Jun 012017
 

It was the Kirtland’s warbler that made our morning. In the red cedar ten metres off the trail, the small grey and yellow bird was all but invisible. Only when it flitted from one branch to another was there any chance of seeing it – and it didn’t flit often. The small group that first spotted the bird had swollen to a hundred birders or more as word of North America’s rarest warbler spread almost instantaneously along the trails. Patience, however, eventually paid off as the bird flew up onto an exposed branch, sat cooperatively in the open and sang its heart out for all to see and hear. There are two spring migrations at Point Pelee National Park: the birds themselves and the people from all over Canada, the U.S. and even Europe who flock to see them.

The Kirtland’s warbler finally agreed to show itself – Greg Piasetzki

Located near Leamington, Point Pelee is a peninsula that extends into the western basin of Lake Erie. It is located at the crossroads of two major migration routes – the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways. Most importantly, it is one of the first points of land that spring migrants reach after crossing Lake Erie at night. Approximately 385 different species of birds have been recorded here, including 42 of the 55 regularly occurring North American warblers.

To see the greatest diversity of warblers and other songbirds such as vireos, flycatchers, grosbeaks, tanagers and thrushes, the first three weeks of May is the time to visit the park. The birds are in their brightest breeding plumage and most species are singing. They are also relatively easy to see, since the trees leaf out later here, due to the cooling effect of Lake Erie. Anyone going to Point Pelee for the first time will be amazed at how easy it is to see spectacular birds like rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, red-headed woodpeckers and scarlet tanagers. Seeing a trio of male tanagers lighting up a trailside tree can be just as pleasurable as getting a fleeting glimpse of a rarity, skulking on the ground in a tangle of vines.The most spectacular birding occurs when weather fronts collide, forcing migrants down out of the sky in what is called a “fallout”. When this happens, you’ll need at least three pairs of eyes. One pair focused on the birds down low on the ground or in the shrubbery, another to check out what’s moving through the treetops and a third to keep track of birds streaming overhead!

Visitors to Point Pelee in May are almost guaranteed to see magnificent scarlet tanagers – Greg Piasetzki

Red-headed woodpeckers were more common than usual this year – Greg Piatsetzki

Once again this year, I made my annual pilgrimage to Point Pelee with friends Jim Cashmore, Mitch Brownstein, Brian Wales, Greg Piasetzki and Clayton Vardy. When we arrived on May 10 after a five and a half hour drive, early migrants like sparrows and kinglets were still much in evidence. A nice surprise, however, was getting close-up views of at least eight black-throated blue warblers. Over the course of the week, new species arrived daily, especially when a flow of air from the south provided a tail wind.

(L to R) Jim Cashmore, Greg Piasetzki, Brian Wales, Mitch Brownstein & Drew Monkman

Carolinian zone

Although we’ve been going to Pelee for years, it’s always exciting to become reacquainted with species we rarely see in the Kawarthas. These include orchard orioles, white-eyed vireos, yellow-breasted chats, Carolina wrens, blue-gray gnatcatchers, prothonotary warblers and rarer birds like summer tanagers. The Carolinian forest, too, is quite different with abundant hackberry trees interspersed with eastern redbud, Chinquapin oak, sassafras, shagbark hickory and American sycamore. Many of the trees support huge vines of wild grape, Virginia creeper and especially poison ivy. The latter are easily identifiable by the numerous hairs that anchor the thick stems to the trunk. The forest floor is covered with wide diversity of flowers like sweet cicely, spring beauty, appendaged waterleaf and invasive garlic mustard.

An eastern redbud in full bloom – Drew Monkman

Pelee offers a wide range of wildflowers in May – Drew Monkman

Sightings board at the Visitors Centre at Point Pelee – Drew Monkman

Festival of Birds

Every May, the Friends of Point Pelee organize the Festival of Birds. This year’s festival featured birding and wildflower hikes, twilight hikes, photography walks and a shorebird celebration at nearby Hillman Marsh Conservation Area. Here, volunteers like Jean Irons explained the basics of sandpiper and plover identification. There were also special presentations on everything from warbler and sparrow ID to learning to bird by ear. A welcoming touch this year was the free admission to the Park as part of the Canada 150 celebration. The Friends also host a very popular birder’s breakfast and lunch.

