Pelee Episode II - The Tanagers Strike Back

Wow, I’ve been pretty busy recently and haven’t had much time for blogging…. Anyways here goes nothing. 

Since April 29th I’ve been living at Pelee Pelee in an Otentik (yurt type structure) and have started to settle into the routine here… which is basically as follows. Wake up at around 5:30am, go to the visitor centre and take the tram down to the tip. Then wait around the tip area for a bit to see if any rarities are sitting on the sand spit or if any birds are “reversing” off the point That is followed by walking along either West Beach or Sparrow Fields and Post Woods, depending on the winds (birding along the side of point away from the wind is best) and eventually ending up back at the VC. The afternoon kind of depends on activity, if it’s still good I’ll continue to bird the woods, and if not maybe check Hillman for shorebirds. All this of course depends on rare birds elsewhere, if there’s a Scissor-tailed Flycather in Presquile for example ~ then all Pelee plans go out the window and I’m gone.

The morning rush though I feel requires further commentary, just because it’s something that you won’t see anywhere else. Birding at Pelee in general is a unique experience, it just has its own atmosphere and most things in the park during the month of May are bird focused. On good days there it seems like birders outnumber other park visitors, something that I can only imagine happening at a small number of locations in North America. In the predawn darkness, I’ll stumble half awake to the Visitor Centre to catch the first tram (which is the front of a bus pulling 3 ''train cars'' behind it) out to tip and find that there’s a crowd of similarly sleep deprived birders waiting there already. These people are the keeners, the ones who want to be at the tip for first light in case there’s anything interesting there. Generally it’s a smaller number of the same folks, but the exception is a day that looks very promising for weather ~ in which case the first tram will be packed. On the drive out you can hear conversations about birds coming from all the adjacent seats, everyone full of optimism about what the day will hold. The lights illuminating the tram flicker on and off at times, making it reminiscent of some eerie subway scene from the movies… if subways ran through a forest and and only contained birders. As soon as the tram stops at the tip parking lot, all the birders...a lot of whom have already stood up and put on their harnesses and cameras in order to be first out,,, immediately disembark and hurry down to the point. This reminds me of the Star Wars movies where the stormtroopers all jump off a dropship and run into combat... same energy. Depending on how good it is there (birds on the point or reverse migration) people may remain a few hours, but most days the masses look around for a few minutes before dispersing back into the park for the day.

The point has been pretty good this week, I mean at least for early May. I’m still on a yearbird streak (as of May 6th) and have gotten a new bird every day since April 28th. After an initial push of warblers and rarities on the last week of April, it slowed down  considerably though. The warblers were few and far between, though the diversity has been great! Highlights included Kentucky, Yellow-throated and Worm-eating Warbler. 

- Yellow-throated Warbler

The worm-eater caused me considerable pain… on three separate instances I left the park to chase a rare bird, and as was on my way there, a Worm-eating Warbler was found back at Pelee. On every occasion the bird (birds?) wasn’t really chaseable, as it was seen by one or a few observers and then never seen again. I lucked out on May 5th though, I was birding along Post Woods with Michael McAllister and Jacob Stasso in the evening ~ with the main hope of getting the worm. It hadn’t been seen in over a day so our hopes weren’t that high, but then Jacob seemingly pulls the bird out of thin air and we watched it contently foraging beside the field. Stasso magic...

Of course I didn’t have my camera, but here’s one of Mike’s photos.

I’ve added 18 yearbirds at Pelee since my last update, with some highlights including Yellow-throated Vireo, White-eyes Vireo Gray-cheeked Thrush, Clay-colored Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Chat, Sanderling and Red-headed Woodpecker, Hooded Warbler and Orange-crowned Warbler.

Some photos…

As far as ratites outside of Pelee go it’s been a pretty solid week! Dana Latour found a nice Snowy Egret beside Hillman Marsh, a bird I was hoping to get down here and one that Ezra had on me. Luckily it was still there when I arrived, but the views were pretty decent so these are the best shots I managed.

