Birding on Monhegan Island is very popular during the spring and fall migration seasons. The island is approximately twelve miles off the coast of Maine, making it an attractive stop for birds heading north or south with the changing seasons. real The challenge for the birder is the island’s remoteness. Birding on the island takes a bit of planning.
My wife and I recently spent a long weekend on the island precisely for birding. This marked our second trip to Monhegan for this purpose. The first time we went was a day trip in the fall. After that trip we decided we wanted to come back for a longer stay in the spring.
In this article I’ll tell you everything you need to know about birding on this unique Maine island.
Monhegan (pronounced mon-HE-guhn) is about 12 miles off the coast of Maine. It is a small island, measuring about 3/4 mile wide and 1 1/2 miles long. It is known as both a fishing island and an artists’ retreat. During spring and fall bird migration, it’s also a top Maine birding destination for those serious enough to make the journey to the island.
The island was claimed for King James 1 of England in 1605. According to Maine An Encyclopedia, its first draw was fishing. There was trading with Indians on the island in 1614.
Soon it became the focal point for European fishing fleets, then a trading and shipbuilding center.
To this day, fishing (especially for lobster) remains a rewarding occupation for the island’s residents. This, mixed with tourism and semi-resident artists, keeps the hearty population going.https://maineanencyclopedia.com/monhegan-island/
Monhegan was first incorporated in 1839. There are only about 55 year-round residents on the island (according to a local). Winters are long – and cold! Summer residents pour in during warmer months, however. Artists come to paint the iconic Maine coastline, lobster boats, the lighthouse, island cottages, and more.
Much of Monhegan is in conservation status. Monhegan Associates, a private nonprofit, owns and maintains roughly 300 acres of the island, including 9 miles of hiking trails. The nonprofit was established in 1954 by Thomas Edison’s son, Theodore Edison, who spent many summers on the island and became concerned about development.
Important Things to Know
Bathrooms: There are limited bathroom facilities on the island. Two public pay bathrooms are located near behind the Monhegan House (not 24 hours) and there is a bathroom located near the library that is available for a small fee when it is open (not 24 hours). If you have a bathroom emergency in the wooded areas of the island – be prepared to pack it out!
Cellphone reception: Good news – we had reception on the island. Our rental also had Wifi.
Dogs: They are permitted on the island, but not in the conservation area, and they must be leashed at all times. It’s best to leave your pooch at home.
Getting around: Plan to walk while you are there. There are maps of the island available at shops and (possibly) from your boat operator. They cost $1.00 and the money goes to support the Monhegan Associates Island Land Trust. They are worth buying.
You will find some vehicles on the island that residents use, primarily for work purposes, but you will not be bringing one. You can, however, bring your bicycles for an additional fee, but they are not permitted on the woodland trails in the conservation area. There is a large golf cart “taxi” available, but that can be hit or miss. The island is not wheelchair friendly. Again – plan to walk.
Money: Cash is king. Most places will accept a credit card, but bring cash just to be sure. There is an ATM at the Barnacle Cafe near the dock.
Safety: There are no medical facilities on the island and no resident physician. There is also no pharmacy on the island. In an emergency, you can call 911 for help from the mainland, and there is a first aid station, but plan to be self-reliant in most cases.
Birding on Monhegan Island
Monhegan is perfectly situated for a stop during bird migration as its small, off shore, and right along the Atlantic Flyway. Birders flock to the island during spring and fall migration. Residents are used to the birders and businesses depend on them. They are a key component to the island’s tiny economy.
Some island residents, as evidenced in the picture below, actively help attract birds.
You will find some homes that put chairs out for birders and a donation jar to help buy birdseed.
You can pay for a guided birding trip on the island, but in the interest of cost and adventure, we opted to create our own self-guided trip. It takes a bit of planning, but I hope this article will help you figure out the details if self-guided is what you decide to do.
Where to Find Birds
There is great birding to be had all over the island during migration season. However, some spots are better than others. Generally speaking, the birding is better outside the conservation area, around the seasonal and year-round homes.
See the map of the island below and the places I’ve marked that are frequented by birders and where we found many birds.
A – Ice Pond. This is a recommended spot for birders to visit. The pond itself will almost certainly hold some mallards, but the more important bird attractions are the various fruit trees and berry bushes surrounding the seasonal homes in this area. Wander around the narrow dirt roads and small trails.
B – Marsh Area. There’s a picture of this marshy area below under the Lodging section. Redwing Blackbirds are a given here. We also saw flocks of Cedar Waxwings here. Where the B is marked on the map is near a water pump station (water is drawn from the marsh, cleaned, and pumped up the hill to a water tank where it is gravity fed down the other side of the island). Birders often congregate there and at the opposite end of the marsh along the main road closer to the dock.
