The Birds and Birders of Point Pelee

“Where Canada Begins”

(Feature photo: Sunrise at the tip of Point Pelee)

Map: Environment and Climate Change Canada

By Karen Rodriguez

At 6:00 AM on a chilly morning in May, birders gather to ride the Point Pelee National Park tram 2.6 kilometers from the Park’s Visitor Center to the southernmost tip of mainland Canada, Point Pelee. V-shaped, the Point juts toward the Lake Erie archipelago islands of Pelee, Middle, and Kelly’s, stepping stones between Canada and the U.S. With binoculars and spotting scopes ready, the birders wait for the waves of birds migrating across Lake Erie to stop, exhausted, and rest on Point Pelee before many continue on to north-central and north-east Canada. In September, the migration to the U.S. attracts fewer birders but is no less spectacular as Point Pelee becomes a jumping off point to the U.S. and then on to Central and South America.

Birders at the tip of Point Pelee on Lake Erie–high water levels so no sandspit

Canada’s smallest national park at 1,113 hectares (2,750 acres), Point Pelee was established in 1918 in order to conserve a unique landscape situated on the 42nd parallel. Dominated by a coastal marsh, the park was designated a Ramsar* site—a wetland of international importance—on May 27, 1987. About a fifth of the park is Carolinian (eastern deciduous) forest, rare in Canada. The Point itself is a sandspit of limestone, although when Lake Erie water levels are high the sandspit disappears.

Point Pelee sandspit when Lake Erie water levels are low

These diverse habitats provide food and shelter for a wide variety of birds and other species. In addition, Point Pelee is on the Atlantic and the eastern part of the Mississippi migratory flyways. As a result of good habitat and prime location, more than 350 species of birds, including more than 40 species of warblers, have been recorded on Point Pelee.

“Point Pelee National Park is the perfect place to fill the needs of many different species. Here, thrushes, warblers, tanagers, orioles, and woodpeckers find sanctuary in Pelee’s dense forests, while its tangled fields invite bluebirds, kingbirds, and sparrows. Coots, ducks, blackbirds, and herons seek shelter in the marsh; while gulls, terns, and shorebirds feed and rest on its 20 kilometers (12 miles) of beach.”**

Prothonotary Warbler

Some species are very rare. In May 2017, a pair of Prothonotary Warblers nesting in a tree cavity just a couple of feet from the trail warranted the protection of Park staff as excited birders set up spotting scopes and cameras. Other species such as Baltimore Orioles and Red-Winged Blackbirds are numerous. And then there is the Wild Turkey. Once rare, Turkeys are now found year round throughout the park.

Wild Turkey

The first Point Pelee birders carried guns. Birds were shot and collected in order to identify, study and add to museum and private collections. It is estimated thousands of birds were shot in Point Pelee alone from the 1880s to the early 1920s, when binoculars, spotting scopes, and photography began to replace guns as an appropriate way to identify and document species of birds (see the Gene Stratton Porter blog of June 2017 at this website). In addition, Point Pelee birder Percy Taverner’s book, Birds of Eastern Canada, was published in 1919 and greatly improved bird identification. It was followed by other books, including Roger Tory Peterson’s field guides first published in the 1930s.

Baltimore Oriole

Taverner also started banding birds on Point Pelee in the early 1900s. An intensive technique that enables identification of individuals, birds fly into mist nets, are extracted, measured, a small band with an identification number placed on one leg, then released. That identification number means that birds migrating across continents can be tracked thereby adding to the knowledge of migratory patterns of various species. Canada’s official bird banding program didn’t start until 1923 when cooperative work with the US began. The first official bird banding station on Point Pelee was established in the early 1950s. However, by 1973 there were so many birders and visitors to Point Pelee that banding became difficult. As a result, the bird banding station was moved to Long Point; Bird Studies Canada was and still is a result of that move.***

Birders in the Point Pelee Carolinian woods

One of the first recorded bird events on Point Pelee occurred in 1879 when residents told visiting naturalist Dr. William Brodie of an invasion of “warbirds”. Brodie identified the birds as Cardinals, previously unknown in the region (Cardinals are now widespread in southern Ontario). W.E. Saunders of Detroit is perhaps the earliest Point Pelee birder. Along with Percy Taverner, Bradshaw Hall Swales, and others, he founded the Great Lakes Ornithological Club in 1905, bringing Canadian and U.S. birders together at Point Pelee. As birders descended on Point Pelee in increasing numbers, records were kept—and broken. Between 1979 and 2005, Point Pelee birder Alan Wormington identified a record 357 species.***

Today Point Pelee’s annual May Festival of Birds attracts thousands of birders from all over the world. The Friends of Point Pelee offer an inexpensive Birders’ Breakfast and Lunch (with plenty of coffee) at the Visitor Center. Quest Tours guides new birders around the Point. Formerly, Bushnell Optics ran a binocular clinic. And the Federation of Ontario Naturalists has held seminars and workshops.

Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) in the Point Pelee Carolinian woods

While birders tend to get cricks in their necks looking up at birds flying overhead or in the trees, Point Pelee would not be a birding paradise without the trees and wildflowers and bugs and animals. Looking around and down once in a while adds to the birding adventure.

Redbud tree in the Point Pelee Carolinian woods

*Ramsar sites, wetlands of international importance; an international, intergovernmental treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. The Ramsar Convention was adopted in Ramsar, Iran in 1971. About 90% of United Nation member states participate as “contracting parties.”

**Where Canada Begins, A Visitor’s Guide to Point Pelee National Park, p. 9

***Birding at Point Pelee, a birder’s history of one of Canada’s most famous birding spots, various chapters

The books:

**Graham, J. Robertson. Where Canada Begins, A Visitor’s Guide to Point Pelee National Park. Commercial Printcraft Ltd. No date. A brief historical background of the Point is followed by descriptions of the plant and animal communities, the birding, and other current Park activities. Unfortunately, an updated visitor guide was not available in 2017.

***O’Neill, Henrietta T. Birding at Point Pelee, a birder’s history of one of Canada’s most famous birding spots. Toronto, Ontario: James Lorimer and Company Ltd., Publishers. 2006. Thank goodness for writers like Ms. O’Neill. This book is filled with stories based on history gleaned from local archives plus interviews with current residents and birders. Without O’Neill’s careful chronology of events and scrutiny of historical events, along with personal narratives, no book about Point Pelee history would exist.

The Friends of Point Pelee and Pelee Island Heritage Centre. Pelee Portrait, Canada’s Southern Treasures by Point Pelee National Park. St. Ann’s, Ontario: DT Publishing Group, Inc. 2002. Pelee Portrait is filled with beautiful photographs of the landscape and plants and animals as well as historical photos of both Point Pelee and Pelee Island.

The place:

Point Pelee National Park, on the north shore of Lake Erie, the southernmost point in Canada

Nearest town to Point Pelee: Leamington, Ontario, the “tomato capital of the world”

Content and photos copyright 2017 Karen Rodriguez

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