Birdwatching at Point Pelee National Park, Ontario, Canada
The founding editor of Birder's World magazine explains why Canada's Point Pelee National Park is a "must" for anyone interested in birds, and especially warblers.
Published: May 1, 1987
|Birders are akin to other special-interest enthusiasts; they rank birding areas much like golfers rate courses or theater buffs critique Broadway productions. They are eager to share their birding experiences — whether a big day count or an intensive pursuit of an elusive rare species. And when these conversations turn to outstanding birding areas, you can be sure that Pt. Pelee will be mentioned.|
Naturalists were first attracted to Pt. Pelee at the turn of the century because of large numbers of migrating waterfowl. Closer examination revealed, in addition, a variety of other birds. Due to the efforts of these early naturalists, Pt. Pelee was named a national park in 1918. Since then, the Point has become one of
the premier birding areas in North America. A total of 346 bird species have been recorded in the park.
Located in southern Ontario, Pt. Pelee is a peninsula of about six square miles that juts out into Lake Erie. It serves as a welcoming mat for the myriads of birds entering Canada from the south and a staging area for those leaving again in the fall. Its proximity to Lake Erie and southern location (it is actually located below the northern California border!) make for a mild climate. The park is part of a small region of Canada featuring true deciduous forest.
The largest habitat in the park is a vast fresh-water marsh. The remaining forms are deciduous forest (both wet and dry types), cedar savannahs (sometimes called open parklands), and sandy beaches. A number of deadfalls and dense stands of trees and shrubs, many of which are decked out with vines, create thickets that offer excellent cover for birds — sometimes more cover than you'd like — and dense mats of sweet cicely and mayapple make for a lush forest carpet offering additional protection. The park supports a diverse flora which totals 750 plant species.
Besides habitat diversity, the location of Pt. Pelee is critical to the variety and number of birds it attracts. The Point was created by the scouring action of glaciers and the associated rushing melt waters. The thick sand layer upon which the park is perched extends into Lake Erie and is continually modified by the currents and water level. This actually is becoming a problem as the high water levels of recent years have damaged some of the low regions of the park. It is now believed that during the last glacial period, a land bridge extended from the Point to Ohio. When this area was covered by the Wisconsin glacier 10,000 years ago, water drained to the north, ultimately into Georgian Bay. After the glacier retreated, the reduced pressure caused a lifting of the earth that changed the direction of flow — water began flowing south. The basin refilled, causing the land bridge to be covered and leaving the present arrangement of a peninsula and associated islands to the south.
Diurnal migrants crossing Lake Erie will see Pt. Pelee as they approach the northern shore. Similarly, nocturnal migrants will pick up the Point as the dawn breaks and they spot land. Many of the birds that land during the night in adjacent areas will move to more favorable habitat the following day, and this frequently brings them to the park. Birds over Lake Erie at the break of dawn are forced to continue on, and they, too, will make contact with the Point. The latter migrants, after a night of flying, are sometimes at the brink of exhaustion upon reaching land; they regain their strength on the beach near the tip. After recovery, they move into the vegetated regions above the tip to feed, taking advantage of the hordes of emerging insects. After a few days they continue on to their respective breeding grounds. Cold weather, which can suppress insect activity, is thought to be the cause of reverse migration whereby birds can be seen flying south across Lake Erie.
One can enjoy Pt. Pelee year-round but, for the most part, birding is tied to migration. Spring migration picks up in March and continues through early June with a peak during mid-May, while fall migration runs from July to November with a peak from late September to early October. Fall migration actually features large numbers of birds because it follows soon after reproduction, but the spring event attracts the largest number of birders.
