A visit to Point Pelee and Rondeau parks is a celebration of the wonder of spring migration
For anyone wanting to see Ontario’s most spectacular birds – Red-headed Woodpeckers, Indigo Buntings, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, Red-breasted Grosbeaks, and more than two dozen species of warblers – a trip to Point Pelee National Park and Rondeau Provincial Park is a must. You will also be treated to species we rarely find in the Kawarthas, including Orchard Orioles, White-eyed Vireos, Carolina Wrens, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Prothonotary Warblers.
Spring migration, which peaks during the first three weeks of May, is the time to be there. The birds are in dazzling breeding plumage and most species are singing. They are also easy to see, since the cool water of Lake Erie delays leaf emergence. On days when temperatures are extremely cool, birds that normally remain high in the canopy often forage close to the ground– sometimes nearly at your feet – and seem oblivious to human presence. This allows for wonderful closeup views and superb photo opportunities.
Rondeau, which is near Blenheim, and Point Pelee, located 70 kilometres to the west at Leamington, are peninsulas that extend into the western basin of Lake Erie. They are situated at the crossroads of two major migration routes – the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways. Most importantly, they are one of the first points of land that spring migrants reach after crossing Lake Erie at night.
On May 13, Brian Wales, Chris Risley and I, made our made our annual pilgrimage to both southern Ontario birding meccas. Here, we met our fellow birding companions Jim Cashmore, Greg Piasetzki, and Mitch Brownstein and his wife, Liliana. It was wonderful having Liliana join us for the first time. Her unbridled enthusiasm added new interest to birds the rest of us have seen countless times before.
Point Pelee is arguably the best place to bird in Ontario. Approximately 385 different species have been recorded here, including 42 of the 55 regularly occurring North American warblers. Not surprisingly, the park is known as the “warbler capital of North America.” The variety and number of birds often changes from day to day, depending on temperature and wind direction. On Monday, for example, Nashville Warblers were everywhere, while later in the week species like Blackburnian Warblers and Wood Thrushes became very common. Pelee is also famous for its migrant “fallouts” which occur when weather fronts collide, and huge numbers of birds are forced down out of the sky. Such was the case on the morning of May 9 this year. A huge fallout occurred at the tip of Pelee with hundreds of warblers, tanagers, and sparrows hopping low on trees, rocks, and even the beach. Oh, to have been there!
For anyone arriving from the Kawarthas, you immediately notice how different the habitat is. The park is dominated by Carolinian forest with abundant Hackberry Trees interspersed with Eastern Redbud, Chinquapin Oak, Sassafras, Shagbark Hickory and American Sycamore – many supporting huge vines. The forest floor is covered with wide diversity of native flowers like Sweet Cicely, Spring Beauty, and Appendaged Waterleaf.
Each day at Pelee, we usually follow the same routine. Our first stop is the park tip, where we hope for newly arrived migrants. We then make our way north along the west beach where birds often bask and feed in the morning sun. A walk through the Sparrow Field is next on the list, from where we make our way back to the Visitor Centre via the Woodland Nature Trail. We then consult the sightings board for rarities and enjoy a quick lunch, courtesy of the Friends of Pelee. In the afternoon, we usually check out Tilden’s Woods, DeLaurier Trail, and the nearby trails at Dunes and Sleepy Hollow Trail. The day concludes with a trip up to Hillman’s Marsh to look for shorebirds and ducks.
Each visit is marked by its own special moments. This year, it was watching a beautiful male Kentucky Warbler foraging for insects in a tangle of vines and shrubs. The bird’s dark mask and bright yellow throat glowed in the sunshine as it hopped about completely unperturbed by the dozen or so ecstatic birders only metres away. The Kentucky is one of several birds that routinely “overshoot” their normal breeding range south of the Great Lakes.
Other special Pelee moments this year included great views of a rare Prairie Warbler flitting about in a fallen tree in the morning sunshine; gorgeous Canada and Hooded Warblers that frequented the same section of trail for days in a row; Nashville Warblers hovering at flowers in hummingbird fashion; a famished Rose-breasted Grosbeak eating flowers in a low shrub almost at our feet; a Black-billed Cuckoo perched a foot off the ground and only metres away; an Orange-crowned Warbler that finally showed itself after we’d waited for half an hour in the rain; and half-frozen Scarlet Tanagers posing for pictures on the shoulder of the road.
