to inform him Linda would attend and upon asking his spouse Marlene stated she would go also, so the four of us made plans for that weekend. We determined to depart the Friday before and return late Sunday afternoon. In the end result, Derek and several other folks arrived early Saturday and returned to the mainland on Monday so some of the birding was conducted in counterparts by the group.
I did some investigation, made reservations at The Island Inn and called the Monhegan Boat Line to reserve passage. This was done quite awhile before the travel dates. I made notes of the arrangements, emailed them out and then went about life and business as usual traveling to Savannah, Georgia for most of the month of September. My photojournal, Photographs From Georgia documents what I was doing outside of work while in that area. Upon my return it wasn’t long before I had to dig out my notes and commence preparations for the Monhegan trip.
Linda and I talked over what we may require for the weekend. As is generally the case, I wasn’t overly concerned about clothes. My planning focused more on what to bring for a lens set and camera accessories. We didn’t wish a transport overload for a long weekend – car to boat to hotel and vice versa. Once this was resolved and a plan was determined for how to pack the selections, we were just about ready.
Friday September 28th
|The original Marshall Point Lighthouse was erected in 1832 as an aid to mariners entering the harbor at Port Clyde or passing by into Muscongus Bay. The present 31-foot light is constructed of granite and brick and was erected in 1857 with a fifth-order Fresnel lens (pronounced fray-nell, named after French physicist Augustine Fresnel, inventor of the lens type). Lenses are ranked in six sizes entitled orders – the weakest, ranked sixth is used in inland waterways applications, to the first-order – the brightest deemed suitable for fog-bound coasts. The fifth-order installation showed a fixed white light visible for about ten miles. The light was automated in 1971 and the Fresnel lens was replaced with a modern lens type with a battery backup system. The light keeper’s home standing now dates back to 1895 when it replaced the original stone structure.|
After we looked around for a time we returned to the departure pier and waited until it was time to board for the hour long journey to Monhegan Island.
There were a few Common Eiders around, one or two fairly close, some Black Guillemots, Double-crested Cormorants in the distance and as always,
plenty of gulls of various types around.
On the outward passage we were fortunate enough to speak with an ornithologist, Jeff Wells and his associate, a videotographer, going to the island to
conduct some night research pursuant to migratory birds. Their task consisted of setting up nighttime listening posts and recording the sounds of the
migration to graph the traffic and species. This was quite interesting and they were producing a National Geographic documentary on this subject. I was
photographing seabirds near the prow of the vessel and the cameraman was videotaping portions of the outward trip. We talked with Jeff again the next
day as they were leaving the island and they indicated they had a successful evening ‘listening’ and taping the migratory birds as they flew overhead.
We look forward to seeing the documentary they produce from this effort.
From about halfway through the journey out until we made the island there were a plethora of Northern Gannets in the area. I’d viewed these birds before but never
in the numbers seen on this passage. I had my Canon 5d set up with my 70-200mm F/2.8L Imaged stabilized lens and 1.4X extender, so I could achieve a 280mm focal length.
Not really a great image scale but I knew this combination worked well in the field and I figured I would need the stabilized ability of the lens. I believe I made
the correct choice as it was a bit herky/jerky up forward with a good deal of spray coming over the rail. I didn’t mind getting wet but having the spray on the lens
wasn’t conducive to getting good images. I’d ceased the practice of utilizing a filter over the front of my glass. Many photographers wouldn’t do without this as a
layer of protection on expensive lenses but I’ve come around to the school of thought that this is simply one more element that can be done without in the optic path.
I learned it was difficult to keep the lens clear & many of these shots exhibited salt spray on the glass but it was worth the effort and I managed some decent gannet shots.
We arrived on Monhegan Island around 1630 hours, received the off-loaded bags and placed them in the truck for transport to the facility. After checking in I went to the room and changed. I was even
wetter than I realized from the passage and it was good to dry out. It was a nice afternoon, warm but somewhat overcast. After a time we met on the large porch of the inn facing the ocean and the
small island of Manana across the harbor. I had a camera out hoping to catch some sunset shots but the cloud cover in the western sky precluded the view I’d anticipated.
