A Kirtland’s Warbler at Point Pelee

Kirtland's Warbler

Kirtland’s Warbler

We got up early on Monday, May 11th for our day at Point Pelee. While we were paying at the kiosk we were told there were two good birds present: a Prothonotary Warbler and a Kirtland’s Warbler. I had seen the rare bird alert for the Kirtland’s Warbler the day before, and was happy to hear it was still around. I had never seen one before (unlike the Prothonotary Warbler) so it would be a lifer for me if I found it. Fortunately, this was easy to do. We took the tram to the Tip and after we had gotten off the shuttle, I came across a group of people who said it was being seen along the footpath that parallels the western beach. I told my mother and step-father and off we went. After about a 10 minute hike with numerous people coming the other way assuring us “it was still there – just look for the crowd of people”, we found a huge throng of people gathered in a tight group. At the center of all the attention, no more than six feet away from the edge of the path, was the female Kirtland’s Warbler.

The Kirtland’s Warbler is one of the most endangered warbler species in eastern North America, chiefly because of its extremely specific choice of habitat: dense young jack pine forest of at least eight acres, although it prefers 30 to 40 acres in which to raise its young. In 1967, the only known breeding site for these birds was the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Because of their declining numbers, and because Kirtland’s Warblers were frequently parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds, this species was listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at that time. Since then they have been discovered nesting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and Canada.

Biologists are not sure why Kirtland’s Warblers have such specific habitat requirements. They will only nest on the ground next to a jack pine that is 5 to 20 feet tall and 6 to 22 years old. It is thought that the warblers need trees with lower branches which are large enough to conceal the nest – however, trees that are younger than six years old do not have large enough branches to provide the necessary cover, while trees that are older than 15 years lose their lower branches when they begin to die.

Kirtland's Warbler

Kirtland’s Warbler

Kirtland’s Warblers usually end up at Point Pelee in the spring while migrating north to their breeding grounds in Michigan. While Point Pelee is the best place in Ontario to see one, they are very rare. This was the first time one had been in the park while I was there, and I was happy to get a chance to see it. And a chance was all I really had – because of the large crowd, it was difficult to spend any time watching it and grab a few photos while people jockeyed for position and squeezed tripods and cameras through the openings that formed as the crowd on the path ebbed and flowed. I generally don’t find this type of experience very enjoyable; but since I find it equally unsatisfying just to move on as soon as I get the bird and check it off my list, I stayed a little bit longer to watch its behaviour. I got to see it move deliberately through the branches close to the ground, gleaning food from little nooks and crannies and bobbing its tail as it went along. Eventually I began feeling claustrophobic from being surrounded by so many people on such a small path, and said a silent good-bye to the female Kirtland’s Warbler. It will probably be a long time before I see another.

My mother, step-father and I returned to the Tip to see what other birds around. The Barn Swallows were nesting in the building near the tram stop, and I photographed one gathering mud and nesting materials from the ground.

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

This bench looking out over the west beach looked inviting:

West Beach

West Beach

The walk to the Tip was uneventful after seeing the Kirtland’s Warbler. It was just as “birdy” as it was on previous trips, which was to say, not very. We saw an adult Orchard Oriole, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and heard a few Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. We identified only four warblers (Yellow, Black-and-white, Magnolia and Chestnut-sided), and I saw what I thought was a female Cerulean Warbler. I wasn’t certain, however, as I had never seen one before, and no one else got on the bird before it flew (there were many people from a guided tour in the same location). There were no southern specialties; no Yellow-throated Vireos, no White-eyed Vireos, and no Red-headed Woodpeckers, all of which I’d seen here in previous trips.

On the beach we found a couple of White-crowned Sparrows traveling together, including this bird which landed close to my feet.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

The Tip was quite small this year, and the usual gulls were in attendance. There were no shorebirds or terns, and even the lake was devoid of the usually abundant Red-breasted Mergansers.

Ring-billed and Bonaparte's Gulls at the Tip

Gulls at the Tip

From there we went to Tilden’s Woods where we were greeted by three dazzling male Bay-breasted Warblers right at the trail entrance. Warblers were difficult to find here, too, with only a single Northern Waterthrush, a single Blackburnian Warbler, a couple of Chestnut-sided Warblers, and the numerous Yellow Warblers seen. We saw the famed red-morph Eastern Screech-owl in a cavity high up in a tree, thanks to a birding friend from Ottawa pointing it out! One Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, six Baltimore Orioles, a single Orchard Oriole, and a single House Wren singing rounded out the walk. One our way back to the Visitor’s Center we entered an open field where I spotted three Eastern Kingbirds and this American Lady butterfly.

American Lady

American Lady

A male Yellow Warbler hopped out of the grass and onto this branch, looking for insects.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

By then it was getting close to lunchtime, so we ate under the shelter of the Black Willow Beach picnic area. We saw a House Wren and a Gray Catbird in the tangles beyond the shelter, while a Common Yellowthroat serenaded us from a nearby shrub. Out in the parking lot I found a male Scarlet Tanager and a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

Our next stop was the DeLaurier Homestead Trail. Again, it was fairly quiet with only four warbler species: Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, a single Chestnut-sided Warbler, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler. We didn’t see any herons or the Carolina Wren found on a previous visit. A couple of Orchard Orioles and several Baltimore Orioles were colourful splashes against the green of the woods:

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

The most interesting moment came when I spotted a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in the tree above the boardwalk. Just as I raised my camera to take its picture, it fluttered down to the boardwalk where it sat and spread its wings. I have seen chickadees and robins do this on hot summer days; I am not sure whether they are doing this to aid in temperature regulation, or to help rid themselves of parasites. While sunbathing, birds expose as much of their plumage as possible to the sun, causing any parasites to move to areas of the body where they can more easily be removed through preening. This gnatcatcher didn’t stay on the boardwalk for very long, though, and flew off when it heard us coming.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

There was a bit more action in the parking lot with a female Scarlet Tanager in one of the trees by the picnic tables and eleven Turkey Vultures swirling high in the sky as they drifted north.

Our last stop was the Marsh Boardwalk. My mother and step-father decided not to join me, as it was getting pretty hot by then. I hadn’t quite made it to the beginning of the boardwalk when a small insect flew at me and landed on my shirt. I was happy when I recognized it as a Common Willow Calligrapha beetle, a species I had found on my house one day in early November, 2013.

Common Willow Calligrapha

Common Willow Calligrapha

Once I reached the boardwalk, I heard a couple of Swamp Sparrows and saw a male Common Yellowthroat. However, the best birds were the Black Terns. At first there were five of them flying high over the marsh. Eventually one left, while the other four continued flapping gracefully above the boardwalk. Then all four dove toward the water in a single line; it was like watching a roller coaster plunge down a large hill. I hadn’t seen terns do this before, but they repeated this behaviour more than once. To my surprise, one of the terns actually land on the boardwalk rail; however, it was way too far for me to photograph, and I was facing directly into the sun. I hurried back the way I had come, but it flew up into the air before I could get close enough for a decent photograph.

I compensated for the lost opportunity by spending some time photographing the turtles. Two Northern Map Turtles and a few smaller Painted Turtles were sunning themselves on the vegetation. I also spotted a large Snapping Turtle swimming just below the water’s surface.

Northern Map Turtle

Northern Map Turtle

Although I enjoyed my day at Point Pelee, it definitely wasn’t as birdy as I would have liked. None of my visits there have been particularly bountiful; fortunately, the quality of birds that I usually see makes up for the lack of quantity, particularly since I enjoy seeing the common southern species that we don’t get in Ottawa.

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