THIS BIRDING LIFE: A Winslow Homer Painting Comes Alive

Story and photos by Budd Titlow

Monhegan Island is the real thing – an active lobstering village! © Budd Titlow

Monhegan Island is the real thing – an active lobstering village! © Budd Titlow

When spring/summer rolls around, I always start to think about the songbird migration – especially my experiences with warblers on Monhegan Island, Maine. The first time I set foot on Monhegan Island, I needed a pinch to make sure I hadn’t died and gone to heaven. Walking up the hill from the ferry into the village was like going back fifty years in time: dirt roads, handmade signs, and wooden buildings. It was like a Winslow Homer painting had suddenly sprung to life before my eyes. If this wasn’t enough—flocks of colorful songbirds flitted about all over the place, perching on trees, rooftops, fences, anything that was standing upright. The only things for visitors to do on the island are paint (Monhegan supports a summer art colony, including many famous artists like Jamie Wyeth), photograph (every well-known bird photographer visits Monhegan from time to time), and watch birds—lots and lots of birds!

Monhegan sits about ten miles offshore in the open Atlantic Ocean. During the spring and fall migrations, the island is a thousand-acre oasis in the middle of a watery desert. Exhausted birds of every color and size come fluttering down into Monhegan’s old-growth spruce forests and rocky headlands, where they mostly sit around and look at you before regaining the strength to take off again. On a good spring weekend, you can see as many as one hundred different species of birds, but—without a doubt—warblers are the highlight of any Monhegan birding trip.

The Monhegan Lighthouse shelters a showcase of island arts, crafts, and history. © Budd Titlow

The Monhegan Lighthouse shelters a showcase of island arts, crafts, and history. © Budd Titlow

Ask any birder about warblers and you’ll most likely get a pleasingly perplexed look in response. Warblers are a general term applied to birds that are all very small, eat mainly insects, and extremely hard to find and identify. For most of the year, in birding parlance, warblers are often classified as LBJ’s—little brown jobs—meaning that “your guess is as good as mine” when it comes to identification. Except for the spring nesting season that is, when everything changes for the better. During the spring, warblers all suddenly become master songsters, whistling various melodies that range from intricate series of buzzes to piercingly loud and complex sonatas. While warbler singing doesn’t make their identification a whole lot easier (many of their songs are amazingly beautiful, but agonizingly similar) it does add a spectacular embellishment to the experience of being outdoors on a crisp, clear spring morning, which Monhegan Island always offers in abundance.

Monhegan’s headlands provide perfect vantage points for spotting seabirds. © Budd Titlow

Monhegan’s headlands provide perfect vantage points for spotting seabirds. © Budd Titlow

Glittering in the sun like tiny jewels in forest canopy crowns, warblers are everywhere you look on the island. Their music reverberates through the forested glens adding audible thrills to the visual delights: Quick, look up in the top of that tree—it’s a black-and-white warbler—wee-zee, wee-zee, wee-zee. Now over here in that shrub, there’s a common yellowthroat—witchity-witchity-witchity. Now turn around and look at the black-throated green in the tree behind you—zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee. On your left, there’s a chestnut-sided on that fence—pleased, pleased, pleased ta meetcha. And on that roof—that’s a hooded warbler—ah-weeta-weeta-weet-tee-yo.

On and on it goes. Birds in general and warblers in particular on Monhegan can sometimes be so dense that you have to watch where you walk for fear of accidentally crushing one to death.

About Budd Titlow

A Professional Wetland Scientist (Emeritus) and Wildlife Biologist, Budd Titlow is an international/national award-winning nature photographer and a widely published writer/author currently living in Tallahassee, Florida. He has authored four books, including PROTECTING THE PLANET—Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change (ISBN 978-1633882256), BIRD BRAINS—Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN 978-0-7627-8755-5), and SEASHELLS—Jewels from the Ocean (ISBN 978-0-7603-2593-3). He is currently writing weekly birding photo-essays for the Tallahassee Democrat, teaching ecology-birding-photography courses for Florida State University, and serving as President-Elect of Apalachee Audubon Society. Budd’s work is featured on his web site (www.buddtitlow.com).


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