Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Point Pelee Pilgrimage

Point Pelee, Ontario. This is supposed to be a 'you have to go there' birding spot during spring migration. I have heard this from multiple people on multiple occasions. Point Pelee sticks out into the middle of Lake Erie and the birds like to stopover on their way further north and, because it has this narrow tip, it concentrates the birds into a small area, which makes seeing them easier. Point Pelee also concentrates something else: birding tourists. This was partly the reason for my hesitancy to make the pilgrimage down there, but then my wife encouraged the trip by pointing out the number of warblers and other birds I could pick up in a single day of birding there. And so we decided to take a weekend road trip down to Point Pelee.

We left on a Friday evening and drove the 5 hours from Peterborough to Chatham, Ontario, which we stayed at because (despite being 1 hour north of Point Pelee) the hotel was considerably cheaper. The next morning we left the hotel just after 6:00 a.m., which is quite an accomplishment with 3 little kids and a wife who likes to sleep in. On our way down, we stopped briefly at Hillman Marsh Conservation Area to gawk at Great Egrets and a Black-Crowned Night Heron. But the anticipation to bird only grew as we drove into the park and immediately started seeing Yellow Warblers while hearing a cacophony of birds.

We continued to drive and got as close to the tip as possible before being directed to park on the West Beach. This was the first sign that something was different about this place: How often do you have park rangers directing traffic? From there we headed off on foot to take the truck trolley all the way to the tip of the point.
Full of energy, the Frost guys are off to look for warblers
We waited a few minutes for the trolley and then had a pleasant drive to the tip of Canada where all of the fun waited for us.
Point Pelee is the southern most part of mainland Canada. 
The main birding was along several trails that take you down to the absolute tip of Point Pelee. All along this quarter-mile stretch (or perhaps longer), there were many groups of 20-30 people standing together looking into the tree with their binoculars. Between all the bird song, you could hear stuff like "It's a Blackburnian Warbler", "Over there, its a Chestnut-sided", or "It's another Maggie" (meaning Magnolia Warbler). The assembled group was an odd mix of hardcore birders (you can tell by the very large camera lenses and the lack of bird book consultation), recreational birders (nice binoculars, no large camera, still no bird books), and absolute birding amateurs (old binoculars and simply following the crowd types). The spirit of this mixed group was captured when I came upon one group peering into the grass with their "leader" saying that it was an American Redstart. I caught a glimpse of the bird scratching at the ground and it was clearly a female red-winged blackbird (at least they had the red part right). It was like that while I squeezed my way along the trail: trying to focus on the birds and trying to block out the hoard of birders. There were a lot of birds; mostly warblers but also things like a Red-Headed Woodpecker and a Red-Eyed Vireo. The whole experience was a bit overwhelming. Which tree to focus on? What are they staring at? Another Yellow Warbler?
Birders looking for birds at Point Pelee.
After taking some time by myself to focus on the tip to look at the gulls and more warblers, I met back up with the family. They had quite a time too looking for birds and getting looks from the birders. Seriously, who takes their two year old birding?
Zachie looking for warblers.
Nope, no birds here. Look over there.
We left the hoard of birders at the point of Point Pelee and drove about halfway up the shaft to a less heavily attended part of the park. Here we saw Baltimore Orioles, a Peregrine Falcon, and a Common Yellowthroat and then found a picnic table near the woods where we stopped for lunch. I wandered about the woods eating my sandwich and saw White-Crowned Sparrows and a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (and a bunch of Yellow Warblers and Baltimore Orioles). The birds were pretty much everywhere.
Abandoned farm canal where one might find ducks and geese.
After lunch, I went back to exploring the tip to look for more warblers and vireos with my oldest son. My wife tried to keep the younger ones entertained by riding and re-riding the "train" and by letting them dress up as birds. I guess I owe her big for giving me another hour or so of relatively uninterrupted birding. And after that, we packed the car up and headed out of Point Pelee.
A Great Horned Owl or my Andy in disguise?
We briefly stopped again at Hillman Marsh Conservation Area, where I saw a Dunlins and some interesting gulls and terns. The family was a taking a nap so I wandered around for a while. It is a nice marshy area and there were lots of birds to be seen here too, plus there were a lot less birders, which was a plus at that point in the day. I was starting to get tired and hungry and so we drove back to Chatham for dinner.

Overall my day of birding at Point Pelee was good. In all, I saw 52 bird species of which 13 were new species for the year. With a slightly better idea of how to bird Point Pelee, one could pick up 60-80 bird species a day there without much effort.

However, there are a few things about Point Pelee that should be noted for anyone thinking of going there:

1) Do your homework before you go. You will have a limited amount of time and you should make the most of what you have. You will lose time waiting for the trolley, wading through the other birders, and parking way off from the main park center. Know precisely where and when you want to be to reduce your wasted time.

2) Good luck on doing your homework before you go! There is a dearth of information on the internet on how to bird Point Pelee. Mostly your searches will yield advertisements for birding tours. This not helpful as you won't find a lot of suggestions about where in the park to go, how to organize your time, and what birds you will mostly find when and where.

That said, I can offer a few tips here.

3) Go early. Some birds are only there for the early morning hours. We arrived a little after 7 am and we completely missed most of the shorebirds. Work the tip for as long as you can in the morning. This is where most of the birds (shorebirds and warblers) are concentrated and, thus, where you have the best chance of seeing the most types of birds. Go to the north part of park later in the day as the birds begin to move inland.

4) Enjoy and revel in the birding community. There are lots of birders at Point Pelee in May. You will find plenty of large cameras, spotting scopes, binoculars, and inflated egos at every turn. These folks really don't mean any harm but they do tend to get in the way. I suggest turning the tables on these folks: bird the birders. It is a spectacle and one that should be documented.

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