Linda walked down to the Barnacle, a small general store not far from the inn and purchased a bottle of wine. We sat in the chairs overlooking the harbor sipping wine and enjoyed the balance of
the day. We made dinner reservations at the inn for our party and after this event we weren’t long in heading to our rooms to retire for the evening. The food at the inn was first rate in every respect.
Derek and the others were due in on the 0800 boat from Port Clyde so we didn’t stray far from our lodgings, which were fairly close to the pier where incoming folks arrive. I set the tripod up
facing the entrance and took some images of the birds and surrounding environs. I noticed a spider in a web on the sign going into the inn. It wasn’t long before I positioned the tripod for a
shot of this creature and many people walking by were trying to figure out what I was doing. Paul soon joined me and we viewed the spider images on the camera's LCD display. He got a kick out of
telling folks meandering by that this spider was photographed in my bed at the inn. Most onlookers were impressed when looking at the screen image after I pointed out where the spider was,
just within focus distance from where the tripod was set up.
After a time the vessel from Port Clyde loomed into view and through my lens I could see Derek on deck forward birding on the way in. As usual, he didn’t miss a beat and most likely had
more sightings on the way in than we did in the next day or two. I took a series of shots of him as the boat got closer, several of which can be viewed here...
Derek, our friend, compatriot and guide & a few of our party arriving on the 0800 boat at right... Spend some time with Derek and you'll quickly learn why we think of him as the 'Master'. When it comes to bird lore you'd be
hard pressed to find a more capable and enthusiastic individual. And no, he doesn't pay me to write this stuff... everything you read in my accounts is always true to the best of my knowledge.
It was only a matter of minutes before Derek, joined by Barb & Lauren, who traveled over with him, were on the island and generating an observing plan. I learned that two more of our party would be joining us, coming in on the 1130 boat from Port Clyde. Derek had arranged a meeting place for our group and these folks so everything was set. The four of us joined the group and we started off to seek out whatever we could find.
There were many people on the island birding. I’d seen visitors leaving the inn early with binoculars and cameras in various sized groups and figured they were doing the same thing we had planned.
This really is a diverse environment between the inland portions of the island and the shoreline. As we hiked along we passed groups coming and going and Derek occasionally asked what they
found and where. He was quite familiar with the many places to go and it appeared you couldn’t go wrong actually; everywhere was a good place to seek birds...
|I’d been informed by a friend of mine who’d recently visited Monhegan Island that generally speaking it’s hard going when hiking about. She walks three to five miles daily and even with this, she said hiking the island can be tiresome. By the end of the day, with Derek as a guide, I was in absolute agreement. I’d attempted to forewarn Linda that Derek once served as a consultant to the ‘Marine Corps drill instructors union’ and there wouldn’t be a lot of resting on our trek with him. Anyone who employs Derek as a guide or attends one of his bird walks always gets more than their monies worth. His knowledge level, observational skills and energy level are such that you always learn more than you can probably retain in any setting. Derek’s idea of a good time is to go anywhere and everywhere birds can be found even if it takes all day, sleep a bit if one has time and get up the next morning to do it all again...|
|We headed towards the ice pond, not too far from the inn. There was a grassy lane to the left as we approached and we observed birds flitting in and out among the trees. I dropped the tripod down and rough leveled it just in case and checked out the activity for a bit. Marlene and I were talking and looking around when right in front of my set up a Yellow-billed Cuckoo landed in a near perfect position for my camera. Linda, who was shooting handheld and I took multiple shots of this beautiful bird posing on several branches in a great spot. This sighting proved to be one of the highlights of the trip for me.|
|Find at right another view of the same cuckoo… I was pleased with the group of images of this bird and refer to the two viewed in this account as, ‘the bookends’. The detail displayed in the master file of this image is quite good.|
|There was a single Wood Duck on the pond. We photographed this bird multiple times as it moved around the area, later it relocated to a yard closer to where we were for a few frames.|
We investigated the ice pond area and soon headed towards Lobster Cove checking out the trees and areas along the road on the way there. Derek indicated that compared to other days he’s birded the
island this day wasn’t a premier example. I was satisfied with what we were viewing and was having fun. One thought I had was this wasn’t the best place photographically as you couldn’t really
stalk the birds to get closer as would generally be the case in some of the areas we frequent. Most of the areas off the road were private property, so in essence, if you got off the road you’d
be on somebody’s property. This is frowned upon with good reason I suppose. The island has become a bit of a tourist mecca and Derek warned me that entering a yard without an invitation
could create an issue and its best not to do so. One just never knows how the Owner may react or whether they’ll take exception to your presence. Some areas were clearly marked as private
property with no entrance allowed, others were not.
