Point Pelee in autumn – it’s a first for me. I’ve been here twice in spring; once at the peak of the northward bird migration; the second time a week or two too early, which meant that sighting a warbler of any kind was a thrill. I’m not sure what to expect this time. We’re nearing the end of September and a little late for many species. And the weather has been very warm. We need a cold front to get the stragglers moving and that won’t happen for a few days yet. With trees and shrubs still in full leaf and birds more secretive, finding the little guys will be a challenge — very challenging as it turns out. Certain other birds are heading south. Raptors are everywhere today and the woods are silent.
Point Pelee is famous for ‘funnelling’ Sharp-shinned Hawks and other raptors as they head across Lake Erie. There may be some Cooper’s Hawk in the mix too but they are hard to distinguish from Sharp-shinned Hawks at the best of times. Dozens and dozens of birds of prey pass overhead, singly and in scattered groups. In the space of an hour, we see over fifty Sharpies. Other raptors are on the move too. A Kestrel perches on a distant snag; a Peregrine rockets by; a Harrier floats past. There’s even a Bald Eagle sitting at the very tip of Canada! A songbird would have to be feeling suicidal, or just plain dumb to show itself. No late warblers for us today!
I need to be at the airport by ten thirty in the morning for my flight home from Toronto. The problem is that I’m staying in historic Niagara-on-the Lake, maybe two hours away. A sensible person would relax and enjoy breakfast at the pleasant B&B where I spent the night, but a rare King Eider lingers at Etobicoke’s Col. Sam Smith Park. It’s out of my way and I’m pressed for time but I do what any half-crazed birder would do under the circumstances. I get up at six, skip breakfast and head out to try to add the Eider to my Life List.
Col. Sam Smith Park is new to me and it’s a lovely spot. It doesn’t hurt that the day is so spring-like. Well, it isspring but I saw snow farther north not two days before and I’m wary. The Tree Swallows are convinced. Dozens of these pretty birds have arrived from Mexico or Central America, claiming the nest boxes volunteers (I think) have set up for them.
I’m hoping to see the Eider but not overly optimistic. I hadn’t counted on the abundance here of other birds. Red-Necked Grebes – hundreds of them – are courting noisily. Of all waterbirds, grebes have the most spectacular courting rituals, the dancesof the various species. My opinion, of course. Today’s gathering of these engaging birds makes for a phenomenal show, all colour, posturing and noise.
Nor are the Red-necks the only birds caught up in the show. Here and there, Horned and Pied Grebes are scattered amongst their Red-Necked cousins. Numerous Long-tailed Ducks forage for food, gathering energy for their upcoming return to the Arctic. Most of these attractive birds have already paired up. Waiting for them to pop back up to the surface for a picture requires patience. They are the deepest diving of all ducks.
But now, it’s getting on and I still haven’t spotted the Eider. It’s not where it’s been repeatedly sighted. I hold position as long as I dare, leaving myself barely enough time to get my rental back and to go through security. As I hurry to the parking lot, I spot an unusual looking duck in amongst the floats in the boat basin. It’s strongly back-lit but ‘different’. I take a dozen or so shots. And then I’m gone. At home, I upload my photos. Sure enough, as often happens, the parting (or Parthian) shots are the winners. I have my King Eider. Not great photos perhaps, but good enough for an ID. I’ll miss breakfast anytime for this.
The warm front that brought birds to Bognor Marsh passed through quickly up north on Georgian Bay. Here, in the south it lingers, or a new front is passing – I’m not enough of a meteorologist to know. Front or not, it brings high humidity and the threat of storms.The thunderheads I saw along the southern horizon on my drive down now seem menacingly close.
I leave the frenetic pace of the 401 and drop down through the plane table flatness of Kent County towards Lake Erie. The cans of tomatoes, green beans and the peas and carrots that were the vegetables in my youth came from around here. Actually, green beans were a little too exotic, too continental for my English parents who thought garlic was a kind of a curse and spice of any kind was a form of assault.
