Martin Bowman of Williamstown, Ont., Ted Goshulak of Langley, B.C., and (nouveau Calgarian) I spent 15-20 May 2006 birding Pt. Pelee and environs. Our base was Boosey Creek (no alcohol allowed) campground in Wheatley, about a twenty-minute drive from the park. Martin and I had birded Pt. Pelee together in 2001. He had no prospects for lifers; I was hoping for at least one of Red Knot, Whimbrel, Virginia, Rail, Glaucous Gull, Little Gull, and Worm-eating Warbler; Ted had about 10 lifer possibilities among warblers alone.
I’d had a bit of a warm-up on the 13th and 14th. I spent a couple of hours in a ravine in Sir Winston Churchill Park in Toronto on the morning of both days and ended up with 12 species of warbler, including at least four singing Northern Parulas (we saw only three at Pelee) and a couple of birds that I failed to see or hear at Pelee, including Winter Wren, Black-billed Cuckoo, and Red-tailed Hawk. It was a good warm up for “warbler-ing” by ear. For one thing, I learned the Nashville Warbler’s song by initially misidentifying it as that of a Tennessee and then noticing that it was more melodic and that it had only two parts. Further sightings, later on the 14th, included Osprey, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Brown Creeper, and a Brewster’s Warbler backcross that was singing a Golden-winged song—all four also Pelee misses, and all seen at or near my Toronto hosts’ cabin on Snake Island on Lake Simcoe.
Back to Wheatley. Ted’s brother had lent us a considerable amount of camping gear, including three tarps, which we managed to set up, along with our tents, just before the thunderstorm hit. Undaunted, we decided to head off in the car to nearby Highlands Campground (#108) in order to answer a question Martin had about American Woodcocks: Do they fly when it rains? Yes, declared the bird, which “peented” nearby and then zig-zagged aloft, calling, as it fluttered in place overhead, before plummeting to earth scant meters away from us. My best look ever, and Ted’s first lifer.
It rained all night.
Day One (15 May). When we got up the next morning it was still raining lightly. I could imagine Gregg Allman belting out:
They call me stormy Monday,
Tuesday’s just as bad,
Wednesday’s even worse,
Thursday’s also sad.
The eagle flies on Friday . . . .
It rained, to a greater or lesser degree, every day (and we actually did see an eagle fly on Friday). I restrained my melancholy by quoting Job’s words to his despairing wife: “Shall we accept goodness from the Lord and not adversity?” To make matters worse, as I quickly discovered, my gortex jacket had lost its impermeability. Fortunately, Martin’s wife Gillian had put a garish purple rain poncho in with his camping gear.
We took the balade (shuttle) to the tip. At the stop we encountered the Carolina Wrens that had built their nest behind a sign on the washroom wall. As we made our way down the boardwalk we could hear Black-throated Green Warblers struggling to make the verbal transition from “zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee” to “zed-zed-zed-zoo-zed” as they crossed the forty-second parallel. One of my favorite warblers, one that I’d only heard and seen about three times during my last visit, the Black-throated Blue, was singing its burry interrogative song from a nearby thicket. Then it came into full view, giving Ted his first lifer warbler of the trip. At the tip, a Horned Grebe was wallowing in the waves with a flock of Double-Crested Cormorants over the now submerged sandbar that was once the point.
On our way back to the Visitors’ Center we got the balade driver to drop us off at the entrance to the Woodland Trail. Someone informed us that a Kentucky Warbler had recently been seen a few hundred meters farther south. We found the crowd, heard the song, “pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty,” but got only fleeting looks until the bird decided to perch in the open, tilt its head, and give us an aria worthy of Ben Heppner.
The rain picked up, but we decided to keep heading south. Then I heard “zeewa-zeewa-zeewa-ti-ti-ti-zee.” “Cerulean!” The others managed to piece together an identikit impression of the bird, which was high up in a tree and inaccessible to my fogged-up binoculars. Time to splurge on a nitrogen-purged pair. At any rate the bird was a Canadian first for me and Ted’s third lifer in minutes.
After a lunch of veggie burgers and sausages at the Friends of Pt. Pelee concession stand (a great service to birders) we checked the sightings board and, after a brief foray into Tilden’s Woods that yielded a roosting Eastern Screech Owl, decided to head north to Pioneer. Martin soon found the plain yellow warbler that was our target. “Notice the white outer tail feathers,” he called, as the bird headed into the brush, “definite female Hooded.” Some other birders then called our attention to a Canada Warbler just around bend in the trail. How striking was the combination of slaty back, yellow underparts, and black necklace!
