Our Window on Nature

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Waves of Warblers

Filed under: Birds — Lowell Christie -- April 1, 2006 @ 3:05 pm


Don’t ask where birdwatchers want to spend the month of May. You might get an anguished look of indecision while they explain that birding is at its best everywhere in May. But for more decisive individuals, the answer will be short and to the point – Point Pelee.

Why should birders travel all the way to Canada’s Point Pelee to see multitudes of birds that can be seen right here in the United States? According to one birdwatching friend, you can see all of Canada’s bird species without leaving the U.S., if you look hard enough. And this is Point Pelee’s attraction.

At Pelee the looking is easy. You spend your time concentrating on identification instead of in actively searching for the birds. It’s one spot in North America where the birds come to you, where you can take a long look before they fly away. To find the reason, just glance at a map of Lake Erie.

Point Pelee National Park juts south into Lake Erie, becoming the southernmost point of mainland Canada. It also happens to be on the path of two major north-south bird migration routes, the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways. As they head north with the spring, literally millions of birds run up against the watery barrier of Lake Erie.

For all their vagabond existence, birds are rather conservative travelers. They don’t tend to strike out in new directions, but follow along approximately the same routes every year. And rather than crossing a broad expanse of water, the flyers prefer to see their destination. That means that, whenever possible, migrating birds leapfrog from island to island across the lake.

On this particular island-hopping adventure the birds leave Ohio, stop briefly on Pelee Island, and then move on to Point Pelee itself. Upon arrival on the mainland the birds are so exhausted that they ignore the hundreds of birdwatchers milling around on the shore. Almost any landing spot is acceptable to the tired birds, and occasionally a standing person is mistaken for a tree. You can’t get a much closer look at a bird.

The quantity of birds landing at Point Pelee on any given day in May is largely determined by the weather. Migrants like to move ahead of weather fronts, so often a warm front coming in from the southeast heralds the arrival of multitudes of birds – such as the single day when 20,000 whitethroated sparrows were counted – and another day when 650 whistling swans flew in.

But for those like us who bird mainly in the west, Pelee’s greatest attraction has to be the waves of wood warblers that cascade down into this haven for traveling birds – Chestnut-sided warblers, Nashville warblers, Cape May warblers, the list goes on. Hungry warblers by the hundreds fill every bush in sight, anxious to grab a meal before continuing the trip.

Our first real exposure to Point Pelee came some years ago in the form of a letter from birding friends. Having just left Point Pelee, they included a checklist of the birds they had seen. It was enough to make us cry. In nine days they identified 162 species of birds, including 36 of the 42 species of warblers seen at Point Pelee.

To make us feel worse, the next time our paths crossed we attended a showing of their close-up slides of birds. Can you imagine walking up to within three feet of a bird and then having time to carefully compose your picture?

The tip of Point Pelee is closed to vehicular traffic during migration, so you either walk the one-and-a-half miles or hop the tram that runs every half hour. The first tram ride of the morning is the one of greatest interest to a serious birder. It departs for the point at 6:00 a.m., since there is no camping in the park.

Of course, the tram runs only if there are thirty or more passengers ready at 6:00, so it’s important to wear your walking shoes just in case. But Point Pelee is such a “hot spot” during May that the tram usually makes the early trip. Avid birders are anxious to know what blew in overnight.

With so many excellent birdwatchers around, you can usually find help in identifying any birds that look unfamiliar. And if you are seeking specific species, the visitor center keeps track of what birds are seen each day. When the birding gets slow out on the point, you can concentrate your efforts on the nature trails or the floating boardwalk through the marsh. According to a note on its seasonal bird list, approximately 60 percent of all the species known to occur in Canada have been recorded in this six-square-mile Canadian National Park.

But as with most good things, there is something wrong with Point Pelee in May. It also happens to be the best time to chase birds in southeastern Arizona, in southern California, and along the Texas Gulf Coast. And that makes April the month of hard decisions. Our travel plans for May? Please don’t ask; we’re still working on them.


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