Birding In The National Parks: Canada's Point Pelee National Park Is For The Birds

Canada’s Point Pelee National Park is for the birds, literally. Established in 1918, the park was created to protect some of the last remaining wild marsh and forest habitat along the north shore of Lake Erie. Bird fanciers, both those who watched them and those who hunted them, spearheaded the drive to protect the land. Duck hunting is no more at Point Pelee, but the bird watching remains, and this curious spit of land continues to enjoy the guarantee of preservation from Parks Canada.

I had never been to Point Pelee before this past spring, despite living only a few hours away in Michigan. Year after year I’d spend May on the south side of Lake Erie, looking across to invisible Canada and thinking that I really should get to Pelee the following May, yet for one reason or another, it never happened. When Point Pelee National Park, the Friends of Point Pelee, and Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island invited me to attend the Festival of Birds this May, I decided the time had come to quit making excuses. Now I need to make room in the busy May schedule to make this an annual trip.

Since birders and travelers tend to look at maps frequently, it will come as little surprise to most that Point Pelee is south of my home in Michigan. In fact, there are parts of 25 U.S. states that fall on a higher latitude than Pelee. It is not only the southernmost national park in Canada, but the southernmost point of land in the country, period.

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Orioles were easy to spot in the forests at Point Pelee National Park/Sarah Adams

Despite its position in the “tropics” of Canada, I was not expecting to see a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on my trip to Point Pelee. Scissor-tails are denizens of the south-central U.S. and northern Mexico. They’re spectacular birds, relatives of the less flashy flycatchers we have in the north, but sporting a ridiculously long forked tail. They just look tropical.

When my wife and I arrived in Leamington, Ontario, we checked into our hotel and immediately high-tailed it to the park for some birding before dinner, because that’s what birders do in a new locale. We took in some sights near the visitor center then decided to head back north out of the park for a quick dinner. On the way out, we saw the turn-off for the famous Marsh Boardwalk and made a very brief stop there for no reason other than a desire to see the place that is immortalized in so many photographs of Point Pelee National Park.

We fell in behind a crowd of birders on the boardwalk who were all staring at the tops of some willows on the edge of the vast marsh. That’s usually a good sign. I was about to give the traditional birder-to-birder greeting in this situation (“Do we have something good here?”) but before I could get a word out, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher burst out of the willows and hawked some bugs from the air. He displayed a bit and returned to the willows to a chorus of ooohs and aaahs from the crowd. There may have even been some applause.

By a stroke of phenomenal luck, we’d just seen a bird that was far out-of-range and likely a life-bird for many of those present. Birders from Virginia and Quebec were exchanging high-fives while I introduced myself to a fellow Michigander whose name I recognized from the birder listservs back home. If we didn’t see another bird the rest of the trip, it was worth the drive for that serendipitous encounter with a flycatcher on the Marsh Boardwalk. We did, however, miss dinner.

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The tower along the Marsh Boardwalk brought birders eye-to-eye with the forest canopy/Kirby Adams.

The person for whom that bird might have meant more than to anyone else in the park just happened to be one of Point Pelee’s very own staff. Sarah Rupert is the interpretation co-coordinator for the park and a lifelong Pelee birder. She’d first missed a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in the park by five minutes as a little girl 32 years earlier. As the years went by, several more vagrant Scissor-tails showed up at Pelee and around southern Ontario, but Sarah missed every one for one reason or other. For her, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was what we call a nemesis bird.

When I met Sarah the following day, she was still beaming over the sighting. Everyone knew the bird was her nemesis. She’d even adopted it as the logo for her art studio. When it had first been seen that Friday afternoon, most of the people associated with the festival had one goal: Get Sarah that bird!

It’s a secret joy of birding that you don’t learn about until you get to do it, that it is almost as exciting, if not more so, to help someone else get a lifer than it is to get one yourself. When someone’s nemesis shows up, you drop everything and make sure that person has a clear path to the bird. That’s how birders are, and the birders of Point Pelee are among the most passionate and gracious I’ve encountered. That was the shouting I heard around the tower behind me when the flycatcher appeared. Everyone was making sure Sarah had gotten the bird.

