BY GARY MAY
Reaching gently into the shallow western basin of Lake Erie, the finger of land that is Point Pelee beckons migrating birds each spring like an old friend. It is the most famous of Canada’s birding sites and one of the Top 10 birding hotspots in North America. About 385 species have been identified there.
For the several hundred full-time Leamington residents who call Point Pelee home, winter is a particularly quiet time, the silence broken only by the occasional snowmobiler buzzing alongside the road, or flying along the frozen surface of the lake.
That begins to change with the late-winter ice breakup, when a transformation in bird activity provides the first hints of spring’s return. Wintering gulls head to the growing open spots on the lake, soon followed by the handful of geese and ducks that have decided not to venture south for the winter. Soon they will be joined by the first arrivals from the South.
It’s a busy time for Janice Rogers. She’s general manager of Friends of Point Pelee, an organization that has been working with Parks Canada for the past 30 years to keep Point Pelee National Park the special place it is.
The park takes up the southern half of the Point Pelee peninsula, which is the southernmost tip on the Canadian mainland. And happily for birders, the peninsula is situated at the confluence of two major bird flyways — the Atlantic and the Mississippi.
As the winter breakup begins, Rogers organizes the volunteer efforts of Friends in preparation for the 35,000 or so birders who will descend on the area to witness and record the spring migration. During the migration, millions of birds pass through on their way from their southern wintering grounds — in South and Central America, Mexico and the U.S. Gulf states — to the northern areas where they will breed.
Many other birds stay all summer. Locals are treated to a proliferation of waterfowl, herons and egrets, red-winged blackbirds, bitterns, warblers and American goldfinches, to name but a handful.
But the May migration marks the height of the birding season. This year’s Festival of Birds runs from April 30 to May 23. Friends of Pelee sets up guided bird tours for the entire run, and operates food services for the hungry human visitors. Other festival activities include daily workshops that feature birding tips and tricks. A tote board of sightings is kept.
Point Pelee 'a national icon'
Friends of Point Pelee was created in 1981 by residents — including many Americans who frequent the area — who wanted to help keep the park thriving. It’s truly a grass-roots movement, says Rogers, the organization’s sole permanent staff member. It was one of the first co-operative ventures of volunteers and Parks Canada in the country.
Thirty years ago, many feared the local population might love the park to death. Lack of controls over public usage threatened Pelee’s fragile ecosystem and its very existence as a national park. Tough decisions had to be made.
Over the course of several years, more than 300 private homes, cottages and other buildings, along with a couple of retail establishments, were removed from the park. The land was allowed to regenerate itself and areas were opened for passive public access. The birds loved it.
“The park is a national icon,” Roberts tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.
Tom Hince worked at the park from 1983 to 1987, and again from 1989 to 1997. He served as park naturalist/interpreter and then chief naturalist for his last three years. For a decade, he was a weekly columnist and birding expert for Discovery Network Canada. He is a photographer, has authored a guidebook to finding birds in and around the park and today, the Wheatley resident leads birding tours to Pelee and other significant birding areas around the world.
Hince says Pelee is internationally renowned as one of the premier sites for observing bird migrations. “It’s one of those places birdwatchers have to come to at some time in their lives,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com, noting visitors come from all over North America and Europe. In his estimation, Pelee is the most popular birding park in Canada and one of the top two or three on the continent.
As the weary northbound birds fly across Lake Erie, Pelee offers them their first welcome sight of the Canadian mainland. It’s a place for them to rest and refuel — for about a day — before they continue their journey. And with the abundance of lakeside insects during May, the birds have a field day.
“They arrive in waves,” Hince says. “There’ll be a huge influx one day, then it trails off for a three or four until the next wave comes in.”
Birds show best before trees grow leaf cover
The birds are at their showy best in spring, he says, because their plumage is designed to be seen and to impress as they prepare for breeding season. That’s great news for the birders. Equally important is the fact that the point’s proximity to the still-chilly Lake Erie means the leaves are two weeks behind those a few kilometres inland, meaning there’s less foliage to hide the winged visitors from prying human eyes.
Come fall, birds such as the scarlet tanager and the indigo bunting might be less colourful, Hince says, but he enjoys the less harried environment when there are fewer birders around. Add to that the fact the hawks are in greater abundance and you’ve got the makings of a great secondary birder season. Early bird departures begin in mid-August and the migration continues until the November frosts.
Another autumn plus for nature observers is the monarch butterfly migration, which normally begins in late August and continues until early October. The butterflies are also attracted to Pelee as a shortcut across Lake Erie.
Technology has changed birding in recent years. Rogers says birders are busy with their cellphones, and texting and tweeting one another to keep apprised of the latest sightings. If a particularly exciting spotting has been made at nearby Wheatley Harbour or Rondeau Provincial Park, for example, she says Point Pelee nearly empties out while they go take a look.
Hince says birders make good use of the Ontario Field Ornithologists website to keep advised of the latest sightings. With all the emphasis on the Internet, “we’re under pressure to add Wi-Fi in the park,” Rogers laughs. “We’re working on it.”
Besides Point Pelee National Park, other spots prized by birders in the immediate area include the Hillman Marsh Conservation Area, nearby onion fields, Wheatley Harbour and Wheatley Provincial Park. Farther afield, there is Rondeau Provincial Park and Long Point.
Registration for the Friends of Pelee birder hikes can be made online at friendsofpelee.com
or by phone at 888-707-3533 or 519 326-6173. There is a maximum number for each hike, so advanced registration is recommended.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — March 2011