The next day I got word of a White-faced Ibis that had been found by Steve C down by Erieau outside of Rondeau. I ripped down there there with Ezra and got it pretty easily. The views through the scope were great, but the it flew before I could get photos and disappeared in the adjacent cattails, where it remained. The next day a Glossy Ibis was reported just outside of the park at Hillman Marsh, so I immediately chased it. Upon closer inspection though it turned out to be another White-faced Ibis! It’s quite funny honestly, as white-faced is the rarer ibis and I saw one two days in a row. The only time I’d rather a glossy…

Not too shabby for early May! That brings me up to date until May 5th… more updates soon…

Late April Rares

 On Thursday morning (April 25th), I left my house before dawn and after doing a final check of the massive amount of things I had packed the previous night, I began the long drive south towards Point Pelee. I mentioned it in a previous post, but I’ll be saying in an Otentik (yurt type structure) in the park until sometime around the 20th of May.

I didn’t really have a set plan for the day, I just planned to work my way south and maybe bird Pelee a bit before dark. On my way down the Lake Huron coast I stopped for a bit at The Bluff… I mean I couldn’t just drive by it. After about an hour of very little activity I decided to move on though, as some decent birds were being seen around the Pelee area (nothing rare, just some yearbirds), so I drove the remaining two hours without stopping along the way. 

After arriving in the Pelee area I made a quick stop at Hillman Marsh to check for shorebirds and ducks…. Of which there were relatively few. I did hear a Sedge Wren singing on the way in though, my first yearbird of the day. I had been looking forward to a nice, relaxed afternoon of birding around Pelee and started by driving out to the VC and walking out towards the tip. I literally hadn’t even been there for 10 minutes when I get an alert ~ Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Presquile Provincial Park. &$#%! I said goodbye to Pelee, promising to return again soon, then began the long drive east. Along the route I carpooled with fellow big year birders Susan Nagy and William Konze ~ which really helped with gas expenses and also meant that I didn’t have to drive for the entire day. The traffic delayed us quite a bit along the way, and even after biting the bullet and taking the 407 (ouch) we didn't arrive in the park until after 7pm. Ezra was already there, having arrived an hour earlier with a fellow Hamilton birder. He gave the thumbs up as we approached, always a good sign. Sure enough the flycatcher was still there, contently feeding in a backyard beside the lakeshore. This was a lifer for me, and also a good code 3 species to get on a big year. They’re annual in Ontario, but sometimes they can be a pain to chase down as they only stay for a day or less.

After enjoying the flycatcher for a bit, we headed back towards southwestern Ontario, where after parting ways with William and Susan I made my way back to Point Pelee. 

The following day I actually did bird at Pelee and spent the morning exploring on foot… a nice change of pace from constant driving. I met Eric Baldo at the tip and spent the majority of the morning birding with him. It was a bit quiet overall, but we ended up seeing some cool birds, including my first Prothonotary Warbler and White-eyed Vireo of the year. 

Around noon word got out that the Kentucky Warbler that had been seen at Long Point Provincial Park for the past few days had been refound… so to Long Point I went. Kentucky is an annual overshoot in Ontario and there’s a few every season, however you could definitely miss it on a big year if you’re unlucky. Ezra had this bird on me too, so that was a bit of extra incentive : ) 

After a two & a half hour drive, I rolled up to the park and started searching. Kentucky Warbs are skulky birds are are often quite difficult to see, so I was expecting to spend a lot of time there staring into the brush. Apparently this Kentucky didn’t get the memo about being frustratingly hard to see though, as after a few minutes I saw it hopping right out in the open in front of me. This was a lifer too, so getting such superb views was a treat.

The rest of the day was rather uneventful and I didn’t arrive back in Pelee until 7pm. Oh yeah… I missed a Worm-eating Warbler while I was gone, so that was fun….

On Saturday I spent the day birding around Pelee, mainly with Ezra but also William and a few others. The highlight was seeing another Kentucky Warbler and a Yellow-throated Warbler (it’s been a great spring for both of them in Ontario!) as well as;  2 Little Gulls 7 White-eyed Vireos, 2 Blue-winged Warblers, 1 Blackburnian Warbler, (11 warbler species today) and.