We viewed more White-crowned Sparrows in the next few days than I’d ever noticed at one place before. These birds are quite attractive and I always enjoy trying to get new photographs of them.
|As we hiked by one yard a group of Ring-necked Pheasants came meandering by. I thought this was a bit unusual, you generally don’t see these birds in the open like this, so we stopped to get a few shots. The lighting was poor from our angle as they were backlit, but we took a series of images.|
|The flowers along the way were in full bloom in many instances so I took time when I could to line up a few shots. As I was doing this one of the many free range chickens running around popped out from behind a bush. As I was in the road and the chicken was in a yard that was built up, the bird was reasonably close to my eye level when I spotted it. The photograph seen here was the end result. You may laugh at this, but if you could view the master file of this image you’d find the detail quite impressive...|
|Lobster Cove is a fairly neat place and I was pleased to see many Northern Gannets flying about near the ledge and rocks above the shore. Monhegan Island really is a beautiful spot & this cove allowed one to enjoy the natural beauty of the place as well as providing a glimpse of the power of the Atlantic Ocean. I found a good perch, leveled the tripod and commenced to obtaining some gannet wing shots as noted from these examples below...|
As it approached noon Derek indicated we should head back near the Monhegan Inn, where we planned to meet the balance of our party. None of us complained about sitting down for a time and we
enjoyed watching people coming by as we sat on the porch of the hotel. After resting awhile we gathered for some lunch and got back on the path to view some birds.
Birds weren't the only beautiful subjects that we found in our travels...
|We’d viewed many raptors in flight around the island over the last days. As we walked along Derek was pointing out among others, Northern Harriers, Ospreys, American Kestrels, Merlins, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Peregrine Falcons. Because I was only shooting with the tripod mounted system and Linda had her 30D, which I usually carry as a second body, many opportunities were lost (at least in my view) to get some images of these birds flying in the blue sky conditions. None of these birds were close and it’s a difficult task to alert & point a subject out to someone in time to get a shot so it was rare that Linda actually had an opportunity to do this unless she spotted the fly-bys first. Before this weekend was over I knew that I was going to purchase another camera because I wished to encourage Linda to get out with me as often as she wanted and still have two cameras available to shoot. I indicated this fact to Derek as we hiked along and since this weekend I have indeed fulfilled this need with a new Canon 40D – however - this is another story...|
|We talked it over and decided to hike the hill by the lighthouse and cross over to the other side of the island at Whitehead. To this end we dutifully gathered our gear and started along. The lighthouse is on high ground so up we went, finding the roadway and trails fairly steep at times. Most of us were finding this day to be great exercise whether we were seeking more or not; it already felt like it had been a long day. Derek didn’t appear to mind any of this. He knew where he was going and was on a mission so kept the group moving along as we birded the area. We passed through the cemetery and looked around a bit before following the trail to the lighthouse. We were surprised by the amount of activity around the lighthouse and accessory buildings. A wedding had just taken place and all the party was in the area conducting photographic sessions and enjoying the day. We didn’t tarry long under these circumstances and moved on to provide some privacy to the people involved with the festivities.|
|When we got over to Whitehead and looked out over the ocean we decided to rest for a time and enjoy the wondrous scenery. Some sat on the rocks or walked about while Derek and I sat in the grass leaning against a boulder watching the birds fly around the shoreline. We viewed an Osprey coming towards us; my tripod was set up behind me but Linda was nearby, so I grabbed her 30d and took a series of shots on this osprey as it flew over.|
|We birded this area and soon headed back towards the lighthouse. By the time we returned the wedding party had headed down the hill and with the diminished activity we enjoyed the views from this vantage point. I used the 30d to obtain some close up photographs of the lighthouse – this was easier at the time than changing lenses on my tripod system. We also had a great view of the Island Inn and we photographed this as well.|
