Spring means rebirth to most of the world, but to birders, it means one thing: migration. During these few weeks, the northern world is witness to the return of millions of birds from their winter retreats down south. And one of the best places in North America to see it is the festival of birds at Point Pelee National Park.
Located about 30 miles from Windsor, Ontario and the U.S. border, Point Pelee is a natural treasure, with its unique mix of dense Carolinian forest, swamp, marshland, savanna grassland and beaches. It’s a UNESCO designated Wetland of International Significance. More importantly, it’s one of the top 15 birding spots in North America, and that’s what attracts most of the park’s 300,000 visitors every year.
Why do the birds stop here? Point Pelee is a triangular sandspit that sticks out into Lake Erie, at the southern end of Ontario. That means it’s the first piece of land birds see when they fly across the lake heading into Canada, and after flying hundreds or thousands of miles from their winter homes, they’re anxious to make landfall. Some literally collapse when they land. But most, like this chestnut-sided warbler, can be found flitting through the trees near the lakefront, feeding on whatever they can find.
Point Pelee holds a Festival of Birds each spring, drawing birders from all over. For those two-and-a-half weeks (May 1-19 this year), the park swarms from morning till night with happy birders carrying binoculars and cameras with huge lenses. Some days the birding is better than others, but most of the time everyone goes home happy.
Last year I went to Point Pelee with my friend Dennis, who was a leading character in a later adventure in the Niagara Glen. It was our first visit, so the Festival of Birds was a new experience, and the days were full. After an early-morning muffin-and-coffee breakfast at the visitors’ centre with scores of other birders, we would head off down the road to spend the day hunting birds on the network of trails that snakes through the park. A guided walk in the afternoon added some expertise.
Our first morning yielded lots of warblers in the trees, and it wasn’t long before we came across a group of birders ogling something really special: a pair of red-headed woodpeckers working over a dead tree. I rarely see these beautiful birds around Toronto, so the opportunity to get some photos was a rare treat. Here’s the result.
A few feet farther on, we came to the signature feature of Point Pelee — the tip, a long finger of pebbles and sand stretching into the lake, usually covered with several species of gulls. It was a sight to see, and the noise was amazing if you ventured close. Which I did, returning with this picture of some Bonaparte’s gulls, another rarity in my part of the world.
Later, we investigated some of the park’s other habitats, including the Carolinian forest and the grasslands, which produced my biggest prize of the trip: photos of a small flock of wild turkeys, which roam the park at will (and sometimes the roads around it).
These are some of the strangest-looking creatures in the bird kingdom, with their copper-hued feathers, wispy beards and strange red wattles around their faces.
Despite their crazy appearance, there was something dignified about the way they high-stepped across the trail to find some shade and while away the afternoon. Getting a chance to photograph them was one of the highlights of the year: high fives for Dennis and I.
Later, as we wandered down another forest trail, a young deer appeared for a moment before bounding back into the forest.
We birded the swampland in the forest, scouted the shorelines, and on our last afternoon, we walked along the boardwalk to watch a harrier hover over the marshland, looking for a meal.
The festival offers guided birding hikes, wildflower walks, shorebird nights and twilight hikes. But really, when you’ve got spring and lots of birds, what more could a birder want?
Afterword: Dennis and I went back to see the birds at Point Pelee again in the spring of 2014, and encountered some spectacular birds: you can see the results here. Despite some iffy weather, it was well worth the trip.