On your way to the pump station, watch near someone’s large garden on the right. You have high odds of seeing a ring-neck pheasant pair there. When we were there, we were fortunate to see some pheasant fledglings.
C – Random Hill. You may have luck just wandering around the dirt roads. Many people do, and we learned why. Waiting a few moments we found an Orchard Oriole and an Eastern Wood Pee-wee, perched and singing in plain sight.
D – Big Crab Apple Tree. Heading past the brewery and toward Christmas Cove you will see a private residence with a giant crab apple tree on the front lawn. Here we found a Northern Parula, Blackburnian Warbler, and more Cedar Waxwings.
E – Gull Cove Area in Woods. This spot was a treasure trove of various warblers early in the morning.
Birds We Found
By Monhegan standards, it was actually not an outstanding weekend for bird watching when we visited, at least in terms of different birds identified. Still, a “bad” day birding on Monhegan is better than a good day at work!
We found the following list of birds during our stay. Remember, this was during spring migration. Go to Monhegan in July and it will be a little quieter, as the birds have settled in for breeding and raising young.
- American Redstart
- American Robin
- Baltimore Oriole
- Blue-Headed Vireo
- Cedar Waxwing
- Common Grackle
- Common Loon
- Common Tern
- Eastern Kingbird
- Eastern Wood-Peewee
- Common Eider
- European Starling
- Golden-Crowned Kinglet
- American Goldfinch
- Great Crested Flycatcher
- Hermit Thrush
- House Wren (heard but not seen)
- Orchard Oriole
- Purple Finch
- Red-Eyed Vireo
- Redwing Blackbird
- Ring-Neck Pheasant
- Song Sparrow
- Black and White
- Blackthroated Green
- Chestnut Sided
- Common Yellowthroat
- Northern Parula
- White-Throated Sparrow
- White wing Scoter
Others on the island at the same time as us saw a Broad-winged Hawk, Black-billed Cuckoo, an Indigo Bunting, and a Sora. We did not find these birds.
If you don’t want a self-guided trip as we did, you have a few options for hiring a guide. The following businesses offer fully-guided tours. Some can last just the day, others can last a week. We have not used any of them so we can’t speak to their quality.
Birding Ecotours – This group conducts a fall migration trip only. This tour lasts five days. They claim to see an average of 100 species of birds during that time.
Freeport Bird Supply – This group, headed by Derek Lovitch, was on the island at the same time we were. Derek conducts many birding tours throughout the state. Some individuals in his tour group were there for a single day, others for a few days. He holds spring and fall migration tours and various seabird tours.
LL Bean Birding Hike – This one-day trip is led by ornithologist Dr. Jeff Wells and departs from New Harbor. Participants received a copy of the guide’s autographed book, Maine’s Favorite Birds.
Naturalist Journeys – I am less familiar with this group, but they have a more intense fall migration trip planned spanning 8 days and 7 nights. It departs from Portland and appears geared toward out-of-staters who might be flying into Maine specifically for this trip.
Getting to Monhegan
Unless you have your own boat (moorings are available for guests, contact the harbormaster) you will need to buy tickets for a ferry ride to the island. You have three different choices. The best choice might be based on the easiest mainland location to depart from and/or the boat(s) that will allow for the most time on the island.
We have used Monhegan Boat Line on both of our trips to the island. The first trip had nice weather and a mild sea. This particularly trip did not. It was raining and the water was rough. If you have a weak stomach – be prepared for it. At least one person used a vomit bag on the trip over and several more had them in hand – just in case.
Our trip back the water was calm and the sun was out. We sat on the roof and enjoyed the view. The ride takes about an hour, give or take 10 minutes.
Balmy Days II – Balmy Days departs from Boothbay Harbor. On certain days they will also offer a 1/2 hour ride around the island, allowing you to see it from the ocean (the view from the south side is phenomenal).
Hardy Boat Cruises – Hardy Boat leaves from New Harbor and it operates two trips a day from about mid-May to mid-October. Serious birders might also consider one of their puffin watch trips (we’ve done that as well).
Monhegan Boat Line – Monhegan Boat Line departs from Port Clyde. They offer three trips daily during the summer.
Staying on Monhegan
There is no camping on the island. The conservation area is not open to camping and the rest of the island is private property. To stay on the island you either need to know someone there that you can stay with or you need to rent a room.
Given Monhegan’s remote location and low population, don’t expect any chain hotels or grand accommodations. You also shouldn’t expect any low-budget rentals. Accommodations will be in the mid to high-priced range, and you will not find any listings on sites like Expedia or Booking. The closest search results you’ll find through those sites are for rentals on the mainland.