Birders lined up for lunch, courtesy of the Friends of Point Pelee – Drew Monkman

Birders at Pelee take regular breaks at the visitors centre, where naturalists are on hand to answer questions and give suggestions as to where to go. You can also consult the sightings board to see where species of special interest have been observed that day. Quite often, the birds remain in the same area for hours or even days. You will also find a great bookstore and displays set up by various groups like Quest Nature Tours and the Ontario Field Ornithologists.

Highlights

Each year offers a different mix of highlights. This year, great views of prothonotary warblers was one of them. On the Woodland Trail at Pelee and then again on the Tulip Tree Trail at Rondeau, we watched as they searched for food along the edge of wooded swamps. Their brilliant orange-yellow head and blue-gray wings produced a non-stop chorus of “wow!” from the appreciative birders. At one point, a spectacular male was hopping around at people’s feet. Photographers couldn’t stop clicking.

Point Pelee is a photographer’s delight with spectacular species like prothonotary warblers – Greg Piasetzki

Other memories that made the spring of 2017 special were the hundreds of northbound blue jays streaming overhead; the great views of spectacular male warblers like the northern parula, the blackburnian and the blue-winged; a tired and hungry scarlet tanager foraging in a pile of rocks and oblivious to the crowd only metres away; the chestnut-sided warbler that briefly landed on Mitch’s shoulder;  an American woodcock and its chicks feeding along a muddy trail; observing orioles and grosbeaks building their nests; the tom turkeys displaying to females with tail fanned and body feathers puffed out; a winter wren pouring out its ridiculously long, 132-note song; a black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoo perched side by side in a tree just metres overhead; the abundance of wood thrushes, Swainson’s thrushes and veerys; and getting great views of the subtle differences between similar species like Forster’s terns and common terns and American golden plovers and black-bellied plovers.

A yellow-billed cuckoo perched only metres overhead – Greg Piasetzki

Turkey vulture perched on the cross of the Catholic church at Rondeau – Drew Monkman

Birding’s allure

Despite the thousands of people in the Park and the sometimes-congested trails, birders show an unwavering respect for the birds and for fellow birdwatchers. Rarely do people speak in a loud voice or push their way past others. It’s not unusual to be surrounded by a dozen other birders but to still feel you have the silence of the woods to yourself. It’s also wonderful to be in the company of so many people of similar interests, to chat with visitors from all over North America and the United Kingdom and to be part of the instantaneous “sightings grapevine” in which birders share the location of sought-after species. People also help each other with identification problems and love to share what species are just ahead on the trail.

All eyes were trained on an elusive Kirtlands’s warbler – Drew Monkman

Pelee also reminds me each year of why birding is so appealing. At its essence, bird-watching is an exercise in focused awareness. Yes, at one level, it is a hobby, but it is also a powerful means of developing mindfulness. When you are fully focused on finding, identifying or simply watching a given bird, it is possible to live entirely in the moment as your senses completely take over and any intrusive thoughts are swept away. There is so much information for your senses to take in: the beauty, numbers and diversity of the bird themselves, the rich orchestra of different songs, the smell of the spring air and the warmth of the May sun. By learning to see, listen, smell and feel, birding teaches us to enjoy all that our senses have to offer. There is also great satisfaction in drawing upon your knowledge of habitat, time of year, song, behaviour and field marks to make an identification. Sometimes, however, you just don’t know. This is especially true for look-alike birds like many of the vireos and flycatchers.

Personally, I try to focus my attention on bird song. It provides an almost instantaneous picture of the diversity of species present as well as the number of individual birds. The soundscape at Pelee and Rondeau is dominated by the voices of Baltimore orioles, yellow warblers and red-winged blackbirds. The challenge, however, is to coax your brain to push these more common sounds into the background, so that the voices of less common species can be detected. This year, the flute-like song of the wood thrush stood out all week long and was beautiful to hear.