|As trade in the area was increasing, in 1822 President James Monroe authorized construction of a lighthouse on Monhegan Island as an aid to mariners. Two years later the first lighthouse went into operation on one of the island’s highest points consisting of a manned, conical 30-foot stone tower. By 1850 there was a need to re-build the structure due to the severe weather lashing experienced on the island. An old fisherman once told me that Monhegan would have long blown away except that it was just a hunk of rock in the ocean... This doesn’t bode well for any structures above that rock however... The new lighthouse was a 48-foot granite tower that remains standing until this day. In 1856 the original lamps were replaced with a second-order Fresnel lens. Now of course, everything is automated and has been since 1959. At 178 above sea level, the Monhegan Island Light is the second highest in Maine (the Sequin island Light is first at 180- feet).|
|As we birded our way back, Derek decided to go through Cathedral Woods to see what he could find. Paul and I conferred with the ladies about what they wished to do and collectively we decided to head back to the inn. We were tired and wished to rest up a bit before dinner. We formulated a plan to meet Derek and whoever wished to come along to join us at the inn later and everyone departed with their perspective groups.|
|Several hours of daylight remained & we really didn’t waste any of it. I set up the tripod overlooking Manana Island hoping to get some sunset photographs as the day ended or just in case anything of particular interest came up. The evening before I was certain I’d spotted an adult Bald Eagle flying among a group of birds not far from the inn and if this appeared again I wanted to be ready. Upon our return we made dinner reservations for our party and as had been the case the evening before, we had a wonderful meal in good company. Derek updated his sightings list and we discussed the various birds viewed during the day as we dined.|
|It wasn’t long after dinner when Linda and I retired for the evening. My friend Marcia was right; hiking on Monhegan Island can be a lot of work; I was tired and a little sore. Carrying my tripod and 500mm lens everywhere all day while walking through the varied terrain consisting of gravel roads to narrow paths in the woods, climbing up and over through the rocks, etc., was taxing. Derek commented at one point during the hike that he was surprised that I could navigate some of this terrain while carrying the camera gear as I’d been doing. Derek being Derek, it was my turn to be surprised... I didn’t think he ever got tired when in pursuit of the next bird and probably figured nobody else did either. This guy can ‘get it done’ and I doubt there are few, if any challenges he won’t undertake when he’s in the field and focused.|
|Because I carry my tripod every time I take the field I never give it much thought but many birders and passers-by would give me ‘the look’ or ask about it. Some inquire if they can pick up the tripod as they wished to learn how heavy it is. My system is fairly lightweight with a carbon fiber tripod, but yet collectively with the 500mm lens, flash extender and camera mounted, it represents a considerable load. My view on this remains the same – nearly every time I think I’ll leave the tripod behind and go strictly handheld I’ve have reason to regret not having the additional reach the system provides, let’s say 400mm versus 700mm... So unless I’m on a vessel of some kind, in terrain that cannot be navigated safely or where the 500mm lens wouldn’t be usable, I carry the tripod system and a second body for handheld shots.|
As expected, we were up early and I was out looking around. I didn’t have a computer on the island so couldn’t download the compact flash cards from the cameras. Before going to bed I charged the
batteries and changed/formatted fresh cards for our last day. Linda indicated yesterday that she wasn’t interested just in birds (imagine that!) but wanted to conduct general photography of this
beautiful spot. Because of this, we mounted a 70-200mm IS lens on her 30d camera. However, upon review of her images in-camera she had many bird photographs that clearly could benefit from a
bit more reach. A good example of this was the raptors flying overhead all day. So later in the day yesterday when we got near the inn and for this day, she used one of my favorite lenses,
the 400mm f/5.6L and was quite successful with this.
You can check this article to learn more about My Photographic System if you wish. I need to update this in the near future but the equipment we used on the island is listed in this account.
|We met Paul and Marlene downstairs at the Inn for a great buffet breakfast. They hoped to visit some of the shops that remained open this late in the season so we collectively decided to make today a bit less structured. Because we were departing the island on an afternoon boat we had to check our bags in storage at the hotel as we walked the island for the balance of the day after check out. Linda and I packed our gear and headed out to the Ice Pond, not far from the Inn.|
As we followed the road near the pond some birders indicated there was a Wilson's Snipe in view along the shore. We went along with a few other folks to see if we could find this bird. It wasn’t easy to
spot but a fellow did point it out and I took a series of photographs at distance. I attempted to get across the pond following a path through the woods to get closer, but the snipe was in
a location that was blocked from view at this angle. The shots I obtained would have been better with a larger image scale, but as these birds aren’t easy to locate from my experience, I was pleased to have them.
