Tuesday, 17 May 2022

The Point of Point Pelee National Park: All the Birds!

We just finished our four day trip to Point Pelee National Park with the addition of a rare and unexpected Bell’s Vireo before heading out to Rondeau Provincial Park for the remainder of our migration week.  We saw 132 species in four days and I added 31 species to the Big Year List.  

I kind of cheated and took a day trip to Rondeau on my own, the previous week.There was a White-faced Ibis and Henslow’s Sparrow there and I knew I couldn’t miss either.  I started with the ibis on the Erieau Marsh Trail, on a very windy, chilly and wet morning.  These guys are much easier to see in Texas, but not during a Canada Big Year, so I braved the stiff winds and got my photo and quickly headed back to the car and my seat warmers and still warm coffee.

Next up was the Henslow’s Sparrow on the Marsh Trail in Rondeau Provincial Park.  By the time I got there the rain had let up, the winds had died down and target sparrow was nowhere to be seen.  But there were a friendly group of birders hungry for this rare sighting, so the time was enjoyable while we awaited its return.  Eventually it did show up and I was able to spot it for a fellow birder and get my own photos of yet another Canadian Lifer, species 426 for Canada.

A week later we were on the road to Point Pelee. We arrived late Monday morning and you need to know two things when you first start birding in southern Ontario: 

1: Point Pelee National Park is the place to be in May, if your want to see the most warblers and other spring migrants.

2: If you get to the park after 7:00am you may not get a parking spot near the Visitor Centre.  

We took heed of step one, but on this day, neglected step two, as we left from Brantford just before 7:00am. We weren’t in a hurry and planned a later arrival on Day One, since we would be birding down here all week.  We started at Hillman Marsh Conservation Area, but all we were seeing were Dunlin, aside from the cutest ever baby Kildeer on a nearby side road.

Visit Birders Nearby

So we made our way to the National Park and zipped right in with our swipe pass.  It’s a bit of a drive down to the Visitor Centre parking lot, and once we did get close, the road was blocked and we were told it was full.  What else should we have expected at 10:00am?  We were directed to an overflow lot that was also full, and told to turn around and perhaps circle back and hope a spot came available.  Parking at Pelee is like getting a good parking spot in Manhattan.  No one wants to give it up.  However, as we were getting close to the point of no return, a car miraculously pulled out in front of us and we were able to park in the overflow lot, not that much further from the main lot, and it was a good spot to return to for lunch.

We made our way directly to the Woodland Trail, behind the Visitor Centre, though I did stop for a coffee and a long look at a frosted donut.  I just took the coffee and Sue and I headed to the trail.  It didn’t take long to be seeing birds.  First up, was a White-eyed Vireo, not new for the year, but a very nice bird to start the list.  Point Pelee has a 100 bird challenge and once you reach that number, you can present your list at the Visitor Centre and receive a commemorative pin. I got mine on the third morning and promptly lost it.  I did go back the last morning we were there and someone had returned it and I safely stowed it in a pocket this time.

Another thing you need to know about Point Pelee is that the cell service is not good at the best of times and nonexistent most of the time.  That means word of mouth and looking for large congregations of birders is the best way to discover rare sightings in the park.  Once we made it down to The Tip, that’s where the real action started.  With this being the first festival after a two year break due to some kind of Global Pandemic, birders were eager to get out and share the excitement of finding spring warblers with others they hadn’t seen since 2019.

Hundreds of birders were gathered at the tip and every time a novel bird landed, we all flocked in the same direction, with the same migrating instinct the birds exhibit as they head from places far south to find their mates and nesting grounds.  The birds, having just travelled across the lake after, in some cases, thousands of miles in the air, were often so tired they were just sitting on the ground or hopping around on the rocks at the edge of Lake Erie.  The tip of Point Pelee is is the furthest southern point in Canada and is the first land the birds see as they finish their lake crossing.

Over the next few days we chased all the rare warbles that were being found, with, at first, less than stellar results.  But finally, we started catching up with some of the tougher spring warblers, including Cerulean, Hooded and the one we’ve all been waiting for, the Canada Warbler.