In the fall, birds seem to drift through the park in a leisurely but steady pace, while in the spring birds tend to arrive in intermittent waves. These waves result from advancing warm fronts from the south meeting cold fronts from the north. These cold fronts can prevent birds from leaving the park even though new birds continue to arrive. This can lead to a phenomenal bird build-up. For example, in recent years the following birds counts have been documented in the tip area alone: 70 Eastern Wood-Pewees, 80 Yellow-billed and 100 Black-billed Cuckoos, and 250 Scarlet Tanagers. As many as 57 Saw-whet Owls have been recorded in one night and 1,000 Sharp-shinned Hawks have been counted in a single day. Build-ups of particular species can run into the thousands! Probably the record number for a songbird species, excluding blackbirds, occurred about 30 years ago when an estimated 20,000 White-throated Sparrows were present at one time.
|While birds in great numbers can be exciting, it is the warblers that have made Pt. Pelee famous. These small, brightly colored songbirds, most of which winter in South America and nest in the boreal forests of Canada, pass through the park in droves. The total number of warbler species seen at Pt. Pelee is 42, while the largest number seen during a single spring migration is 38. In 1979, three observers found 34 species independently in a single day.|
While one can successfully bird any place on Pt. Pelee, some regions seem to attract more birds and birders. Most birders begin their day at the tip of the peninsula and move north as the day progresses. The primary birding areas are the tip, transit loop, sparrow field, woodland trail, Tilden's woods, DeLaurier trail, marsh boardwalk and the onion fields. Several picnic areas can also be good and birders are encouraged to stop at the Interpretive Center for an update on currently hot areas.
The tip is the most active spot early in the day. Gulls and terns can always be seen. Herring, Ring-billed, and Bonaparte's are common while Black-backed and Little are possible. Both Caspian and Common Terns are good bets. Thousands of Red-breasted Mergansers are found around the tip in the spring, and unusual sea ducks — like scoters — can be seen occasionally. On mornings after a major flight, the tip can be covered by exhausted songbirds.
The transit loop area probably gets the largest concentration of birds and birders in the morning. Almost any species is possible here since the birds must pass through this area to get to other parts of the park. Sometimes when looking at the canopies of tall trees, Black-throated Green and Yellow-rumped Warblers seem to be all over, like exploding popcorn! It is not uncommon to see Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, and Cape May Warblers in the same tree. Careful examination of the dense thickets can give a fleeting glimpse of Blue-winged, Golden-winged and Hooded Warblers. Canada Warblers should be there too. After a day at Pt. Pelee one understands why it is often referred to as a "Warbler Capital of North America."
The transit loop area also supports a number of flycatchers. The difficult Empidonax group is abundant, and the Wood-Pewee and Great Crested Flycatcher are usually present. Vireos are also abundant in this area. We usually see Red-eyed, Warbling, Philadelphia, Solitary, Yellow-throated, and White-eyed. I even had a Bell's Vireo once, but nobody wanted to believe it. Scarlet Tanagers, Indigo Buntings, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are also common.
A snack bar located in the transit loop area is a welcome site for most birders. This provides an opportunity for a much-needed cup of coffee and an opportunity to meet other birders. Information exchange permits one to learn about unusual sightings and where the hot spots are.
Just north of the transit loop is an old-field plant community known as the "sparrow field." This is the best place for unusual sparrows such as LeConte's, Grasshopper, Clay-colored, and Henslow's. These are never abundant, and careful, systematic walking through the grass is usually required to flush one.
The Woodland Trail is found between the sparrow field and the Interpretive Center. It actually begins at the Center and loops to the south. This region is good for the Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, and Lincoln's Sparrow. It is also the best place to look for Kentucky and Mourning Warblers. The eastern part of the trail passes through a wetland forest where the Green-backed Heron, sandpipers, and the Northern Waterthrush can be found.
Tilden's Woods is a mature forest located across the road from the Interpretive Center parking lot. The trail follows an undulating pathway through wetland forest in the low areas and dryland forest on the ridges. This is an excellent area for warblers and vireos. Hooded, Golden-winged, Kentucky, and Prothonotary are usually present although difficult to find. The more rare Worm-eating Warbler is also possible. Both Yellow-throated and White-eyed Vireos are present here as well.