Then in the early evening I got a call that almost made me drop my phone. Marsh Sandpiper. Found by James Holdsworth at Thedford Lagoons in Lambton County. Marsh Sandpiper is an exceedingly rare bird in North America, with only around 10 records all time coming from California and Alaska. It has never been recorded on the eastern side of North America and wasn’t at all on my (or anyone’s) radar for new species for the Ontario list. I grabbed Ezra and bolted for the car, then shot up to Lambton County. The two hour drive seemed to go by painstakingly slowly, and I was just hoping with everything I had that it wouldn’t fly away before we got there. We arrived at the lagoons shortly after 7pm and ran up to the edge of the cell, where James and a few other birders were waiting. The bird was still there. Relief doesn’t even begin to cut it, I have no words. We enjoyed watching it feed for over an hour, during which time it flew around the cell a few times (constantly being bullied by yellowlegs). Marsh Sandpiper is in the Tringa genus, which Ontario birders will be familiar with as it contains both yellowlegs as well as Solitary Sandpiper and Willet. Overall the bird gave the impression of a smaller yellowlegs that hybridized with a phalarope … the wingbeats were very fast and stiff, and it’s foraging style faster and more frantic than most of our Tringa. It was also very pale, with a lot of white surrounding the head and a white central stripe up it’s back. Just wow…. That’s all I have to say… mind blown. Definitely the rarest bird I’ve ever seen in Ontario, and what will almost definitely be the highlight bird of my big year.

Jeff Skevington called the major of the town that evening and someone managed to get access for the entire birding community the next day. Amazing job Jeff! Luckily the bird persisted and everyone managed to get it today.

Just a quick update as the Otentik I’m staying at gets no cell service… so my updates may be a bit sparse for the next few weeks. Also I'll add more photos in future posts... I'm a bit pressed for time and I'm writing this while getting takeout in Leamington. There may be some typos and stuff.. but take it or leave it ; )

Ontario Yearlist @ April 30th - 258

Some Late April Bruce Birding


After the successful Western Tanager chase, Ezra returned back to southern Ontario in William's car and I drove back home for a sleep in a bed that wasn't the front seat of a car. The following day (April 25th) I "slept in" until 7:30am... and it felt fantastic. After waking up I took my dog for a walk down my road and encountered two yearbirds along the way, Green Heron and Northern Waterthrush. A few rarities were still kicking around southern Ontario, with the best ones being Snowy Egret and Kentucky Warbler. If I was in the south, sure I would have chased them. But they are both code 3 birds that show up numerous times in a spring, so it didn't seem worth a 3+ hour drive...

Instead I decided to bird the west coast of the Bruce and look for migrants and rarities. I was joined for most of the day by Andrew Keaveney, who happened to be up at his cottage on the peninsula. We started off by walking Sauble Beach in search of Piping Plovers, since this is normally around the time when they start coming back. I hadn't heard of any being seen at Sauble so far, but they had returned to a few other breeding locations in Ontario so it seemed worth a shot. We walked up the beach for a few kilometers, not seeing much aside from some gulls and a few loons. Near the north end of the beach I spotted a Dunlin, and I was about to keep going, when something flushed it and it flew down the beach towards me. A smaller, sand coloured shorebird flew along with it... Piping Plover. The two birds landed right in front of me and began foraging, acting like the best of buds. The plover was a nice yearbird and always a species I enjoy seeing. Honestly though I was quite happy with the close views of an alternate plumaged Dunlin, as I hardly ever am able to get close to them (Bruce shorebirds are weird).

- Piping Plover

- Dunlin

- Amigos

For the rest of the morning/afternoon we worked the shoreline along the coast in the Pike Bay area, stopping frequently to look for migrants. Large numbers of Chipping Sparrows were around, with some Vesper, Field and White-crowned Sparrows mixed in. Kinglets of both species were numerous all along the coast, as were Yellow-rumped Warblers. At one particularly productive spot we had; 

- 2 Fox Sparrows

- 1 Eastern Towhee

- 2 American Tree Sparrows (getting late)

- 1 Least Flycatcher

- 40 Yellow-rumped Warblers

- 1 Black-throated Green Warbler

- 1 Yellow Warbler

- 7 Pine Warblers

- 1 Cape May Warbler (yearbird)

The Cape May and Least Flycatcher were both pretty early for Bruce, definitely my earliest records (normally May 10th or so)....  

