Owls and orioles: a bountiful spring at Point Pelee

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Spring at Point Pelee, Ontario is a magical time for those of us who love nature — and particularly, birds. Each May,  when the snows melt and the weather starts to warm, the skies above Point Pelee begin to rain birds: big ones, little ones, brown and yellow and blue ones, birds of every description. And there’s no predicting what you’ll find on any given day — it depends on what the winds blew in.

My friend Dennis and I made our annual trek to Point Pelee this week. And despite my fears that we were arriving a little late and might miss the migration altogether, there was still a wealth of great sights to see. While it wasn’t quite the flashy show we encountered on our visit in 2014, it was more diverse, filled with things we never expected.

We arrived to find spring in full bloom, with wildflowers sprouting everywhere and the trees sporting new leaves. But the point itself — the long spit of land that gives migrating birds their first landfall after making their way north across Lake Erie — was almost absent, washed away by the relentless waves of winter. The point is constantly changing as the sands shift back and forth, but we had never seen it this small, barely a stub.

Point Pelee flowers

Point Pelee Dennis

Still, the woods and trails throughout the park were alive with bird song, and our first day featured some of the beautiful wood warblers Point Pelee is known for, like this bay-breasted warbler and a common yellowthroat, scouring the thickets with its little black burglar mask.

Bay-breasted warbler

Point Pelee flowers

The scarlet tanagers that lit up the forest on our last visit were nowhere to be seen this year — though a few cardinals stood in for them. But this year’s Baltimore orioles seemed even brighter than usual, flashing brilliant orange as they searched the branches, high and low, looking for insects. And they were joined by orchard orioles (seen below and at top), darker but just as attractive, and maybe even a bit more acrobatic.

Baltimore oriole

Orchard oriole

There was another splash of colour from a rose-breasted grosbeak, emerging from the underbrush long enough for some nice portraits. i think this was a young one, still a bit mottled and growing into his full colours.

Rose-breasted grosbeak

But the signature sight of this year’s Point Pelee Festival of Birds was yellow warblers. They’ve been a constant presence each year, but I’ve never seen them in these numbers. And this year, there seemed to be yellow warbler nests everywhere you looked. This tiny female was keeping her offspring safe and sound only a few feet from a well-travelled path.

Yellow warbler nest

And there were other uncommon sights. Walking the Woodland Nature Trail, we heard rumours of a nest of great horned owls. And after a long trek through some of the marshy areas of the park, we finally found it. There were two chicks in the nest, both still wearing quite a bit of white down. But this one hogged the spotlight most of the time, opening its eyes now and then to scope out the small crowd of paparazzi.

Baby great horned owl

The next day, stopping along another path, we noticed some birders aiming a spotting scope at a distant tree. “What do you have?” We asked. “An owl,” they replied. And there, peeking out of a hole in a huge tree, high above the ground, was the face of a screech owl, the first I’d ever seen. It was fast asleep, safe in the knowledge that it was tucked away and out of reach.

Screech owl

The fact you’re seeing this picture is thanks to Sony, which loaned me its powerful little DSC-WX500 camera, with its super-long, 30X zoom.  Normally I shoot these photos with my big SLR camera and telephoto lens. But for the second trip in a row, disaster struck.

You may remember the story: after getting a bucket-list trip to the Galapagos Islands this winter, I realized I’d forgotten to pack the battery charger for the SLR, leaving me to take most of the photos with an aging point-and-shoot. This time out, I carefully packed the charger. But when my battery went dead on day two, I found it wouldn’t hold a charge; I guess all those attempts to charge it in Ecuador took their toll.

This time, I was facing an even greater photographic challenge: unlike the birds of the Galapagos, these ones wouldn’t let you walk right up and take their portrait. But luckily, I had a very capable backup. The Sony’s long zoom pulled in distant birds with no problem, and I even tried using its digital zoom; these extend the optical zoom essentially by blowing up the photos as you’re taking them.

The results were amazingly good, as you can see from the photo of the screech owl, taken from at least 30 metres, or 100 feet. Later on, I used the digital zoom to pull in a red-bellied woodpecker from a distance I would usually never have tried. Pushing most superzoom cameras this far results in fuzzy, grainy-looking pictures, but the photos from the WX-500, while not pristine, were good-looking and very usable. Live and learn.

Red-bellied woodpecker

The final surprise of the trip came when Dennis and I visited the Marsh Boardwalk. Most years, this area doesn’t yield much, but this time we were greeted by a pair of short-billed dowitchers, hunting for food on a little sandbar. I know, it’s hard to imagine calling these birds “short-billed”, but they apparently have a cousin with even longer bill.

Short=billed dowitchers

Flying overhead were some other visitors I never expected to see — a flock of black terns. I had never seen these before, but the WX-500’s long zoom let me pull them in for closeup.

Black terns
Our visit to Point Pelee lasted three days, though it seemed more like 15 minutes. And in that time we saw an amazing variety of birds, talked to birders from all over the continent, and even found a jackrabbit or two hopping along the trail (still no sign of the mythical flying squirrels that are supposed to live in these parts, though).

But even if we hadn’t had such a great show of bird life, it would still have been worth it to walk the trails in the spring sunlight, seeing the woods come back to life after the long winter. Standing beside a spring marsh in the near-silence of the green forest, you could believe for a moment that the rest of the world was far, far away.

Point Pelee marsh

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

1 Comment

  1. dennis francz on

    Wow ! your pictures turned out better than I thought they would. After being on this trip to Pelee with you this year I understand better than ever how difficult it is to get a good and clear shot of these elusive little critters, trying their utmost to stay hidden in the underbrush and in the leaves. It truly is no small feat to come back with such great photographs.

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