As we drove along, we noticed a group of photographers with their bazooka-like telephoto lenses clustered around a woodpile. We decided to drop by and check on the source of the excitement. The bazooka birders happily pointed out a Wilson’s Warbler (like the Canada and the Hooded (and a Pine we’d seen earlier) our only instance of that particular species during the trip) that was preening itself two meters away in the tangle. We backed off, recalling Tom Hince’s comment from his guide to Pt. Pelee, that such birds are under great stress (even if they do look nonchalant) and should never be approached closer than about five meters.
We saw nineteen species of warbler for the day, including Chestnut-sided, Nashville, Cape May, Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, and Magnolia—three of which were lifers for Ted. A brief stop at Delaurier yielded a pair of Wild Turkeys. A trip to Hillman Marsh later that afternoon produced Dunlin, a few ducks, and, unusual for these parts, a Mute Swan. We had 91 species for the day.
Day 2 (16 May). The rain became more intermittent. As did the birds, and we had to work to find the remaining pockets of them. A Mourning Warbler, which we observed from the boardwalk just south of the tip balade stop, and a Blue-winged Warbler, which posed while we were waiting for the Mourning to reappear, provided the only excitement of the morning.
We also tactfully (I thought) confronted someone who was using a “squeaker” to attract birds. Such confrontations do have the potential to create “excitement,” but this birder was apologetic and quick to desist. Park rules prohibit using any kind of noise to attract birds, since most species are exhausted, stressed, and desperately in need of food by the time they’ve crossed Lake Erie. Unfortunately, as far as we could tell, this regulation is nowhere explicitly stated by way of signs (as it is, for example in Scheelite Canyon in Southeastern Arizona).
After lunch we checked out the trail that runs from the parking lot at the Visitors’ Center to the beach. A group of people was clustered around one opening in the bush, and we managed to see the Palm Warbler (new for Ted) that they were watching. Someone had also reported a Yellow-breasted Chat here, so we hung around. I heard the bird, or so I thought, and pointed out the characteristic elements of its song. Then a Gray Catbird emerged, and I had to eat my words. But not for long, for soon the chat, which had been singing at the same time, perched on a snag in full view belted out several jumbled arias as if in testimony to its French name: paruline polyglotte. Martin, knowing my interest in French, was always feeding me the French names for birds (which are usually more descriptive than their often whimsical English counterparts—how about paruline à gorge grise (gray-throated warbler) for Connecticut and paruline à couronne rousse (rusty-crowned warbler) for Palm?)
A Northern Harrier flew over shortly thereafter, but soon things really began to slow down. Time for a visit to the Harrow sewage lagoons. We drove west from Pelee, past stately turn-of-the-(20th)-century farmhouses, fields, orchards, habitat-gobbling greenhouses, and the occasional lakeside luxury subdivision. The countryside was pool-table flat (the Prairies seem mountainous by comparison), and the mounded lagoons looked like eroded Mayan ruins from a distance. We found Lesser Yellowlegs, Hooded Merganser, a duck that was to a Greater or Lesser degree a Scaup, and all six resident species of swallow. In all we had 78 species for the day.
Day 3 (17 May) Every trip to Pt. Pelee should include a trip to Rondeau Provincial Park, and so today over breakfast we decided that we would head there if we didn’t have exceptional action at Pelee. Things started off well, with a Laughing Gull at the point (a Canadian lister for all three of us), a female Prothonotary near the tip (Ted’s first ever, and as I later discovered, the 30th species of warbler I’d seen at Pelee proper), another Blue-winged Warbler, and then a Red-headed Woodpecker near the now decidedly unfield-like Sparrow Fields. And we never lacked for Scarlet Tanagers or Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. The woodpecker and the warbler were two of the chief attractions of Rondeau, so we seriously considered postponing our excursion.
Then the birds started to peter out to “just a few bits and bobs” (small change) as a visiting British birder put it. Moreover, the sensory overload, fatigue, and our aural rustiness after a long winter of birdsong drought led to a couple of confidence-sapping misidentifications: the song of a hoped-for White-eyed Vireo turning out to be that of an Orchard Oriole, that of a putative Northern Parula becoming, on further reflection, that of a “mere” Blackburnian. Lassitude set in, and it was time for a change of venue.
What do you talk about when the birding starts to drag? The Wood Thrushes singing in the distance got Martin and me thinking about the one we’d seen mounting its mate our last time here. Each of us had had at least one such experience of ornithological voyeurism, and we began to think that a list of birds seen copulating might be fun to keep. Put that in your Avisys!
After lunch we headed out to Rondeau. In this and in the rest of our travels we found Tom Hince’s A Birder’s Guide to Point Pelee very helpful, since the roads in Essex and adjoining counties are sometimes poorly signed or only signed in one direction. At any rate, just east of Wheatley on Highway 34 I happened to notice a flock of shorebirds in a field to the north. We stopped, took out the scopes, and had great views of hundreds of Black-bellied Plover; along with scores of Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstones, and Short-billed Dowitchers (all of which successfully resisted being converted into Red Knots). At one point the birds spooked. We could hear the rush of their wings as they flew low overhead, and we were momentarily transported back to a lost age of avian abundance.