A wood thrush on the Tulip Tree Trail at Rondeau – Drew Monkman

When we left Point Pelee, we headed east to Rondeau Provincial Park near Blenheim. A stop at the town’s sewage lagoon provided great views of shorebirds, five species of swallows and numerous ruddy ducks. Rondeau offers a quiet counterbalance to Pelee’s frenzy. The birding can be almost as good, but there are far fewer visitors. It is also a botanist’s delight with spectacular tulip trees, diverse wildflowers and intriguing ferns. The visitors centre provides many of the same services as at Pelee but on a smaller scale. It also has a busy array of feeders that provide great photo opportunities. A visit to either – or both – of these parks is no less than a celebration of a southern Ontario spring.

If you plan to go next year, book now. Accommodation can be especially difficult to find in the Point Pelee area. For visitor information, go to festivalofbirds.ca

 

 

 

Jun 022016
 

When we debarked from the shuttle that takes birders out to the tip of Point Pelee National Park, it was clear that something was up. Hundreds of people lined the trail along the west beach, fully engrossed by the activity around them. Birds were everywhere – on the ground, flitting about in trees and shrubs, and even perched out in the open. I had never seen so many smiling faces in my life. Decades ago, birders would say that there are days at Pelee when the birds are “dripping from the trees”. Now, for the first time ever, we were witnessing one of these days ourselves.

In addition to large numbers of white-crowned and white-throated sparrows, most of the migrants were warblers, a group highly coveted by birders in the spring. The variety of species and sheer number of individuals was overwhelming. Just in our section of the trail, there were dozens each of Cape May, black-throated green, northern parula, American redstart, chestnut-sided, palm and blackburnian – just to name the most abundant. It was a veritable feast for the eyes. The majority were males, adorned in the stunning yellows, oranges and reds of spring plumage. Many of the birds moved through in waves, sometimes making their way northward up the tip but then changing direction and heading back out towards the lake. At times, it was hard to know where to look, especially since people were continually yelling out rare species. I could simply focus my binoculars on a given branch only metres away and the birds would move through my field of vision. They paid no attention to the awe-struck crowd, but were strictly focused on gorging themselves on the midges that swarmed in and around the vegetation. When we turned our attention skyward, other species streamed by overhead. The oohs and awes were loudest when a red-headed woodpecker, followed by six eastern bluebirds, flew by.

All I could hear were superlatives: “The best morning in decades!” ….”This is amazing!” …”C’est incroyable!” Everywhere, there was a constant  clicking of cameras. I can only imagine some of the stellar images that must have been captured. Despite the excitement, there was no pushing or shoving, even as people rushed by to catch a glimpse of a rarity like a Cerulean or Canada warbler. As birders always do, people helped each other locate and identify the birds. After three hours of uninterrupted action and suddenly aware of our aching necks and shoulders, we finally headed back to the visitor centre, thrilled with having tallied no less than 20 warbler species, not to mention numerous flycatchers, kinglets, gnatcatchers and others.

Prothonotary Warbler - Greg Piasetzki

Prothonotary Warbler – Greg Piasetzki

Over coffee and muffins provided by the Friends of Point Pelee, people shared theories as to why this amazing “fallout” of birds had occurred. Up until that morning, birding had been quite slow. So, what had changed? It seems that winds from the south had materialized the evening before, allowing a huge backlog of birds on the Ohio side of Lake Erie to finally head northward. Sometime in the early morning hours, however, the winds had changed to the northeast and, not able to fly against the strong headwind, the thousands of migrants descended en masse on the first land available – the tip of Point Pelee.

Over the four days at Pelee and one day at Rondeau Provincial Park, we tallied no less than 140 species, ranging from the warblers described above to large numbers of avian gems like scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, black-bellied plovers, and both Baltimore and orchard orioles. We were also treated to a great horned owl nest containing three very inquisitive owlets. Close-up views of more than 100 short-billed dowitchers were a real treat, as well.