It started getting colder as the day went on and the precipitation was getting heavier as well, so we called it quits around 4pm clock and I headed home. In the evening it cleared up to I drove over to Isaac Lake to search for some yearbirds. It was a crisp evening for sure, but there was still a lot of activity in the marsh including an American Bittern, 6 Virginia Rails and my first Sora of the year.

Not too bad for a day of birding around home.

Today I mainly caught up on work around the house and I didn't do much birding, although Dad did spot a Broad-winged Hawk flying over the yard... So I got one yearbird for the day. Tomorrow my car will finally be done at the mechanic and will be chase ready again... right in time for May. On Friday I will be heading down to Point Pelee, where I will be staying at an OtenTik in the park with a few other birders until late May... getting pretty hyped!! Until then I will probably stick around Bruce... Unless a rarity shows up of course : )

Ontario Yearlist @ April 27th - 247

Pelee Episode I - Return of the Warblers


On the morning of April 24th I awoke before 6:00am in a parking lot near Point Pelee, where I had slept in my car the previous night. Campenelli was still snoring logs in the passenger seat. I rolled down the window and was greeted by warm air and the sounds of the predawn songbird chorus. Granted, this early in the season there are not a ton of birds singing (robins, blackbirds, Brown Thrasher, Song Sparrow etc) but there was just a feeling of excitment in the air. I was up late the night before watching the live updates on Birdcast, a website put out by the Cornell Lab that shows maps with real time information about the migrating birds (direction, height, speed, overall numbers). It was evident at that point that birds were moving en masse, and they were headed northwards. I had been watching various weather models all week and I had high hopes for Sunday, as from what I could tell it was shaping up to be the best day of 2022 so far in terms of migration. A few minutes later I was driving down the road through Point Pelee headed towards the tip. Even though it was still quite dark, I could see lots of birds in the cars headlights flying off the road. Most couldn't be identified beyond "sparrow sp" or "thrush sp". but it was clear that a lot of birds had arrived the previous night. As I was coming up towards the VC, I was disappointed to see that the road to the tip had a gate across it, doh. I was spoiled, having been able to drive down there every time I had visited this spring and because of this I just assumed it would be open on the weekend too.

After getting my gear together I started quickly making my way down the road, as sunrise was fast approaching and the tip was over 2 kilometers away. Only a few hundreds meters down the road a Swainson's Thrush popped up, a yearbird and also a bit early for this date. The forest was alive with activity. A Black-throated Green Warbler sang, two Nashville Warblers and Chimney Swift flew over and Yellow-rumped Warblers, sparrows and thrushes were moving through the understory. It was hard staying on task (continuing to walk) as I could have easily walked down any of the side trails and gotten distracted. Near the tower at the tip a Tennessee Warbler buzzed by, and a Least Flycatcher popped up from beside the trail. I wasn't even at the tip yet and I had already seen 6 yearbirds... yes, it was going to be a good day. 

Nathan Hood had arrived a bit before us and met us at the tip. Immediately we were in the middle of the action, as songbirds were reverse migrating off the tip in large numbers. Flocks of 10, 15 Chipping Sparrows and large numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers dominated the flight, but there were lots of other things mixed in. William Konze and Luke Raso arrived a few minutes later and joined in the watch, as numbers of birds continued to grow. Balitmore Oriole, Orchard Oriole, Scarlet Tanager, Blackburnian Warbler, Northern Parula... I was starting to lose track of yearbirds they were coming so fast. Then a young male Summer Tanager reversed off the tip right beside us, my first time seeing this species in morning flight... and also a code 3 yearbird. A few minutes later I got on a lanky sparrow type bird flying by... Lark Sparrow! I rattled off a few shots before it disappeared. It flew by a few minutes later for a 2nd pass, then left for good and flew out over Lake Erie. This was another code 3 rarity, and a new self found bird for me. I'm just going to list the reverse highlights below, because there were just so many.

