Island of the Sea: Monhegan Island, Maine

Birds and Forests

The most popular area to wander is Lobster Cove, south of the ferry landing and conveniently located at the end of the main dirt path leading through the village. The Wyeth cottage stands along the western edge of the cove, and a field of grasses leads from a slight hill down to the ocean. A litter of rocks crawls up into the wildflower-strewn field from the south and west. An old shipwreck (the D.T. Sheridan, resting aground for decades) lies on its side upon the rocks, rusting red bits of it heaved around the meadow at surprisingly great distances from the shore. Someone has built cairns on one smooth stand of rock and grass. People pick their way carefully across rocks and toward the ocean, photographing the cottage, the shipwreck, the water, each other. Artists work at their easels. Birds take little notice.

But in spring and autumn, many people certainly take notice of the birds. Monhegan lies on the Atlantic flyway, and birders can hope to spot over 100 different species, among them biterns, indigo buntings, orioles, crossbills, warblers, yellow-billed cuckoos, sparrows, peregrines, rusty blackbirds, cowbirds, red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers, dickcissels, rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, western kingbirds, purple finches, sandpipers, yellow-rumped palms, solitary vireos, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, western kingbirds, and northern shrikes.

Deep in the forests, the building of fairy houses—concoctions of mosses, branches, rocks, and other objects—have long been a Monhegan pastime for children and adults alike, particularly in Cathedral Woods, a dignified stand of virgin spruce in the dim tree-rich center of the island. This seemingly innocuous habit ignited something of a firestorm in recent years, when it became evident that by pulling up mosses, breaking off branches, and bringing in manmade items of plastic and rubber, fairy-house builders were hurting the forest. In 1996, the island association stopped referring to fairy houses in tourist literature, and Monhegan's conservators encourage would-be architects to use materials already lying around rather than disturbing living foliage.

If you decide to visit Monhegan, be appreciative and be aware. The islanders and summertime residents foster a fierce love of their home, and things are as they are. The rewards are many for those who relish isolation and have plenty of interior resources to fall back on. I had the opportunity to meet a few of the islanders, both permanent and seasonal, and their kind words of advice and quiet friendliness made me feel welcome as I hiked, picked wild strawberries (Pulpit Rock's seaside meadow is full of the tiny, sweet red berries), read, attended musical performances, and watched sunsets. But the tourists who complain about the lack of public toilets or electricity, the spare provisions, the often muddy trails, the inclement weather, the fog...well, Monhegan doesn't cater to them. Never has and never will.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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