As of this writing, I only found one listing on VRBO listed at $400 average per night, and one listing on AirBnB listed at $200 per night. We stayed at the AirBnB listing.
Other options include:
- Brackett Rentals – various cottages for rent
- Cracked Mug – 3 guest rooms located near the dock
- Island Inn – the largest building on the island by far (shown in pic above) with 16 rooms with private baths, 2 suites with private baths, and 8 rooms with shared baths
- John Sterling Harbor House – they have a three-level guest house, a single level flat, and nightly room rentals
- Monhegan House – a bed and breakfast located away from the ocean
- Shining Sails – a bed and breakfast with 5 efficiencies and and 2 rooms located near the dock
- Trailing Yew – different buildings, cottages and rentals located near the dock
These rentals may suit your needs, but if you are not interested in spending that kind of money for birding on the island, your best bet is to make a day trip to the island leaving on the first boat and returning on the last trip back.
There are dining options available, but depending on the time of year you go it would be wise to check hours of operation in advance. The birder going for the day with limited time would be wise to pack lunch and snacks to avoid wait times for food; however, it is possible to buy a quick sandwich or pizza at a few locations if you want to sit down and relax for a bit.
It is very small with limited offerings. We were able to shop there for a dinner and breakfasts that we made at our rental. Pasta, bread, cheese, milk, butter, some vegetables, and staples such as that are available.
If you are staying overnight or for a long weekend, buying food at Monhegan Store is an option. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to a “grocery store.” I put it in quotes, because it is anything but a grocery store by most people’s standards.
Alternatively, you can visit on of the few establishments on the island for lunch or dinner:
- Barnacle – The Barnacle is located directly at the dock. They have great pastries, and serve different types of hot and cold sandwiches. You can buy beer here, coffee drinks, and sit inside or outside.
- Black Duck – This is more of a novelty shop than a restaurant, but you can find hot coffee, specialty drinks, and snacks here.
- Island Inn – The largest inn on the island also has the largest dining facility. Reservations are strongly recommended. We reserved one dinner at the restaurant during our stay. The food and service were both very good. This is a finer dinning restaurant compared to other dining options on the island. Note: They do not serve alcohol, but you are permitted to bring your own with you.
- Monhegan Brewing – Good news for beer enthusiasts, Monhegan has its own small brewery. They offer outdoor seating only (tables are covered for rain). We went a few times during our stay. The beer is good. If you are going there for food, check the hours of operations for the small food truck that serves patrons near the brewery. If you don’t time it with the food truck you will be left with beer and bags of chips or nuts.
- Monhegan Fish House – They offer lunch and dinner focused on a seafood menu. If their website is not current check their Facebook page for the status of operation and menu.
- Novelty – We bought sandwiches here on our first trip to Monhegan. They also make fresh pizza and sell ice cream. The public restrooms are located at the back of this building.
Summary and Further Reading
Monhegan island birding is quite unlike birding elsewhere. Getting there requires effort and planning. The coast scenery is beautiful. The island is unique. Time your birding trip with spring or fall migration, have a beer at the brewery, and enjoy the trip.
Books on Maine Birds
The most widely-read (and well-reviewed) book on birds of Maine is the Birds of Maine Field Guide.
- gift for nature lover
- gift for bird lover
- Maine birds
- Tekiela, Stan (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
The aforementioned Maine’s Favorite Birds is by Jeffrey Wells, one of the private tour guides that conducts trips on Monhegan. Take his tour and get the book for free or buy it outright on Amazon.
- Wells, Jeffrey V. (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 72 Pages - 05/07/2012 (Publication Date) - Tilbury House (Publisher)
While those two books are great field guides to birds in Maine, a more unique book on birding in Maine is Every Bird in Maine: One Man’s Journey to See Every Bird in Maine: A Photographic Account of a Maine Big Year in Birding.
- Whitaker, Ethan J. (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 214 Pages - 01/19/2022 (Publication Date) - PVIMaine LLC (Publisher)
Books on Monhegan
Because Monhegan is so small and remote, don’t expect to find much in the way of reading material on the island about the island. Still, for the obscure history enthusiast, Monhegan Island (Images of America) is a fascinating picture book of Monhegan during the “olden days.
- Sullivan, Margot (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 128 Pages - 05/11/2009 (Publication Date) - Arcadia Publishing (Publisher)
The closest thing you will find to an actual guidebook to the island is Monhegan: A Guide to Maine’s Fabled Islands.
- Warner, Mark (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 56 Pages - 04/15/2008 (Publication Date) - Down East Books (Publisher)