She had, and it was the 340th bird she’d tallied in the Pelee area. When we sat down to chat about the festival and the Point Pelee experience, we spent half our time sharing Scissor-tailed Flycatcher stories. The one thing birders love as much as looking at birds is talking about looking at birds. We eventually got around to discussing the nitty-gritty of park management and interpretation. I couldn’t help but feel that Point Pelee felt more like one of the national wildlife refuges in the United States, rather than one of our national parks. The focus is truly on habitat preservation, which often takes a necessarily backseat to recreational activities in U.S. national parks.

When I asked Sarah what she would most want people to know about the park, other than the obviously good birding, she immediately pointed to the habitat restoration projects. Removal of invasive species and restoration of historically open savannah habitat is ongoing within the park. Some of the restoration sites look a little rough during the process, but the end result is worth a year or two of down time.

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Free shuttle buses help you navigate the park/Kirby Adams

Point Pelee National Park has a close relationship with its friends group as well as local tourism councils. Everyone seems to be on board with doing what’s right for the birds, recognizing that what’s good for the birds is good for tourism. It’s a lesson a few other parks I know of could take to heart. Whether it’s the savannah restoration, the development of a birding app for Essex County, or bringing a superstar like David Sibley in for the spring festival, there is a concerted effort with clear goals. Even if I hadn’t seen any good birds at all, I’d want to support what they’re doing up there (down there?) at Point Pelee.

Of course, I did see plenty of birds, not to mention plenty of birders. The only vehicle access in the park is a road down the west side of the acute triangle of the Point Pelee Peninsula jutting into Lake Erie. A little more than a mile before The Tip, as the apex of the triangle is known, the road is closed to all traffic except the free shuttle service sponsored by the Friends of Point Pelee. It would seem like it would be crowded and congested, but it flows smoothly. All along the main road are turnouts for various beaches, historic homesteads, the famous Marsh Boardwalk, and other sites. You can drive along and pull off here and there as the mood strikes you.

On Friday evening, we explored the DeLaurier Homestead, a historic house and barn. A wealth of good migrant birds made themselves visible throughout the early evening. I managed to find a good nesting bird for our group when a Yellow-breasted Chat made himself available in a bushy, open area. Chats are another southern and western bird that isn’t common at Point Pelee, though they used to be regular nesters. Apparently our sighting was the first in several days despite the thousands of eyes looking for them. First–time Pelee luck? If so, I wasn’t complaining.

More Orchard Orioles and Baltimore Orioles than I’d ever seen in one location filled the woods around the homestead. And just when it got too dark to see the bright orange birds anymore, we heard the tell-tale peeent of an American Woodcock. Moments later, the woodcock launched into its spectacular courtship flight display, spiraling hundreds of feet into the air, and then tumbling like a falling leaf back to the exact spot from which it left.

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Scarlet tanagers were in attendance for the birding festival/Kirby Adams

Bright and early Saturday morning, we joined Ian Shanahan of Ontario’s Quest Nature Tours. As an all-around naturalist, Ian was a wealth of information about more than just the birds. Our tour stopped to admire insects, trees, and wildflowers. During migration you never know exactly where the best birds are going to be at any given time. We weren’t hitting the jackpot in the woods near the visitor center, so we all hopped on the shuttle and ventured down to The Tip. The woods crawls right up to the beach near the tip of the peninsula, making the sandy beach a long bird-viewing walkway. We got great looks at gnatcatchers, warblers, thrushes, and a particularly delightful Scarlet Tanager. The star of the beach was a different tanager, though, a female Summer Tanager. Summer Tanagers are another bird with more of a southern tendency that still venture up to this part of Ontario in small numbers. That was the third unexpected bird for me, making me think the unexpected should be expected at Point Pelee.

I wasn’t the only one to be pleasantly surprised by Pelee. I’ve traveled a good bit for birding, but far less than some birders have. Among those would be folks like Cameron Cox and Ken Behrens, co-authors of the Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching and leaders for the Tropical Birding tour company. Ken and Cameron have traveled the world on birding adventures, but like me, were experiencing spring migration at Point Pelee for the first time.

Being seawatchers, they spent most of their day, every day, at The Tip scanning Lake Erie. Waterfowl and gulls of many types delighted everyone who spent time facing lake-ward on the beach. On one morning, a remarkable feeding frenzy erupted with thousands of birds, including Red-breasted Mergansers, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Double-crested Cormorants, and several other species all attacking the water in a small area. It was a bad morning to be a fish out there, but a great day to be a lake-watcher.