Short-billed Dowitchers - Blenheim Sewage Lagoon - May 12, 2016 Drew Monkman

Short-billed Dowitchers – Blenheim Sewage Lagoon near Rondeau Provincial Park – May 12, 2016 Drew Monkman

Bearing witness each year to the wonder of spring migration provides a tangible sense of the change of season and a profound feeling of reverence. How can you not be amazed at tiny songbirds that have used solar and magnetic orienteering to fly from the rainforests of Central and South America all the way to Canada? It is no less than an affirmation of life itself and the wonder of evolution.

 Baxter Creek

You don’t have to travel all the way to southwestern Ontario to enjoy the birds of spring. The Kawarthas offers numerous locations to enjoy rich birdlife. Upon my return, a friend and I spent an especially pleasant morning walking the Baxter Creek Trail, which is part of the Millbrook Valley Trails system, located on the edge of Millbrook. The first birds we saw were arctic-bound lesser yellowlegs and pectoral sandpipers that were feeding in the shallows of the millpond. As we watched, we could hear the shrill whistles of an Osprey soaring overhead and the clattering rattle of a belted kingfisher.

Osprey - June 18-19, 2016 - Lower Buckhorn Lake - Robin Blake

Osprey – June 18-19, 2016 – Lower Buckhorn Lake – Robin Blake

Black-throated green warblers, winter wrens and a wood thrush were singing in the deeply shaded cedar forest at the trailhead. Together with the rays of sunlight streaming through gaps in the canopy, the songs created a cathedral-like ambience. An exquisite patch of red trilliums in full bloom enhanced the feeling of connection with the natural world. The trail then winds through rich wetland where the voices of yellow warblers and common yellowthroats competed with beautiful marsh marigolds for our attention. We also had great views of a male rose-breasted grosbeak pouring out its robin-like phrases from the top of a giant black willow. Some birders remember the song as “a robin that has taken voice lessons.” As crazy as it sounds, memory aids like this really work. Other birds of note heard or seen along the trail that morning included great crested flycatcher, black-and-white warbler and eastern kingbird. Spring azure butterflies were also quite common. Shaded pools along the creek make a great place to sit and simply soak in the tranquility of the area. After the walk, we stopped for a great lunch at the Pastry Peddler on King Street in the village.

Algonquin Park

Savoring the rich diversity of May nature is not complete without a trip to Algonquin Park. I fell in love with the park on my very first visit in September of 1964 when my father took me on three-day canoe trip. I still remember the stunning leaves at peak colour and the schools of brook trout in the Crow River. Doug Sadler, a well-known local naturalist, writer and mentor to many young birders in the Peterborough area, also came along and helped me to identify my first-ever gray jay – a huge thrill for a twelve year-old.

So, when our friends Mike and Sonja Barker invited Michelle and I up to their campsite at the Lake of Two Rivers Campground last week, we jumped at the opportunity. Their site overlooked a wetland that was alive with bird and beaver activity. Algonquin’s signature sound – the high clear whistle of the white-throated sparrow (“Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada”) – was everywhere. The highlight of the visit, however, was riding the Old Railway Bike Trail from Lake of Two Rivers to Cache Lake. The trail follows the abandoned bed of the historic Ottawa, Arnprior, and Parry Sound Railway and winds through a variety of different habitats such as open field, coniferous forest and wetland. Only metres down the trail, the strangely gentle tapping of a woodpecker caught my attention. Sure enough, a beautiful male black-backed woodpecker was flaking bark off a red pine, only a couple of metres above our heads. The all-black back and alluring yellow crown make it quite different from any other woodpecker.

White-throated Sparrow - Karl Egressy

White-throated Sparrow – Karl Egressy

Riding along the trail through thick stands of fragrant balsam fir, we stopped to take pictures of a remnant block of ice, hidden away in a rocky crag. Our attention was also drawn to numerous patches of trailing arbutus, which was still in bloom and smelled wonderful. At least 10 species of warblers were singing along the trail including the Tennessee, a bird of the boreal forest that reaches the southern edge of its breeding range in Algonquin Park. Another highlight was an olive-sided flycatcher that Mike heard calling (“quick, three beers!”) from a huge marsh we passed through. The trail crosses the scenic Madawaska River in several locations where we stopped to admire the many shades of green on the distant hills. Because Algonquin Park is so much higher in elevation than the Kawarthas, most of the trees were just coming into leaf. Some, like bigtooth aspen were still leafless. The trail is flat along its entire length and has numerous interpretive signs. There are even washrooms at the Cache Lake end.

