Pelee Episode II - The Orioles 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 ; )

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