There are two spring migrations at Point Pelee: the birds themselves and the people who flock to see them. Yet, despite the thousands of people in the park and the sometimes-congested trails, birders show an unwavering respect for both the birds and for fellow birdwatchers. People speak in such hushed tones that you almost feel like you have the trail to yourself. Birders also help each other with identification problems and share the location of nearby species of interest. This information is often provided without even having to ask. It’s also wonderful to be in the company of so many like-minded people and to chat with visitors from the U.S., the United Kingdom and all over Canada – Quebec, in particular. At times you hear almost as much French as English.
This year, we were also encouraged by the number of younger people, many in their 30s and 40s. Because birders ‑ and naturalists in general ‑ are usually committed conservationists, this bodes well for the future. There were also as many women as men, which is a welcome change from the past. Anyone going for the first time can’t help but notice the number of photographers, too, as large telephoto zooms are nearly as common as binoculars.
After two-and-a-half days at Pelee, we made the 70-minute drive east along Lake Erie to Rondeau Provincial Park. Rondeau offers a quieter counterbalance to Pelee’s frenzy. The birding can be almost as good, and there are far fewer people. Rondeau is also larger and more heavily forested with spectacular Tulip and American Beech trees. The Visitor Centre provides many of the same services as at Pelee but on a smaller scale. Unlike Pelee, Centre has bird feeders, which attract a non-stop parade of orioles and grosbeaks and sometimes even Red-headed Woodpeckers and Tufted Titmice.
A lasting memory form this year’s Rondeau experience is that of a Wood Thrush building its nest in a small tree on the edge of the Tulip Tree Trail. Standing only metres away, we watched as it fashioned the cup with dead beech leaves. In little more than an hour, the nest was nearly half completed. Watching if work, I couldn’t help thinking of a Wood Thrush that overwintered in the garden beside the house we rented in Costa Rica this winter. As absurd as it sounds, it was fun to imagine that this might even be the same bird! Not only is the Wood Thrush the most beautiful member of its genus and a gifted singer, but it has also come to represent the plight of songbird decline.
Other special Rondeau moments this year included watching an Eastern Screech-owl peering out of a hole in a giant American Beech; a pair of rare Black-necked Stilts feeding in a flooded field; hundreds of swallows and Purple Martins sitting on the road at the nearby Blenheim Sewage Lagoons; seeing all seven of Ontario’s vireos; finding 12 species of warblers along the Spicebush Trail as toads trilled in the background and wildflowers lit up the forest floor; and enjoying the evocative calls of an Eastern Whip-poor-will and an American Woodcock against a background chorus of Spring Peepers.
Experiencing Point Pelee and Rondeau reminds me each year why so many people are captivated by bird watching. When you are fully focused on finding, identifying or simply watching a given bird, it is possible to live entirely in the moment. There is so much to be enjoyed: the beauty, numbers and diversity of the bird themselves, the rich orchestra of songs, the smell of the spring air and the warmth of the May sun. Being there to experience the migration is no less than a rite of spring for thousands of people. Each of the 150 or so species we saw provided us with its own, unique expression of the wonder of spring migration. The season of migration is now giving way to the season of nesting, which holds the promise of bountiful young birds that will commence their own journey – southward this time – in just a few short months. If you plan to go next year, or even in early September, book now.
Climate Crisis News
Across the country people are gathering to brainstorm solutions to the climate crisis. The ideas will be compiled to form a collective vision for Canada’s Green New Deal – one that provides a vision for a new economy where no one gets left behind. Your input is needed! The Peterborough meeting will take place May 30 at Trinity United Church, 360 Reid St., starting at 6 p.m. For more information, go to Facebook and search for “Green New Deal – Peterborough” I also invite people to listen to the latest episode of Tapestry on CBC radio to get a true sense of the magnitude of the climate crisis.