Every spring, my friend Dennis and I join the many thousands of birders who flock to strategic “hot spots” around North America for one of the great highlights of a birder’s year: the annual migration of birds from their winter homes down south to their breeding grounds in the north.
The past two years we’ve gone to Point Pelee, a famous spot near the west end of Lake Erie that’s directly in the path of the birds as they fly north, and the place many come down to rest after flying across the lake. But this year we decided to check out the birds of Long Point, a long, wooded sandspit that sticks out into the lake farther east.
Long Point is a provincial park, and it incorporates several different types of terrain: forest, grasslands, marsh and sandy beaches. That makes it a good place to see lots of different bird species.
It’s also the home of the Long Point Bird Observatory, with a research station where you can watch the experts catch and band birds to monitor their movements. As well, there’s the nearby Bird Studies Canada headquarters, which has nature trails and a pond — another chance to catch a rare species or two.
The trick with these springtime visits is timing. Get it right and you’re rewarded with a rainbow of colourful bird life, as we did last year at Point Pelee. Get it wrong and you can spend a week with nothing to show but a few robins.
This year, a spate of unseasonably cold weather seemed to have stopped many of the birds farther south; however, if you scanned the woods and marshes, it was clear a lot did make it through. And while they weren’t quite the spectacular bunch we saw in 2014, there were still beautiful birds to see — and to photograph.
One of the big attractions at the peak of the migration is warblers, those tiny, multi-coloured songbirds that fill the spring woods with flashes of yellow, green, red, black and brown, like living jewels. They were there this year: magnolia warblers, chestnut-sided warblers, American redstarts, black and white warblers, northern parulas.
But the ones that were out in force were the yellow warblers, brilliant in their breeding colours, as you can see from the photos below and at top (if you’re reading this by e-mail, click on the headline to see the top photo).
The second most common sight, mainly in the trees near the water or marshland, was tree swallows. These birds can be hard to photograph, but at breeding time they have other things on their minds than evading photographers. So I had the chance to capture them in those moments when the sun lit their dark feathers a brilliant, iridescent blue.
There were also lots of grey catbirds, a notoriously camera-shy bird that generally skulks in the thickest underbrush it can find. But they were more interested in being seen by the opposite sex than hiding from prying eyes, so we found many of them sitting out in plain sight.
And they were full of surprises: the catbird’s typical song actually sounds like a cat’s call, but this year one catbird held forth with such a long and complicated song we thought it must be a mockingbird imitating all its neighbours. I never knew they had that kind of talent.
Happily, there was also a good flight of Baltimore orioles, one of the migration’s most spectacular birds. I’m not sure if these ones were there to breed or just passing through (close to 200 species breed around Long Point), but they made great photo subjects.
The trees were full of nesting robins, and their first cousins, hermit thrushes, were also there in numbers. While some thrushes are a grey-brown colour, the hermits sport tinges of a lovely chestnut, especially on the head and tail.
There was talk of a pair of rare white-faced ibises in a pond nearby, but if they were there, we didn’t see them. However, the waters around the Bird Studies Canada centre did turn up a rarity, a small flock of tundra swans on their way north.
These aren’t the orange-billed mute swans you see every day on your local waterfront. And if you’re wondering, they’re not a special brown-faced species: they get that colour from digging for food in the muddy lake bottom.
They were a great sight, and one even graced us with a swan-like wing spread that was as pretty as … well, a picture.
On the last morning, we dropped in on the Long Point banding station, in time to see the researchers band the birds captured that morning in their mist nets. There was a good haul, as a big flock of magnolia warblers had come in during the night and many had gotten themselves caught in the fine nets strung between the trees.
The banding process may look cruel, but in fact the birds are gathered frequently and handled carefully while they’re being banded (the one below is a yellow warbler).
And the observations of their species, age and condition are valuable in monitoring the health and migration patterns of North American birds — a study that’s increasingly important as climate change and habitat loss threaten our bird population.
And then it was time to go. As we drove back through the farmland around the park (once Canada’s prime tobacco-growing country), one of the things we noticed was a healthy crop of wind turbines.
The other was a never-ending supply of turkey vultures, which seemed to appear on every barn roof and dead tree. And if you care, I got a shot of one flying overhead. Well, somebody out there must love them …
About the park
Long Point Provincial Park is located on the north shore of Lake Erie, almost directly across from Erie, Pennsylvania. It’s centred around the base of the point itself, which extends far out into the lake: the majority of the sandspit is off-limits to visitors. However, the accessible parts cover all the different types of habitat: there are even trails in the marsh. There’s enough to keep you occupied for a couple of days — more if there are lots of birds.
A day pass to drive into the park costs $11.25 Canadian (though you can park outside and walk in for free). You can even camp in the park if the weather allows: there are lots of camp sites, and spots for RVs. As well, the area around the point is a World Biosphere Reserve, so there are several other nature reserves nearby.
However, there’s not much in the way of food and lodging close to the park — you’ll have to drive to neighbouring towns such as Port Rowan and Turkey Point. For information about Long Point Provincial Park, go here.