The towns are small, farming towns with vaguely familiar names — Palmyra, Morpeth, Dealtown. It’s nice country – a bit flat for a B.C. boy but okay. Nice views across the Lake. The air is heavy with humidity. More storm clouds mass to the south. Providentially, I buy a poncho at at a dollar store just in case. More about the Poncho later.
I check in at my overpriced and underfunded motel in Leamington. I stay at a lot of cheap motels but this is priced way above its class. Its tiny and chill. It’s also near the huge Heinz factory which produced millions of bottles of ketchup and countless cans of things though the decades including the aforementioned peas and carrots. Not very long after my visit, the factory shut its doors and over 700 people lost their jobs. Those folks were the last of generations who found work at Heinz since the turn of the last century – 105 years of families, of lives, of stories. Very sad.
At the 42nd parallel, Point Pelee is, for all practical purposes, the southernmost place in Canada. Being the first landfall for birds flying across the lake during migration season, Point Pelee is also one of the top birding destinations in North America and it shows. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much fine optical glass and so many Tilly hats in one place in my life. I sign in, scout around a bit and buy yet another cap. I’m tired and famished. Luckily, there’s a decent restaurant not far from my motel.
Next morning, the Rain (the capital is deliberate) arrives in big-drop, wind-driven curtains. I meet the young tour leader in the northwest parking area and we wait. I tough it out for a few minutes but reluctantly haul out my dollar store plastic poncho. Ugly thing. It keeps me dry where where it counts but a lot of me is still ‘outside’. Soon I feel like the bedraggled Brown Thrasher I passed on my way here. Another birder arrives and we’re off at last. We pick up relatively few birds until the present storm passes and birds start to move about.
The first real goody is a Summer Tanager, a female, a plump, green-yellow bird, lemon-bright in this strange inter-storm light. Somebody spots an Eastern Screech Owl. By the time we get to the spot, a dozen birders are already there, glassing and photographing the grey mass half-hidden mid way up an evergreen.
A Kentucky Warbler is in the brush between two roads – it’s a rarity here. It’s singing and we mark it in the dense new foliage of the forest understory. Only a few have actually seen the bird but I’m hopeful. The singing stops abruptly and, reluctantly, my group moves on. There are lots of birds – many species of warblers, Brown Thrashers, Kingbirds, Empi flycatchers, orioles, swifts, Grey Catbirds and many others.
Someone calls out that the Kentucky is up again. I’m half way though a protein bar – my mid-morning snack/breakfast. I clamp the bar in my teeth and, camera and bins abounce, galumph over to the place where the Kentucky Warbler was last heard. Suddenly someone hears it on the other side of the broad strip of woodland we’ve been covering and the flock of birders dash off to the other side. This happens three times, back and forth and back. It’s hilarious and fun, like a scene from the movie The Big Year. I never did see the bird.
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 the business, looks like he’s ready to close the joint. I order chips and gravy before he goes through with it — grease on grease on carbs is the perfect antidote to the wet. Quite tasty too.
I rise from my chair and the heavy denim of my jeans falls cold and wet on my calves. Not for the first time I ask myself the question – Why am I doing this? I’m wet and black clouds are threateningly near but I head back into the park anyway. I have the whole evening in front of me. What else am I going to do in Leamington in a micro room in a motel near the Heinz factory?
The light level is now so depressingly low that it’s more or less dark. The rain once started seems like its not going to let up at all. Nevertheless, a few of us optimists gather in a parking lot. The tour will culminate near a broad thicket of scrub. American Woodcock live here and males regularly make their courting flights at dusk.
More thunderstorms roll in with each one seemingly fiercer than the last. My dollar store poncho is barely holding its own. I’m flapping in the wind and each flap sends more water under the plastic. 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 leader cancels the walk and we run for our vehicles.
