One of nature’s rhythms plays out during the seasonal change of springtime. Mid-March through mid-June Point Pelee awakens to the arrival of migrating waterfowl and songbirds moving quickly through the area destined for their nesting grounds to the north.
World renowned for this phenomena, Point Pelee was recognized as an important birding area (IBA) by early naturalists leading to the establishment of a park in 1918. Point Pelee is a peninsula extending out into the western basin of Lake Erie. It is located at the confluence of two major migratory routes – Mississippi and Atlantic flyways and the first point of land migratory birds reach when crossing Lake Erie.
At 6:30am on May 9, I arrived with the enthusiasm of an adolescent at a summer fair. At the main entrance to the park I happily proffered the daily fee of $7.00 thinking it was a great deal for the experience that was about to unfold. My destination was the parking area at the visitor’s center about 6 km from the main gate. Along the way I passed other parking areas with viewing areas and trail networks that bring you closer to the birds such as the Marsh Boardwalk, Blue Heron Trail, Dunes and DeLaurier Homestead to name a few.
Point Pelee National Park and the Friends of Point Pelee created the Festival of Birds that runs from May 1 to May 19 focusing on the most active time the birds are passing through the park. The Visitor’s Center is the meeting area where interpretive programs are offered including Guided Birding hikes, lunch and learn sessions and wildflower walks.
The trail network that branches out from the area of the Visitor’s Center includes the West beach Trail, Tilden Woods and Shuster trail and the Woodland Nature Trail. The main attraction in the early morning hours though is getting out to the “Tip” about 2kms from the Visitor’s Center. To assist the visitors, the park offers a tram that brings you conveniently out to the “tip” in a short 5 minute ride.
In doing my research prior to heading to Pelee, I reserved online, a guided bird walk at a cost of $15.00. When visiting new places, I always enjoy getting the lay of the land with local experts that can point out the best trails to view birds and point out species that I otherwise might miss out on. I also find that using a guide is a simple way of getting comfortable with my new surroundings.
Our guide for the tour recently completed his Masters on Reverse Migration of birds. In short, birds can become disoriented during migration especially after many hours of nocturnal flying. After reaching a predawn destination during migration they will in fact attempt to fly back in the same direction they came from. Essentially, there is more to this phenomenon than I have the expertise or room in this blog to mention but you will experience this happening when you arrive at the “Tip”.
On certain days at the “Tip” the sheer volume of birds flying into the park and reversing back out is very impressive. ORIOLES, TANAGERS, VIREOS AND WARBLERS are ubiquitous in numbers and probably the most extraordinary display of mother-nature I’ve ever witnessed. Viewing at the Tip can be done easily from the beach allowing great sightlines for experiencing all birding activity.
Throughout the Tip there are wide trails and narrower footpaths to view the birds resting in the trees. Many visitors to the park include photographers who have fantastic opportunities to photograph birds resting and really too tired to be concerned about getting their picture taken. In my view, the photographers were mostly respectful not to disrupt or frighten the birds when taking their photographs, but nonetheless care always needs to be considered due to the bird’s fragile, tired and hungry state.
My travels throughout the trails and footpaths allowed me to view 19 species of WARBLERS including BLACKBURNIAN, CHESTNUT SIDED, MAGNOLIA and BLACK THROATED BLUE. In addition, I viewed 4 species of Vireos including a YELLOW-THROATED and PHILADELPHIA, 2 species of TANAGERS – SCARLET AND SUMMER both male and female. Other sightings included INDIGO BUNTINGS, ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAKS, 5 species of THRUSHES, 6 species of SPARROWS and a gorgeous RED-HEADED WOODPECKER. One of the birding tips I was told when at Pelee concerned the wind direction. Birds will feed on the opposite side of the peninsula the wind is blowing from because that is where the bugs are. If the wind is from the west, bird the east side and you won’t be disappointed.
After a break for lunch, I headed out onto the Tilden trail and footpaths in search of more birds to add to my checklist. A memorable moment included viewing an AMERICAN REDSTART that appeared happy to give me views and posing for some photographs. Along the trail I encountered NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH, BAY-BREASTED AND COMMON YELLOWTHROAT WARBLER and many BALTIMORE ORIOLES. The threat of rain came and eventually a few showers allowing for a coffee break and a decision to go back for one more hour of birding that proved to be very worthwhile. Arriving at the Marsh Boardwalk, there was excitement amongst many birders with the finding of a SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER. A vagrant for the area and definitely a life list moment for sure. It showed spectacular displays hunting for bugs over the beautiful willow trees.
Outside the park at Hillman Marsh, a short 10 minute drive, the FESTIVAL OF BIRDS holds shorebird nights. I ventured over there to see what could be seen and was not disappointed. A PROTHONATARY WARBLER was seen near the parking lot and out in the marsh viewing area 3 AMERICAN AVOCETS, CASPIAN AND FORSTERS TERNS, and BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS.
The experience of visiting Point Pelee was certainly worthy of a blog posting for a remarkable and memorable place. I reluctantly avoided Pelee in past years due to a bias of thinking there were just too many visitors there at one time. Although you have to arrive very early to get a parking spot near the visitor’s center Pelee has enough open spaces to escape the crowded pathways and is well worth the visit. I only spent 2 days in Pelee this year and logged 113 species– next year will be a week- I can just imagine!