The beautiful Cerulean Warbler, one of the few non-yellow Warblers:

Hooded Warbler:

Canada Warbler, Many a Birder’s Personal Favorite:

I had been unsuccessfully chasing reports of rare spring migrants, and even once had to text and call Sue to race back to the park for a reported Kirtland’s Warbler.  She came back, a little frustrated because she was driving to a flower seller she wanted to visit outside the park,  and had to pull over to read my texts and answer the phone.  I walked while she drove back and eventually we got to the reported spot, but the Kirtland’s was nowhere to be found.  On the upside, there was a pair of cuckoos,(well to be honest there were more than a pair!).

Yellow-billed Cuckoo:

Black-billed Cuckoo:

On the last two days we where to be at Pelee, things even got better.  We were seeing Woodcock, Wood Thrush, Wilson’s Warbler and even a tired Least Bittern sitting in a tree at the Tip. Then we ran into friends of ours, Ellen and Jerry, who we bird with in Brantford, and things really got exciting.  Ellen had found a Mourning Warbler, one of the stealthy and tougher birds to see, and Sue and I were searching for it, when Ellen called to let us know she and Jerry had one right in front of them.  We got back in the car and drove quickly to the main parking lot and Ellen guided us to the correct spot and, yes there it was!  As we were chatting, Ellen mentioned that she had heard a Bell’s Vireo was being seen the West Beach.  That is indeed a rare bird for Canada and one I had only seen once or twice in the US.  

We drove and walked quickly over to the West Beach trail to the shores of Lake Erie, where, in a grove of bushes a large group of excited birders were searching for the bird.  Were we too late?  Did I miss another Pelee rarity?  My fears were put to rest when the bird finally popped out into the open and I even was able to get some photos.  Thanks to Ellen and Jerry I had species 335 and 336 for the year!

Mourning Warbler:

Least Bittern:

Wilson’s Warbler:

Bell’s Vireo:

Wood Thrush:

American Woodcock:

The final and maybe most exciting bird for the Point Pelee Park List, before we headed off to Rondeau Provincial Park, was a Mississippi Kite.  Sue was attending a shore bird talk by the illustrious Gene Iron, and I was birding on my own for a couple of hours.  I ran into one of the bird hike guides and he mentioned how good the winds were for hawks and especially Mississippi Kites that morning.  So, as I walked and birded, I kept my eyes on the sky and as I was walking back to the Visitor Centre to meet up with Sue, a Turkey Vulture caught my eye, and in close pursuit behind it, was a smaller bird. I got my binoculars on it and could see it was very light underneath with dark wings and a small white head. I had one of the most sought after birds for the park, and species 337 for the year.  

We left Pelee having seen over 120 species in just 4 days, which qualified us for commemorative 100 species pins they were handing out, which was cool.  We had picked them up the previous day and I promptly lost mine, having pinned it to my camera strap.  Just before we were headed to the car to drive out to Rondeau, we stopped by the Visitor Centre and I told my story of having lost the pin.  The nice woman behind the counter, smiled and and reached onto a shelf and handed me a pin that had been found on the path outside the door and handed in.  A nice way to end our trip to one of the best Spring Migration hotspots in all of North America.

Mississippi Kite:

(I didn’t get photos of the one in Pelee, but I did take these in Texas a few years ago)

Monday, 9 May 2022

Bring Forth the Warblers

 Spring Migration.  Kind of feels like my days with the Toronto Blue Jays, and Spring Training.  A new year, a new season, the weather warming up after a long, cold winter, and hope springing eternal, for yet another year.  Everyone starts in first place and the sky is the limit.  Until the games begin, of course.

Just over 4 months into the year, I am holding my own, with my Year List.  But I have been sorely lagging in picking up warblers.  So, with travel outside the province suspended until the end of the month, it’s time to bird the migration Hotspots in Ontario, mainly Point Pelee National Park and Rondeau Provincial Park.  We leave in the morning, and I hope to get an early start.

On Saturday, we drove down to Long Point Provincial Park, and though we didn’t see much in the way of warblers, we did enjoy seeing a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  If you catch them with the sun just right, their throat glows like Dorothy’s ruby-red shoes.