I’m almost out of the park when I notice, in my rear-view mirror, that the horizon is bright. I slow, think about that damp, chill, tiny motel room with its 14 inch cathode ray tube TV, pull a U-turn and drive back to the Woodcock thicket.
A miracle – the rain stops! I pull into the empty parking lot and settle in for a wait. It’s still too early for the birds to do their mating flights. I’m alone but I don’t mind that.
I walk back to the beach to kill some time. The Brown thrasher, who was the very first bird I saw at Point Pelee, is where I first saw him huddled in a low willow. An old friend now. He looks the same, wet and bedraggled, He stares forlornly out to the lake but turns his head to shoot me an empathetic look. I nod a greeting. He blinks and shakes his feathers. We’re conversing. “I have to be here but what about you?”, he says. I lift my shoulders in a “Beats me” shrug and then move on. It’s none of his business anyway – plus I don’t want to discuss it.
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. At least it’s not raining but I’ve got a good half hour before dark. I’m not warm. I’d kill for a cup of coffee. The breeze is chill – a cold front coming in, I guess.
A ranger in a pickup checks the parking lot. She looks me over sympathetically and moves on. Thick clouds threaten more rain but they move off to the east. A pair of Common Nighthawk take to the air. A raptor I can’t identify moves swiftly through heading towards the storm. It’s almost too dark to see and my motel room seems more appealing now.
Then, quite suddenly, I hear the twittering flight calls of Woodcock. A female buzz bombs out over the willows and, I think, just misses my head and then is gone out of sight. I listen to the males for a half an hour. And then darkness truly falls. Hungry and shivering, I can leave with a ‘mission accomplished’ feeling of victory.
The morning brings a change in the weather — cool sun and no rain. Yeah, me! My tour begins at the Nature Center. Yellow Warblers seem to be everywhere here. Our destination is the “tip’ of the Point and we board the tram that takes us there. Today, birds are everywhere and abundant. A new crop of migrants arrived in the night and everyone is excited. Almost frenetically, we glass the bushes and point out birds, here, over there, just to the left of the big branch at ten o’clock, a meter off the ground at six o’clock – and on it goes. I log lots of species – my best day yet after Bognor Marsh and tons of fun.
By eleven in the morning, I have to leave. I don’t want to go but I have no margin for error. If I don’t leave now, I’ll miss my flight. Goodbye Point Pelee. I’m reluctant to go. My Mini Big Year count is now 145 — only 225 species to go!
I guess I’m starting early today. I’ve been up since first light, a hazard when you stay in cheap motels. In this case, a flaw in the drapes focussed a beam of light on my left eyeball at the wrong time in my sleep cycle. No chance of lying abed here. I rise and get dressed. This time of the morning in Owen Sound options for breakfast are limited. I get a muffin and coffee at Tim Horton’s and check my email. I likely know some of the denizens in here but, if so, they’re unrecognizable to me now after so many years.
I’m visiting my mother today but we haven’t set a time and her recent memory lapses add an odd timelessness to everything. She has to eat breakfast at a regular time and has a few other things to do, I know. I’ve got time to bird and I’m up with them. Now I just have to find them.
I drive out into the countryside, past the old hardwood bush where, as young teenagers, my friend Lloyd and I, having walked up the hill from the town, made a camp in the snow. It was four in the morning, a moonlit night, and we were out to hunt rabbits. Our companions were a black and tan hound puppy with ears so long it couldn’t not step on them and a beagle named Penny I’d rescued from a death sentence.
It was a magical time, the fire chewing up the dry wood we fed it continually. Its light illuminated the boles of dark and massive hardwoods with each flicker or flare. I remember a Great Horned Owl hooting somewhere close by. I also remember beans cooked in the can so that one side of the mass was mouth-burning hot and the other icy cold. We did not, by the way, shoot any rabbits.