Rondeau was also slow, but it produced some trip firsts on the Tulip Tree Trail: Hairy Woodpecker (try finding that at Pelee) and a Northern Waterthrush singing from a perch several meters above the boardwalk. Then our second Prothonotary Warbler of the day, a male this time. We loved this robust little bird with its golden-yellow head and underparts, white undertail, greenish back, and slaty wings. Martin backtracked on his preference for French bird names “Paruline orangée” (Orangy Warbler) just doesn’t do it justice,” he lamented.
Along the South Point Trail we had considerable success, even picking up Northern Mockingbird in a lakeside yard on the way. Particularly significant for Martin was his first-ever Tufted Titmouse in Canada (it was a Canadian lister for all three of us). We also found Brown Thrasher, our first American Redstart of the trip, and at least five Red-headed Woodpeckers, some of which allowed us to get close enough for a decent digital photo.
We then headed out to Blenheim sewage lagoons (Martin had picked up a permit and the combination to the lock at the local municipal office earlier in the day). Here we happened on a flock of Lesser Yellowlegs and another of Ruddy Ducks, and, quite by accident, an Eastern Meadowlark. By this time we’d seen more than 90 species and were desperately trying to find Rock Pigeon in case we needed one for a century day. Ted finally found three roosting on the sign of the Cadillac Tavern in downtown Blenheim.
Then it was back to Rondeau for the caprimulgid extravaganza that was supposed to begin over the parking lot at around 8:50, according to one of the Rondeau staff. We headed down the Tulip Tree Trail while we waited, keeping our eyes on the thunderstorm that was moving in from the west. On our way back a Whip-poor-will called once, and then a Chuck-will’s-widow uttered its name several times. Martin followed it and managed to see it both perched and flying. Meanwhile the rain had begun, cancelling the show in the parking lot, but not dampening the spirits of an amorous airborne American Woodcock. We finished with 97 species on the day.
It rained all night.
Day 4 (18 May). As on most mornings, a sinister squadron of about 20 Turkey Vultures was kiting over the tip, as if to proclaim, to the scores of birders below, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Why couldn’t they just do something useful, such as cleaning up the dead perch and drum on the beach. Today the vultures were joined by an immature Bald Eagle. We spent the morning poking around the point and Tilden Woods in search of increasingly sparse migrants, never sure whether we were hearing Bay-breasted or Black and White Warblers whenever one of those two species (among the more common warblers) happened to vocalize. Eventually we decided to visit the marsh observation tower to see if we could see the American White Pelicans (rare for Pelee) that had been reported. They were there indeed, about a kilometer away, white blobs on the horizon.
That afternoon we headed north, stopping at Comber to visit the Big ‘O’ Woods Conservation Area, which had produced a number of good sightings for Martin last May. This time it was a total bust, and then the rain began again. We made our convoluted way to Grande Pointe, a fishing camp on Lake St. Clair, which lies at the end of appropriately-named Angler Line (west off CR 43 which runs north from the village of Grande Prairie near Chatham). Here we found Yellow-headed Blackbird (locally rare) at a roadside marsh and not much else. We’d come here because the blackbirds hadn’t been reported at St. Clair National Wildlife Area, our next stop. St. Clair NWA produced only one bird of significance after a two-kilometer walk in a gale: Marsh Wren. We saw or heard a mere 68 species on this our most unproductive day. It was a sort of Birdie Bailathon. One of Martin’s Montreal friends had done her Bailey Birdathon the day before and had had a century day. She was among the ten or so Montrealers who joined us for supper at The Fish Place that evening. The meal was a pleasant end to a frustrating day; tomorrow could only be better.
Day 5 (19 May). As usual, we headed down to the point after checking the list of sightings at the Visitors’ Center. A Lesser Black-backed Gull had been reported, a possible lifer for me. It’s an ill wind that blows no good, and the one that earlier this year had helped wash away the long tapering sand spit that used to constitute “the point,” is a case in, well, point, since all roosting gulls and shorebirds now tend to be concentrated on the fifty-meter stub that remains. On this particular windy morning Dunlin, stunning Ruddy Turnstones, and Sanderlings were scurrying about on the sand, while Herring , Ring-billed, and Bonaparte’s Gulls rested on the spit. At the water’s edge was a pair of large gulls that looked different from the rest. What struck me most about them was their all-black bulbous bills. I remembered that the Lesser Black-backed has an all-dark bill. The birder next to me, who seemed to be quite skilled, thought they were Lessers, “but you should ask that guy over there, he’s the expert,” he said. The expert agreed that they were Lessers. “But what about the size of their bills and the fact that they look even bigger than the Herring Gulls?” I countered, showing him the illustration in Sibley. “Sometimes you can’t trust the illustrations,” he replied. Something restrained me from celebrating, however, and Martin suggested I pose the same question to Jean Iron, an expert birder who’d just arrived at the tip. She assured me that the illustration was correct, and that the two birds I’d been observing were in fact Great Black-backed Gulls.