The next day, we walked the Beaver Pond Trail, which is an easy two kilometre loop offering excellent views of two beaver ponds and a classic beaver dam. The free guidebook at the trailhead provides an introduction to Algonquin’s fascinating beaver pond ecology. Before leaving the Park, we also stopped by the Visitor Centre, which has one of the best nature bookstores in all of Canada. There are also interactive exhibits on the Park’s human and natural history.

View from lookout on Beaver Pond Trail - Drew Monkman

View from lookout on Beaver Pond Trail – Drew Monkman

I feel so fortunate this year to have been able to get out and enjoy so much of what May has to offer. Although it’s hard to talk of a favourite month, for anyone who takes pleasure in watching the seasons unfold, May has no equal. And, by the way, June is pretty good too!

May 222014
 

 

There are few better places to enjoy the beauty of a southern Ontario spring than the woodland trails of Rondeau Provincial Park. Winding through Carolinian forests blanketed with ferns and spring wildflowers, the trails routinely provide close-up views of some of our most spectacular birds. This year, the honours went to the Prothonotary Warbler. On two different occasions, we watched this rare Ontario species only metres away as it searched for food on the flooded forest floor of the Tulip Tree Trail. Its brilliant orange-yellow head and blue-gray wings produced a non-stop chorus of oohs and awes from the appreciative birders. Photographers had a field day as they clicked off one stunning picture after another.

Prothonotary Warbler - Greg Piasetzki

Prothonotary Warbler – Greg Piasetzki

Last week, Jim Cashmore, Mitch Brownstein, Greg Piasetzki and I made our annual pilgrimage to the southern Ontario birding meccas of Rondeau Provincial Park and Point Pelee National Park. These two wooded peninsulas that jut out into Lake Erie concentrate thousands of migrant birds in the spring. For anyone wanting to see North America’s most spectacular spring migrants – Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, Red-breasted Grosbeaks and more than two dozen species of warbler – a trip, Rondeau and Pelee is a must.

The birding this year was good with an almost constant parade of interesting species to be seen. Cool temperatures and winds from the north meant that many migrants lingered in the parks for several days instead of immediately pursuing their journey northward. The cool weather also meant that the leaves were not yet out, so seeing the birds was easier than it is some years. Thrushes and flycatchers were present in especially good numbers, as were Scarlet Tanagers. There was also an ample selection of warblers, ranging from early migrants like Yellow-rumped and Palm to species that tend to arrive later such as the Canada and Mourning warblers. By week’s end, we had managed to find about 130 different kinds of birds, 25 of which were warblers.

For many birders, spring birding is very much about sound. By focusing your attention on bird song, you get an almost instantaneous picture of the diversity of species around you as well as the number of individual birds. This past week, the dominant voices included Baltimore Orioles, Yellow Warblers, House Wrens and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Not quite as common, but calling at least every couple of minutes were Least Flycatchers, Eastern Wood‑pewees, Eastern Towhees, Tree Swallows, Wood Thrushes, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Magnolia Warblers. The challenge, however, is to coax your brain to push these more common sounds into the background, so that the voices of less common species can be detected.

Many iconic bird sounds belong to the night. Just after sunset one evening, we drove over to a field across from the Rondeau visitors centre. As we rolled down the car windows, the peenting calls of American Woodcocks stood out clearly against a background chorus of Spring Peepers. Almost immediately, we saw one of several woodcocks launch itself into the air, its wings producing a quivering sound as it gained altitude. Soon, we could see its silhouette against the pale pink light of the darkening sky – an iconic image of spring nights that I never tire of seeing. But that wasn’t all. Moments later, a Common Nighthawk flew by, coursing over the field like a giant moth and making a rasping nasal buzz. Finally, the quintessential species of spring and summer nights added its voice to the mix as we drove down to the South Point Trail. Even with the car windows up, it was impossible to miss the loud, repetitive call of the Whip-poor-will.