The DeLaurier Trail begins at an old homestead. The restored buildings provide an interesting glimpse of the past. Habitat in the vicinity of the buildings is open and scrubby with some orchards leftover from earlier days. A number of sparrows including Chipping, Field, Savannah, White-crowned and White-throated can be seen here. Bluebirds, Bobolinks, and both Willow and Alder Flycatchers are also present. The trail extends from the homestead into wooded, marsh, and swamp habitats. A variety of warblers can be seen on these trails including the rare Prothonotary.
The Marsh Boardwalk and observation tower provide an excellent view of the huge cattail marsh. As large as the marsh is, it is only half the size of the marsh that was here before agricultural drainage occurred. Birds that can be seen here include the Marsh Wren, Swamp Sparrow and Yellowthroat. While several rails are possible, the Virginia and Sora are most likely. Least and American Bitterns are also seen occasionally.
The onion fields which border the park on the north side provide opportunities for gulls, terns and shorebirds. Black-bellied and Lesser Golden-Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, Dunlins and Sanderlings are usually present.
The Interpretive Center features slide and film programs, a book store, and displays featuring birds and other aspects of the park. Another convenience designed to protect the park is a transit train that carries visitors from the Interpretive Center parking lot to the tip of the Point. The train is in daily service from May through August and on weekends during September and October. Approximately 130,000 people use the trains each year. Trains leave every 20 minutes between 9:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. except during peak birding times when they leave earlier, at 6:00.
Don Wilkes, a park naturalist, commented that spring migration brings birders in such numbers that it requires special management to protect the park from the people. He states that, "While birders are environmentally very conscientious, there is a problem with the development of unofficial trails." Park officials also ask visitors to respect the trail signs marked "Closed for Regeneration." Some areas are ecologically very sensitive and need a long time without disturbance to recover.
Another concern of park authorities is what they call "Rare Bird Rush." The sighting of truly unusual species can draw large numbers of people into a small area where damage to vegetation can be significant. Examples of birds that have caused such a "rush" in the past are the Cassin's Sparrow, Hermit Warbler, and Mississippi Kite. The behavior of birders at those times resembles people escaping a burning building.
While it might sound like park officials are trying to thwart activities of birders, the opposite is true. The recently opened trail in Tilden's Woods is an example of their efforts to get birders and other visitors into as many major habitats as possible.
"Operation Spreadout" is a program that has been initiated by park officials both to help protect the park and help birders find a greater variety of birds. If birders would spend part of their time at Pt. Pelee birding in areas outside the park, it would help reduce congestion in the park — particularly during peak times. A bulletin board in the Interpretive Center lists unusual sightings at areas close to the park. Some of these areas include Hillman Marsh, Holiday Beach, Rondeau, and, farther north, Stoney Point on Lake St. Clair. These are excellent birding areas and many birders now routinely include them in their itinerary while at the Point. Park officials are also talking to municipalities in the area encouraging them to work out programs that would allow birders to visit sewage lagoons. These can be outstanding for a variety of birds, especially shorebirds, but many lagoons have been closed to birders because of fear of liability.
Pt. Pelee is a must for anyone interested in birds. The area is beautiful and the birding exceptional. You can expect both the number and variety to please any birder, but Pt. Pelee is also known for the unexpected. Each year the park and nearby birding sites produce rarities that keep birders hopping as they check off unusual sightings, such as the Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Black Vulture, Swallow-tailed Kite, Gyrfalcon, Purple Gallinule, Black Skimmer, Fish Crow, Western Tanager, Curlew Sandpiper, and Ruff.
For a different kind of birding experience, take the 6:00 a.m. train to the tip of the point and welcome the dawn with late arriving migrants. This can be spectacular! Whatever your birding interests, Pt. Pelee will fulfill them. It is clearly a piece of Earth that appears to have been created with birders in mind.
Eldon Greij is professor emeritus of biology at Hope College, located in Holland, Michigan, and the founding editor of Birder's World magazine.