Two Rarities…Offshore

Monhegan Island is ten miles off the coast of Maine. It’s blessed with ample fresh water and lots of plant life, which inspires the insects that hungry migratory birds are looking for as they sweep up from the south this time of year. For many of these migrants, the tiny island is their first sight of land. This is what has made the place such a renown “migrant trap” and oasis for birds and birders. The strangest birds have shown up here over the years.

I was there for three days last week with a group from NYC Audubon, led by Gabriel Willow. Spizella breweriWord of a Brewer’s Sparrow (Spizella breweri) on-island had reached us before we arrived. This small, plain sparrow is common in its range, but that range is well west of the Mississippi. “Nests in sagebrush habitats,” notes Sibley, referencing a plant not found in the damp chill of the Gulf of Maine. This was, in fact, the first recorded sighting of this bird in Maine. The species was named for Thomas M. Brewer (1814-1880), whose North American Oology of 1857 is his lasting work, if you don’t count the irony of his being one of the damned fools who campaigned for the introduction of the House Sparrow into North America.

Vermivora virginiaeI was present for another rare bird discovery. Gabriel spotted a rather drab, grayish warbler with a strong eye-ring and yellow on the chest and at the base of the tail. The view was brief. A Nashville Warbler, presumably, although an awfully plain one for a breeding season bird. We saw it again several minutes later — this time I spotted that distinctive eye-ring through layers of twisty apple branches. Turned out to be, as Gabriel surmised, a Virginia’s Warbler (Vermivora virginiae), another Western species. Only four have ever been recorded in Maine, all of them on Monhegan. These two photos of the bird were taken by Gabriel with my camera.Vermivora virginiaeYou can just see a touch of red in the head of this bird, marking it as a male. Monhegan is crowded with birders this time of year; this was the picture we showed to Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology’s Ornithology Department’s Collections Manager, who said, oh yeah, that’s a Virginia’s, as he hurried to see it in the feather.

And who was Virginia, you might well ask. She was the wife of William Wallace Anderson (1824-1910; my reference doesn’t give her dates), the U.S. Army surgeon who “discovered” the warbler in New Mexico in 1860, just before he joined the CSA in defense of slavery.

1 Response to “Two Rarities…Offshore”

  1. 1 judysbirds June 5, 2014 at 7:12 am

    Very cool. How fortunate you are to be able to visit such a wonderful spot!

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