yearbirds denoted with *

- 13 Chimney Swifts*

- 7 Spotted Sandpipers

- 1 Lesser Yellowlegs

- 4 Forster's Terns

- 40 Northern Flickers

- 7 Eastern Kingbirds*

- 8 Blue-headed Vireos*

- 4 Warbling Vireos*

- 250 Chipping Sparrows

- 9 Field Sparrows

- 1 Lark Sparrow

- 4 Orchard Orioles*

- 8 Baltimore Orioles*

- 9 Nashville Warblers*

- 3 Northern Parulas*

- 3 Blackburnian Warblers*

- 15 Yellow Warblers

- 25 Palm Warblers

- 3 Pine Warblers

- 150 Yellow-rumped Warblers

- 5 Black-throated Green Warblers*

- 1 Summer Tanager*

- 3 Scarlet Tanagers

- 3 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

- 3 Indigo Buntings

Crazy stuff!!

Some photos below....

- Summer Tanager

- Northern Flicker (look at the single red primary)

- Indigo Bunting

- Blackburnian Warbler

- Lark Sparrow

- Yellow Warbler

- Scarlet Tanager

- Rose-breasted Grosbeak

- Baltimore Oriole

- Eastern Kingbird

- Chimney Swift

- Northern Flicker

- Orchard Oriole

- Northern Parula

- Black-throated Green Warbler

- Palm Warbler

Around 9:30am the action started to quiet down a bit, so reluctantly I tore myself away from the tip and headed back into the park in search of more migrants in the forest. Walking past Sparrow Field into North Woods, I saw Golden-winged Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Lincoln's Sparrow and Veery, all yearbirds. After another few minutes of walking down the trail a few birders were pointing to a nearby tree... where an Eastern Whip-poor-will was perched. Always a fun species to get "face melting" views of. Swainson's Thrushes were around in numbers, actually outnumbering hermit. Kind of crazy seeing none were there the previous day, goes to show just how many birds came in the previous night.

- Eastern Whip-poor-will

- Golden-winged Warbler

- Same beast

- Blue-winged Warbler

- Lincoln's Sparrow

I spent the remainder of the morning birding around the park with Nathan and Ezra, and although activity was quieting down a bit there were still lots of birds. Interestingly a lot of the neotropical migrants were only seen in reverse off the tip in the morning, not at all in the park itself. By 1:00pm I had seen 106 species, pretty good for April 24th! 

On Friday a Western Tanager was found 20 minutes away from my house on the Bruce. It was only seen at a feeder for a few minutes though and the homeowners never saw it again. Then late Saturday afternoon it was seen at another bird feeder around 4 kilometers away from the first spot. It was too late in the day to get back up from Pelee, so we decided to chase it on Sunday if it was refound. I didn't want to go up in the morning and miss Pelee, a decision that I am very glad I made. Anyways late Sunday morning news came in that the tanager had been refound, so reluctantly I left Pelee with Ezra around 1:30 and headed north. Of course after we left a Kentucky Warbler and a Western Meadowlark (among others) were found, but that's just how the game goes sometimes. The drive seemed to go by fast and just after 6:00pm we pulled onto the road on Stokes Bay. William and Luke had travelled up to chase it as well, and had beat us there by around 20 minutes. They had enjoyed spectacular views of the bird, but of course it flew off 10 minutes before we arrived. A tense 35 minutes passed, then finally the Western Tanager flew out and landed on the feeder. This was a code 4 rarity, and also a lifer for me... with the added bonus of being in my home county. The timing was perfect, as it then started raining and the wind picked up, so we headed off. Big thanks to the homeowners for allowing a lot of birders to walk around their property and stare at their feeder, it's friendly folks like this who are important during a big year... A few yards with no access can mean one or two less birds at the end of the year. In an interesting twist of fate, Josh Vandermeulen got a Western Tanager on his big year in 2012  only a few kilometers from this spot, also in late April.

- Western Tanager

3 Tanager day!!

Ontario yearlist @ April 24th - 241

Pelee Episode II - The Tanagers Strike Back

Wow, I’ve been pretty busy recently and haven’t had much time for blogging…. Anyways here goes nothing.  Since April 29th I’ve been living a...