        We caught this one with his tongue hanging out:

Yesterday I got up early and  I drove down to Haldimand County and a cemetery in tiny Decewsville.  You just never know where birding will take you on any given day.  I was looking for a Grasshopper Sparrow and species 300 for the year.  I hit the jackpot there, as I got the sought-after sparrow, but also added a Bobolink, and Eastern Wood-Pewee.

        Grasshopper Sparrow:


My next stop was Rock Point Provincial Park, a place I birded quite frequently last year, since I wasn’t going to Rondeau or Point Pelee, during the Covid shutdowns.  I had found it a good place for early spring warblers activity, and this morning was no exception, including Blackburnian Warbler and American Redstart.  Also about a zillion Yellow Warblers, Yellow-rumpled and a single Cape May Warbler.

Yellow Warbler:

Blackburnian Warbler:

Cape May Warbler:

American Redstart:

It’s early morning on Monday May 9 and we are loading up the car for out trip to Point Pelee National Park.  It’s one of the great spring migration hotspots in North America and thousands of birders have descended on the park this year after a two year hiatus due to Covid-19.  But life is returning to normal and birders across Canada are returning to the field and festivals again.  I can’t wait to see what the winds of spring bring forth!

Thursday, 5 May 2022

That West Coast Birding Vibe and an Amazing Rarity in Ontario

Breaking News: I arrived home from British Columbia to the knowledge that the super rare Marsh Sandpiper was still being seen at the Thedford Sewage Lagoons.  I drove directly there, stopping in Brantford on the way to pick up Sue, and on a dreary and wet afternoon, met up with a bunch of birders and was able to view this incredible bird.  Lifer number 698 for the ABA Area and species 288 for The Big year.  

Now, back to the west coast…

I couldn’t have asked for a better start for my trip to British Columbia than to see a Sooty Grouse in full breeding display.  My BC birding buddy Rich, who is doing a Metro Vancouver Big Year, suggested I visit  Burnaby Mountain where a fellow birder had just been hearing a Sooty Grouse.  I abandoned my search for song birds down at Burnaby Lake, and drove right over.  It was a short drive and an even shorter search.  As I walked up the hill above the parking lot, past the playground and dog walkers, I was already hearing the grouse calling.  Then, to my amazement, the grouse was walking right toward me.  I had to back off a bit so as not to scare it.  It was so close I even got videos with my iPhone.

It was species 263 for year and my fifth new bird of the day, which included west coast specialties Black-throated Gray Warbler and Bewick’s Wren. Still, it was just the start of a magical couple of days on the mainland.  That evening I drove up to Squamish to spend the night and the next morning drove up to Whistler and birded Fitzsimmons Fan Park which borders on a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course, where I got Western Meadowlark, Pacific Wren and even an American Pipit.

The next day I drove up Lillooet, which I am still unable to pronounce, about two hours northeast of Whistler, mainly looking to see a Chukar or Dusky Grouse. I got much more than I bargained for, even though I did not see the intended targets.  I came upon a house with a For Sale sign and a woman in a car stopped to ask me if I was birding.  I told her about my quest for a Chukar and she said I was in the right place, if not at the right time.  Her yard is one of the places they hang out and she gave me permission to walk down the driveway and search.  

And what a yard it was.  Teaming with birds and feeders of every variety.  I had added Cassin’s Finch amongst the many Pine Siskins at the feeders when the homeowner, Ian Routley, arrived with his friend Chris and guided me around his property. He was a little taken aback at first when he saw a stranger on his driveway, but I explained that I had told his wife about my Big Year and she had given permission to enter.  He found a flock of Gray-crowned Rosy Finch on his deck railing, but they had flown off before we could see them up close.  They did come back to his trees shortly thereafter and then the hummingbirds started coming to the feeders, including a Calliope Hummingbird.

We then walked up the driveway listening for Pygmy Nuthatches.  Ian and Chris were hearing them, but I wasn’t picking up the call, so wasn’t going to be able to count them unless they showed.  And boy, did they, a flock of about 45.  I think in previous years seeing them in places like Arizona, seeing one or two was a big deal.  They once’s, like the rosy finches, filled the top of a tree.  I also go really nice looks at a male Mountain Bluebird as a bonus.