That afternoon, we decided to return to the tip just in case. I scanned the roosting gulls and found one that had an all dark bill and that was slightly larger than the nearby Ring-billeds, but smaller than the Herrings. It also had a brownish cast to it, which brought to mind the French term that had been written on the sightings map in the Visitors’ Center, goéland brun (brown gull), aka LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL. High fives from Martin and Ted followed. It was my only lifer of the trip.
Further poking around Tilden Woods produced Black-Throated Blue Warbler, a bird I never tire of seeing or hearing, and finally, high up in a tree, and singing its alternate song, a Northern Parula, the last of the relatively common warblers remaining on Ted’s desiderata list. We then found two roosting Eastern Screech Owls and, with the help of a Danish couple, a nesting Cooper’s Hawk.
We then happened upon a couple of Martin’s francophone friends, who reported a Common Loon off East Beach. We found Common Goldeneye and Red-breasted Merganser, which does have a decidedly loon-like jizz. On our way back we bumped into another couple who claimed to have seen a loon just north of where we’d seen the merganser. “Are you sure it wasn’t a Red-breasted Merganser?” Ted asked. “I beg your pardon; we know what we saw!” came the response. Barely managing to keep from laughing, we rushed off to the place in question and found a Horned Grebe and, you guessed it, a Red-breasted Merganser. We later saw the couple again, but didn’t have the heart to ask them whether their loon had had a Horned Grebe as a traveling companion.
After a steady trickle of sightings, including an American Woodcock that we blundered into near Pioneer while in search of a reported Summer Tanager, we got itchy feet and decided that it would be a good time to take in nearby Kopegaron Woods. Here the highlight was a singing Kentucky Warbler that we heard from the middle of the boardwalk. Then it was off to rain-swollen Hillman Marsh, where we found Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, and a couple of other species of waterfowl that were new to the trip list. But not the hoped-for Whimbrel. “This is the way the day ends: not with a bang or a Whimbrel,” Martin teased.
On the way home I decided to count up the day’s total: 97! But we were famished and not at all inclined to try to chase down the ever-elusive Rock Pigeon to add to our list. Things got really exciting when Ted discovered a Green Heron on the far shore of the creek behind our campsite. Then a crow (which we hadn’t yet recorded that day) vocalized in the distance. But that was where our luck ran out.
Day 6 (20 May). We arose early so that we could get in a couple of hours birding after breaking camp. Just before breakfast a Common Loon flew over, then a Red-bellied Woodpecker gave its churring call, and we realized that we’d all had a century day of sorts: 100 species in the past 24 hours. We arrived at the tip around 8:30 knowing we’d have to quit around 10:30 if we expected to drive the four hours to Pearson Airport by Ted’s and my check-in time. In the Visitors’ Center we bumped into a birder who told us that he’d had 16 species of warbler alone on the East Beach, and off we went. Right at the sign for 42nd Parallel we heard what sounded to me like a flycatcher, but which Martin correctly identified as a White-eyed Vireo. The pent up migrants had finally crossed the lake, it seemed.
Warblers were all over the place, and we even managed to find a Blackpoll, warbler number 29 for the trip. Then someone called “Northern Parula!” and we got great looks at a bird that was, at times, only a few meters above our heads. Three or four Cape Mays turned up as well. We’d only seen one Cape May to that point, and warblers of all kinds just kept on coming. Other families were also putting on a show, and we even managed to see a Red-breasted Nuthatch.
We finished with at least 18 species of warbler and 56 total species for the two hours. But how had we failed to find the relatively common Orange-crowned Warbler for our trip list?
Despite the inclement weather and the absence of fallouts during this trip (Martin and I had experienced one here on 17 May 2001) Martin and I actually saw two more species this time than we had in 2001. Martin had two Canadian listers, I picked up one lifer and four Canadian listers, and Ted finished with 16 lifers.
We decided to pick our top five all-time favorites for the trip. Kentucky Warbler got top spot, followed by Prothonotary Warbler, Red-headed Woodpecker and Chuck-will’s-widow (tie for third), and Lesser Black-backed Gull.
We hope to come back: the weather certainly won’t be as bad, and where else can you get so up close and personal with so many different species?
Species Seen or Heard
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Lesser (?) Scaup
Laughing Gull (C)
LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL
Great Black-backed Gull
Eastern Screech Owl
Great Crested Flycatcher
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tufted Titmouse (C)
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Pine Warbler (C)
(C) indicates Canadian lister for me
Parentheses indicate birds I missed, but which Ted and/or Martin saw.