Point Pelee

CatbirdMay

I’ve never seen anything like it, this migration of birders, this simulacrum of a Big Year movie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much fine optical glass and so many Tilly hats in one place in my life either. The warm front that brought birds to southern Ontario has also brought high humidity and thunderstorms. The rain on that first morning comes in big-drop, wind-driven curtains. I meet the tour leader in the northwest parking area and we wait. Another birder arrives and we’re off at last. I providently bought a too-short plastic poncho enroute and it’s keeping me dry where it counts. My extremities will have to fend for themselves. Soon I feel like the bedraggled Brown Thrasher I passed on my way here.

The Kentucky Warbler is in the brush between two roads; it’s singing but only a few have actually seen the bird. The singing stops abruptly so, reluctantly, we move on. There are lots of birds – many species of warblers, brown thrashers, king birds, Empi flycatchers, orioles and swifts and a beautiful female Summer Tanager. Someone has heard the Kentucky on the other side of the broad strip of woodland we’ve been covering and a flock of birders, us among them, dash off to the other side. This happens three times. It’s hilarious and fun. I never did see the bird incidentally.

Finally, the day comes to a close, this part of it anyway. I still have an evening tour planned. I passed a roadside restaurant near the park entrance and drive back. The owner, complaining about a drop on business, looks like he’s ready to close the joint. I order chips and gravy before he goes through with it — grease and gravy is the perfect antidote to the wet and quite tasty too. I rise and the wet denim, which had warmed up as I sat, fell cold and wet on my calves. The clods are threatening but I’m head back into the park anyway..

The weather is worse than in the day, mostly because the light level is low but also because the rain seems like its not going to let up at all. Thunderstorms roll in one, after the other, each one bringing sudden drenching showers. My dollar store poncho is barely holding its own against the elements and I’m flapping in the wind.

A few of us optimists gather in a parking lot, which is to end near a broad field of low willow where American Woodcock live and where males make their courting flights at dusk. Another King Lear-style mini-storm ends the walk almost before it begins. The rain we can handle but lightning is a different story. The walk is cancelled and we disperse. I’m driving out of the park when I notice, in my rear-view mirror, that the sky is lightening. I slow, ponder, and then make the U-turn. The rain has stopped by the time I’m back in the Woodcock field. It’s still too early for the birds to do their mating flights so I drive back to the beach to kill some time. A Brown thrasher, the first bird I saw at Point Pelee, sits in some willows, wet and bedraggled, looking forlornly out over the lake. He turns his head to shoots me an empathetic look. I nod a greeting and move on. For an hour, I wander the forest edge, dodging huge puddles, checking off a few birds, listening in vain for the Kentucky Warbler who has, it seems, moved on.

When do the Woodcock flights begin? I’m not sure. I’m back in the parking lot in plenty of time, waiting and scanning the skies a good half hour before dark. The breeze is chill now and I’m alone and waiting. A ranger in a pickup checks the parking lot and moves on. Thick clouds threaten more rain. Common Nighthawks appear. A raptor I can’t identify passes swiftly to the east. And then, when it’s almost too dark to see, I hear the twittering flight calls of Woodcock. A female buzz bombs out over the willows and then is gone out of sight. I listen to the males for a half an hour before, , hungry and shivering, I head for my barely adequate motel room in Leamington. I have a guided walk tomorrow before I make the long drive to Toronto Pearson to return my rental and catch my flight home.

The morning brings a change in the weather — cool sun and no rain. We meet at The Nature Center. Yellow Warblers seem to be everywhere. The destination is the “tip’ and we board the tram that takes us there. There are birds everywhere, the newest wave of migrants and all of us are glassing the bushes and pointing out birds. We disembark at our destination and xx leads us down the trail, stopping every time a bird appears or sings. I’m logging lots of species. This is the best day yet. By eleven in the morning, I have to leave. My Mini Big Year count is now 145 — only 225 species to go!

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