Ovenbird - Greg Piasetzki

Ovenbird – Greg Piasetzki

 

Point Pelee

On Wednesday morning, we decided to make the one-hour drive west to Point Pelee. Like Rondeau, Pelee is home to Ontario’s Carolinian forest, a habitat type that has almost disappeared from the province. The Pelee woods are dominated by Hackberry Trees and vines such as Wild Grape, Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy. In May, the forest floor is a carpet of Sweet Cicely, Wild Columbine and Wild Geranium. As you can imagine, the air smells wonderful.

Having four pairs of eyes proved to be very handy this particular morning. Even at the parking lot, a constant parade of thrushes, orioles, warblers and tanagers moved past us, flying quickly from tree to tree and often at eye level. We eventually made our way out to the tip area and joined the throng of birders already there. Standing shoulder to shoulder on the boardwalk, we were immersed in a see of binoculars, scopes and colossal cameras. The somewhat crowded conditions were soon forgotten, however, thanks to the constant bird activity. Over the next couple of hours, we added a variety of new warblers such as the Blackpoll and Cape May, the Philadelphia Vireo and both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. We also ran into two other Peterborough birders, namely Jerry Ball and Clayton Vardy. Jerry had been at Pelee for two weeks and had seen no less than 208 species, while Clayton was already up to 24 warbler species for the day!

Wood Thrush - Greg Piasetzki

Wood Thrush – Greg Piasetzki

After taking a break at the park visitors centre – there are naturalists on hand to answer questions, a great bookstore and the Friends of Point Pelee provide a delicious hot lunch – we walked the Tilden’s Woods trail and a section of the park where a Kentucky Warbler had been seen. Although we didn’t find the Kentucky, large numbers of other warblers made up for its absence, including one flock with at least four Northern Parulas. We wrapped up the day with a trip north of Point Pelee to Hillman Marsh to see ducks, gulls and shorebirds. The highlights there were a Red-necked Phalarope and a Willet.

Despite the rather crowded conditions on some of the trails at Pelee, respect for the birds and courtesy for fellow birders are always very noticeable. Rarely do people speak in a loud voice or push their way past others. Most birders are ready to help beginners with identification problems, as well, and to share the location of sought-after species. However, it is hard not to notice that there are very few young people. The vast majority of birders we see each year are probably 60 or older. Because birders ‑ and naturalists in general ‑ are usually committed conservationists who represent a strong voice for the protection of species and wild spaces , one cannot help but wonder what the lack of younger people means for the future.

Thursday was cold and wet, so rather than spending the day at Rondeau, we drove north to Mitchell’s Bay on Lake St. Clair. The marsh here is well known for a small colony of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, a species usually not found in Ontario. For a photographer like Greg, this outrageously coloured blackbird made for a delightful subject. The six males we found were anything but shy, as they focused all of their attention on courting the half-hidden females. The raucous wail the males made could only be described as something between a braying donkey and a piercing chainsaw. On our way back to the Park, we stopped at the Blenheim sewage lagoon, where we were greeted by the remarkable sight of thousands of swallows coursing over the lagoons and nearby fields as they snatched up tiny flies called midges. The lagoons also offered up Ruddy Ducks, Bobolinks, Savannah Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks, all of which are hard to find in this part of the province.

Yellow-headed Blackbird - Greg Piasetzki

Yellow-headed Blackbird – Greg Piasetzki

By week’s end, the greater number of female warblers – females migrate later than males – and the arrival of late migrants such as the Eastern Wood-pewee and Mourning Warbler were signs that spring’s passage of northbound birds is drawing to a close. The season of migration is now giving way to the season of nesting. However, the change of season holds the promise of bountiful young birds that will commence their own journey – southward this time – in just a few short months.