After a long drive, ferry ride and another long, late night drive along a twisty, dark road I made it to Tofino and was ready for my pelagic.  I was not really prepared for the tiny finishing boat this trip took out to ocean.  Yes, I had my seasickness patch on and yes I took an anti-sea sickness pill, but after about 4 hours it was too much for many of us and we chummed the sea, so to speak.  No lifers on the trip but the birds were amazing.  Cassin’s Auklet, Marbled Murrelet, Black-footed Albatross, Fork-tailed, Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwater, and even a Western Gull.

Once on dry land I was grateful I had a complete change of clothes in the car, as I was soaked from top to bottom, even though they had put us in these heavy, orange suits.  Turned it they were only for protection against drowning, not to keep us dry.  They trip back was described as the worst conditions they had ever had on a pelagic.  Oh, lucky me.

Once, changed and dried out, I drove over to Chesterman Beach Pacific Rim National Park where I got Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers and the bonus bird of the trip I wasn’t expecting, a Snowy Plover, another Canadian Life Bird.  I headed back to the ferry and a well deserved sleep, before my final day in Vancouver.

I spent my final day in Vancouver fretting over the Marsh Sandpiper sticking around in Ontario, but had a fun time birding with Rich, who helped me find Hutton’s Vireo, Hammond’s Flycatcher, a Least Sandpiper and my two favorites of the day, a Cinnamon Teal and a very friendly and striking Yellow-headed Blackbird.  They Red-winged Blackbirds were even more friendly, landing on my hands and even side view mirror as I was leaving, as if they didn’t want me to leave.  I had to apologize and get going, but did get a Short-billed Dowitcher and a Whimbrel before leaving British Columbia.

The next day, I was flying to Toronto, happy in the knowledge the Marsh Sandpiper had been seen that morning and as soon as I got my car, drove to Brantford to pick up Sue, and calmly as I could, drove to Lambton, Ontario and the Thedford Sewage Lagoons.  Though it was raining, that didn’t dampen the spirits of the birders who were there and with the help of local ambassador Alvin, we got amazing looks at this Canadian celebrity bird, even if the pictures on a gray and wet day did not come out as well.

From eBird, until I have a photo of my own:

What an exciting week it was, and by the time I was unpacking and doing laundry back home in Brantford, and looking forward to sleeping in my own bed, I had 289 species in the books.  Now, it’s May and time to really begin birding during the migration season, so bring forth the warblers! 

Friday, 29 April 2022

Warblers Are in Season

 With May just around the corner and the “official” start of migration season, some warblers have been true early birds.  Case in Point was the Prothonotary Warbler that showed up in Brantford last week and the pair I saw in Point Pelee.  Certainly amongst the most beautiful of the “yellow” warblers of spring, these are often the most coveted of warblers on a birder’s spring “must see” list.

It wasn’t my first warbler of the year, as I had already seen a Yellow-throated Warbler in Nova Scotia in January and more recently the Louisiana Waterthrush, who is not a thrush, but a warbler that likes the water, in Point Pelee National Park, which is where I photographed the above Prothonotary Warbler last weekend.

A couple of days later I was in Toronto, so had a chance to visit Colonel Samuel Smith Park, where it was a reunion, of sorts, with all the birders I had spent much of the past ten years birding with there.  It was also a reunion with the usual first two warblers we see of the season, the Palm and Yellow-rumped.  We also had a Pine Warbler, which is also one of the first to arrive prior to May 1.

Palm Warbler:

Yellow-dumped Warbler,(Myrtle):

Pine Warbler:

Next up on the Warbler Express were one of the most common here in Ontario and one of the rarest.  The Yellow Warbler breeds all through Ontario, Canada and most of the United States, making it a ubiquitous sighting all spring and summer. The Kentucky on the other hand, does not typically nest anywhere in Canada, but rather in the eastern half of the US.  We are lucky, here in Southern Ontario to be on their northward migration route that takes them from their wintering grounds from Mexico to the Yucat√°n Peninsula, up the east coast, and around Lakes Ontario and Erie, before finally arriving in their breeding territories.  A small handful are seen each year and after failing to find one in Point Pelee on Sunday, I did see one in Long Point Provincial Park on Monday.