Cameron and Ken were mightily impressed with the spectacle, and when the guys who literally wrote the book on seawatching like what they see, you know it’s a good show! I ran into Cameron a couple days after the frenzy, and like Sarah and her flycatcher, he was still excited about what he’d gotten to see at The Tip. He gave a free presentation in the visitor center’s spacious theater about waterbird identification, including photos from the seawatching guide that were even more impressive on the screen than in the book.

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Birding on the beach offered the best of sea birds and those that prefer forests/Kirby Adams

My whirlwind tour of Point Pelee continued with a quick jaunt outside the park to the nearby Hillman Marsh Conservation Area. Hillman is managed as shorebird habitat for spring migration. The parade of “southern” birds continued when a Prothonotary Warbler showed up right beside the parking lot. A short walk past the mob of birders watching the warbler brought us to the marsh. Dozens of Black-bellied Plovers wandered around in the muddy areas.

A scan with the scope produced a couple American Golden Plovers in the mix. Both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs were standing in the deeper water, while a huge flock of Dunlin moved to and fro. The highlight of Hillman Marsh on this day was, as had become expected, a highly unexpected bird. Three American Avocets relaxed far out in the wetland, venturing further east than is typical for them. Avocets aren’t a mega-rarity in Ontario, but they’re enough of a draw that the parking attendant at Hillman asked if we needed directions to the avocets. Birders are easy to please. Just point us to the avocets.

Back at the visitor center, our all-too-brief stay at Point Pelee was wrapping up. We chatted with a woman who had wandered a little bit down the shuttle road and found a patch of blooming jack-in-the-pulpits. She pulled out a portable chair and sketch pad and went to work while birders strolled past, pointing at warblers or chatting about what they hoped to find at The Tip. It’s all very laid back at Point Pelee. It’s crowded, to be sure, but it doesn’t feel crowded. It’s not like Old Faithful on a summer Saturday or the Big Meadow at Shenandoah in early October. The pace is slower. The only frenzy is the ducks and gulls catching fish and the warblers heading north for a date with a nest. And maybe a little bit of excitement when a weird flycatcher pops out of the willows.

I had a commitment in Ohio, so our time at Pelee had to end. I ran into Keith Barnes, the director at Tropical Birding. Keith has birded everywhere. He’s a South African who lives in Taiwan, but at any given time you’re likely to find him somewhere else exotic. He was bound for Svalbard the following week. This afternoon he was in Ontario, and he was loving it.

“Ohio is fabulous for warblers,” he told me, “but almost every other aspect of migration is better at Point Pelee.”

One of the things Keith enjoyed most was the spectacle of reverse migration. It’s a little-understood phenomenon in which migrating birds come across Lake Erie on their way north and then inexplicably turn around and disappear over the lake back toward Ohio.

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Scoping Hillman Marsh/Kirby Adams

I’m not a photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but Keith assured me Pelee had some unique traits to appeal to the bird photographer. The trees leaf-out a little later on the cooler peninsula, allowing easier photography of migrants that show up a little later in May. The proximity of the beach to the warbler-drenched woodland is also a favorite with photographers. A warbler framed against a beach is a unique image to be sure.

One thing Keith and I both found to be remarkable about the festival at Point Pelee was the knowledge and friendliness of the local birders. I think Sarah Rupert single-handedly welcomed every birder to the park in between giving talks on warbler identification and ticking off that 340th bird.

The Friends of Point Pelee, Ontario Field Ornithologists, and Quest Nature Tours staffs were also warm and welcoming hosts. And while Keith was too humble to say so, his crew with the Tropical Birding hats was a highlight of the festival for a lot of birders. These people are the rock stars of our hobby, except unlike snooty celebrities, they’re just like we are, excited to see a sparrow eating a potato chip in the parking lot and happy to share a birding tale or five.

Leamington, the gateway town for the park, is a delightful community. It’s undoubtedly aware of its position as a tourist gateway, but I didn’t detect a hint of the kitsch you often find in such places. It’s also a remarkably ethnically diverse town. Keith Barnes was disappointed his hotel didn’t serve food, but was happy to find everything from Yellow Perch to authentic tacos to Vietnamese Pho available in town. Then he discovered the hotel hosts were originally from New Delhi and convinced them to cook up some Butter Chicken Masala.

“That is the kind of hospitality you can’t buy anywhere,” said the man who has been everywhere.

You can’t buy a fabulous birding experience just anywhere either. But for the modest cost of admission at Point Pelee, it’s almost a guarantee.