Back to the present. I’ve always liked early May in southern Ontario. I grew up in this town but I’ve lived in the west for decades. Now when I come home, I come in May if I can. In a region with well-marked seasons, the land wakes up in early May. It’s winter, or close to it one day, and then, quite suddenly, it’s spring. This May, the first leaves are barely showing, no more than a haze of green-gold lights the forest. A peculiarity of the season is that sounds carry for miles. The air is hollow like a bell, like it is on a cold, still day after a snow in winter.
This cold morning will become a fine spring day once the temperature gets up a bit. I head for Bognor Marsh. My brother’s best gift to me was to tell me about this place. Go out the Derry Line, he says – remember where Uncle Bob and Aunt Rene used to live. Sort of, I tell him. He’s still a local – I’m not. Well, anyway, he says, that’s kind of the area where the marsh is. You can’t miss it.
Of course, you can miss it. And I do. I shuck the false confidence that comes with pretending to know my way around these back roads. I have a GPS, such a handy tool for a birder so I pull over and hook it up. A quick search and there it is, Bognor marsh, no more than a fifteen minute drive from where I am. I drive down what I guess is the right ‘Line’, pass the sign, double back and park – mine the only vehicle in small lot.
The temperature is rising quickly and a little breeze becomes the first Zephyr fingers of a warm front. A week or so before there was frost; there will be wet snow one day before I leave Owen Sound. Now wildflowers carpet the shallow earth that covers the limestone and songs of a dozen bird species ring through the woods. A windfall of bird species has arrived with the warm front. Without leaves on the trees, spotting birds should be much easier. Paradise!
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak streaks past. I arrange my camera and my binoculars and set out down the forest road. Bird songs are confusingly everywhere. I’m not that good with warblers anyway – certainly not with eastern warblers. I stop and find a seat on a block of dolomite and wait and watch. It doesn’t take long. An Ovenbird sings very close to me, insistent. I search and finally see him no more than 5 feet away. He moves on. I glass the surrounding brush. A male Redstart chases a female – flashes of red, yellow and white and then they’re gone. A Yellow Warbler appears and then another, and another.
I count five species in as many minutes and move on. In the cedars, a pair of Black and White Warblers works the trunk like nuthatches. A pair of Scarlet Tanagers almost slip past me but the red and black male is easy to follow through the leafless trees.
The weather is glorious. Pisshing brings a swarm of warblers each time – Black and Whites, Blackburnians, Ovenbirds, Yellow-rumpeds, Black-throated Greens, Northern Parula and others. I even see a Worm-eating Warbler, rare here and likely carried north on the warm front. Now I’m hearing thrushes, a Swainson’s and then the ethereal song of the ‘Swamp Angel’ – the Hermit Thrush. And there are other surprises — a Broad-winged Hawk, a tubby Evening Grosbeak, a Wild Turkey.
The old road runs across the dolomite that underlies the whole county. I carry on until the forest opens and I can follow the boardwalks out into the marsh. Here, tree swallows feed and chase each other – it’s mating season after all. Their feathers catch the sun and flash an electric indigo. A White-throated sparrow runs up the boardwalk and perches in a low willow. Farther into the sedge, a Grasshopper Sparrow sings, if its insect-like buzz can be called a song. A Wilson’s Snipe flushes and buzz bombs back into cover. Others ‘winnow’ in the middle distance.
I hear the clunky chortle of Sandhill Cranes and search the distant margins of the marsh for the source. I finally spot the bird, its back a rusty-brown, strutting and preening. Two more cranes fly overhead. Another Broad-winged Hawk appears going north and then disappears, its flight obscured by the surrounding trees.
I remember that I’m supposed to be picking up my mother and, reluctantly, I leave. I’ll come back as often as I’m able. My mother seems to think that when I arrive is when I was supposed to arrive. I don’t correct her. I’m sinning in that regard and I know it. Later, on our drive, I spot a Peregrine and, a few miles on, a Merlin. Not bad for good old Owen Sound. I’m back at the Marsh on each of the next four mornings.The birds are different each morning and it takes real willpower to leave each time when I ought to. May, that’s the time to be there.