May is the month for migration, and we took full advantage. For the first time in nearly 25 years, we took a week in mid-May to visit Rondeau and Point Pelee, a birding bonanza that added 70 species to our Big Year list. Since one day was a washout with driving rain, that averages out to an incredible 17 new species every birding day!
What makes this possible is the location of Point Pelee and Rondeau on spits of land sticking out from Lake Erie's north shore, as if stretching out to welcome returning migrant songbirds. Most migrants are reluctant to cross open water, since the consequences of running out of fuel before reaching land are usually fatal. They build up their fat reserves before setting out, but a single long flight can cut the weight of some songbirds by half.
As a result, these birds are famished as they near the end of their overnight flight, and they descend on the first land that they see. The shorelines of the Great Lakes are an ideal stop-over, for they offer abundant energy snacks in the form of the clouds of flying midges that hatch here earlier than inland.
But even with these factors at work, the number of birds on any given May morning can vary tremendously. Unfavourable weather conditions can hold up migrants, grounding them somewhere south of the border until just the right breezes increase their odds of a successful flight. Or if conditions are too ideal, the majority of birds may just fly straight over the lakeshore peninsulas, heading further north before they tire. Every birder's dream is to be in the right place at the right time for a "fall-out", when the night starts out ideal for flying, but turns to rain just before dawn, forcing a sky-full of songsters to land at their first opportunity.
We were lucky enough to experience a pretty good fall-out at Point Pelee, but without the rain. Why? "Sometimes they just do," seemed to be the expert consensus. Whatever the reason, there were birds everywhere - orange Baltimore Orioles and brick-red Orchard Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers and Gray Catbirds and Lincoln's Sparrows. But it's the wood warblers with the colourful names and varied songs that really stand out - Yellowthroats and Yellowrumped, Black-throated Green and Blackburnian, Baybreasted and Chestnut-sided. Over the course of a few days, we picked out 28 kinds of warblers and 6 vireo species, sifting through thousands of the more common birds to do so.
Of course, among all those birds there are bound to be some rarities, and this trip did not disappoint. Summer Tanager was new for us, and the gorgeous Hooded Warbler, not to mention the Blue Grosbeak at the Rondeau campground. But the best rarity of all had to a beautiful and immensely cooperative Kirtland's Warbler which showed off for hundreds of birders one morning. This species breeds only in young Jack Pine stands, with its entire population restricted to a small area in central Michigan. Except that it formerly bred in Ontario's Petawawa area, and maybe, just maybe, it has nested there again in recent years. Not a species we ever expected to see, so what a bonus!
Big crowds of birds attract crowds of birders as well, some 25,000 visiting Point Pelee in the month of May alone. To get to the Tip, where many of the migrants first touch down, you have to leave your car and take a special open trolley. Unlike years ago when birders tended to tramp about everywhere, these days you dare not leave the designated paths, and when a mega-rarity like the Kirtland's Warbler shows up, so does a park warden to make sure the photographers don't intrude too closely. But birders make the most of modern technology too - some carry walkie-talkies to exchange news of exciting finds; some keep check on their Twitter to do the same, and nearly everyone seems to carry some kind of iPod or Blackberry so they can consult their digital aids on puzzling bird songs. The most dedicated even check the overnight radar sites, where large flights of birds show up clearly.
For country folks like ourselves, accustomed to the Carden Plain where birders are grudgingly tolerated by hardly welcomed, there is something refreshing about visiting the Leamington area where huge banners proclaim "Welcome Birders" and restaurants open at 6 a.m. to cater to our need for morning coffee.
But just like home, birders here tend to be a friendly and generous lot, freely sharing information about how to find the rarities they have already seen. Perhaps our best example of that was our search for the elusive White-faced Ibis near Amherstburg, a wading bird that would be more at home in Florida. We were peering over the marshes where it had previously been from our car, when a van pulled up. Without a word of introduction, the young man inside said, "So, you turn left up River Road, then right, stop by #5137, and it's in the flooded field in behind." Whereupon he rolled up his window and drove away! Lucky thing we were birders, because we found such discourse not at all strange, and proceeded to find the Ibis.
Birders like license plates too!
The rest of May has been a bit of an anti-climax, though we still keep adding a few more such as the Cerulean Warbler that sang for us high in the tree-tops this morning. That makes it #238 - and our target is looking tantalizingly close! Next weekend, right on the heels of the Carden Nature Festival, we leave for a 10-day trip to Rainy River, where we hope that area's roster of western species will bring us even closer. Stay tuned - but in the meantime get out and enjoy a spring full of birdsong!