We were astounded by how much more bird activity we were viewing this morning compared to yesterday. It looked like birds were moving everywhere and the pond area appeared to be a target
rich environment. As Linda and I scouted the area taking photographs, it wasn’t long before Derek and the others in our loose confederation came along in their travels. Collectively
we discussed the terrific change in our birding fortunes – after all, this was really why we traveled here. We didn’t have to wander far - birds were everywhere and it was great, but
Derek had other places he wished to check out and we moved along.
There was an abundance of Yellow-rumped Warblers everywhere you went it appeared… This species is prominent and I learned from my recent travels in the south that if you were uncertain what bird that may have been that just flew by, there’s a fifty percent chance this is what it was…
We were covering much of the same ground as yesterday at this point but with many more birds around it was like a new experience. Derek was advised of the many potential ‘hot spots’ from his
experience birding the island and we checked out the various areas as we moved along. In some cases staying in one place for an extended period was quite productive. We were viewing species new
from yesterday’s list and everyone was pleased with the experience from what I could tell. Linda and I did what we could to capture the birds with our cameras and kept shooting away as opportunities were presented.
I was pleased to see this Wilson's Warbler flit by near where my tripod was set up although I wasn’t certain what it was at first. Derek positively identified it for me from the images. I watched the bird hoping to obtain an unobstructed shot or two and in the end result wasn’t disappointed.
As the day progressed Derek asked if we wanted to seek out birds in the field next to Lobster Cove. Everyone agreed this was a good plan so we birded our way along the road and path to the cove over
several hours. Because many folks were leaving today & the lobstermen were gearing up, the truck traffic had picked up considerably. Vehicles aren’t allowed on the island except for these
trucks but today there was much activity, somewhat disruptive to our efforts at times, as the workers went about their tasks.
I enjoyed seeing some Brown Creepers going about their foraging in the trees. Although common I’d never had a great opportunity to capture images of these birds. You need to be in the right place as they don't stay still long at any given time.
Lobster Cove was productive enough that Linda and I, departing in the afternoon, spent about all the time we had left at this stop. Derek and I hiked the trail through high bramble vegetation
checking out sparrows and warblers as we walked towards rocks that he knew would provide imaging/observing opportunities. He was right about this and we spent a long time as the birds went about their
usual activities creeping closer to where my tripod was set up as they became inured to my presence. This allowed some fairly close shots and I was pleased with the results.
The reduced images in this account really do not convey the visual impact of some of these shots but one can certainly achieve a good idea…
|As with all good things, they must come to an end... As we checked the time Linda and I knew we needed to head back. We could still seek out photographic opportunities on the return but we had to gather our luggage. In my case I needed to break down & re-pack some of the camera equipment before placing the gear aboard for the return trip.|
We said our goodbyes to our compatriots, thanked Derek for his assistance, expertise & plan to put this weekend together and started back. He was already planning the next birding venue
of the day for the remaining group members. Everyone else was staying another night planning to depart at various times on Monday. Once back at the inn we hooked up with Paul and Marlene
and made our final preparations to meet the vessel for passage to the mainland.
|As we waited around I looked through the image files on my camera and talked with people around the pier. It had been a good weekend which, as usual, went by all too quickly. The lobster industry on Monhegan Island is different from on the mainland. Here they prepare traps and put them in over the winter in lieu of the summer. The pier was being stocked with freshly maintained metal traps that would be picked up by the lobstermen and taken to sea.|
Paul and I discussed a spring migration trip to Monhegan Island; a visit I believe would be well worthwhile. We'll have to speak with Derek about this as the winter progresses and plan a return...
If you’re interested in learning about the many bird species we listed from our time on Monhegan Island, I recommend you visit Derek’s Monhegan Blog. When you check out his list you’ll have a good idea about how he does things and will find he’s an excellent writer as well. Derek’s blog is updated daily – if you wish to know what’s going on with Maine birding or enjoy a good read this will prove an excellent resource.