Kentucky Warbler:

Yellow Warbler:

Some of the other non warbler highlights of the week have been a Loggerhead Shrike, Piping Plover, Sanderling, American Avocet and Eastern Whip-poor-will and Marsh Wren.

Eastern Whip-poor-will:


Distant Loggerhead Shrike:

Piping Plover:

Marsh Wren:

Next stop, British Columbia and my first pelagic of the year!

Saturday, 23 April 2022

Back to The Rock

The clock was running out.  I needed to be at the airport by five o’clock to drop off my rental car and get to my flight.  From where I had been birding in Portugal Cove South, it would be a two hour drive.  I had to leave by 3pm.  However, I had been birding up the coast and was actually an hour north of Portugal cove when Jared, my birding friend from St. John’s, alerted me that the Eurasian Golden-Plovers had been relocated…

The Rock, not the former wrestler turned not half-bad actor, nor the prison on an island in San Francisco, but the island of Newfoundland, has been a pretty good spot for Big Year birds and it did not disappoint on my most resent trip.  A number of Eurasian rarities had blown in and I was off to see how many I could count this past week.  The first place I went, and would keep returning to, was Portugal Cove South, right on the shores of the North Atlantic Ocean.  I was looking for Barnacle Geese.  I had seen a grand total of three individuals on three occasions during my first 10 years of birding. I would see as many, plus one, in my eleventh year.

The drive down to Portugal Cove, along the Avalon Peninsula, is one of the nicest and most scenic in all of Canada.  With stops at places such as Bernard Kavanagh’s Million Dollar view, to the Cape Race Lighthouse, it can’t be beat.  However, the roads are full of twists and turns and potholes and the occasional moose, when driving after dark.  I experienced it all.

When I did finally arrive, the wind was blowing so hard, I couldn’t open my car door, and had to turn the car away from the wind just to get out.  It did not take me long, though, to find a Barnacle Goose.  And then two, three and finally four.  I saw, in one sweep of my binoculars one more than my lifetime total, close as you please, thank you very much.

I birded in and around Newfoundland for a couple of days after that, looking for a few more rarities, but not finding them.  I did see Northern Fulmar and Northern Goshawk on my travels.  On the last morning I decided to try again for the Western Tanager I missed on my first trip.  Though not rare in the west, it was a novelty to have one overwinter in St. John’s.  It turned out to be along a trail off of Portugal Cove Rd, not to be confused with Portugal Cove South, which my GPS was just as confused about as I was.  I was early enough to catch the tanager foraging for breakfast and it put on a nice show for me.

Which brings us up to date with my last afternoon on The Rock.  I drove back to Portugal Cove South, on another windy day, and spent the rest of the morning scanning for the plovers.  I found the Barnacle Geese again, this time on a distant island, but no European vagrants.  A couple of other birders were also driving the roads looking into people’s yards and they, too, were not having much success.  It was getting toward lunch and I thought I might head up to The Million Dollar View restaurant.  But when I arrived I discovered it had not yet opened for the season, but The Captain’s Table, further up the road was.  

So I drove on, further and further from where I should have been, when Jared informed me that a friend of his, John Praddy had found them.  I turned around and raced back down the twisty-turny road, noticing that in the proceeding day they had filled many of the potholes, allowing me to drive at a constant pace back toward my destination.  

When I arrived, John was sitting at the corner in his car, and motioned for me to follow him in my rental.  A short drive up the road, and we pulled into a driveway and walked around back of a barn, steps from the ocean and in high, buffeting winds.  And there, before us was not one, but four of the European Golden-Plovers.  Lifers! And a great bird for my Big Year.  I fist bumped John and thanked him for his help and texted Jared that I owed him a steak dinner when I returned to once again Bird the Rock. 

I was then the magic hour, 3pm and I had to drive the two hours straight back to St. John’s to catch my return flight to Ontario.  I thought it rather cool that on the same day, I saw rare birds from Western Canada and Europe, on opposite ends of the province, yet both had Portugal Cove in their names.  How’s that for rare bird chasing symmetry?