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POINT PELEE BIRD WATCHING TOURS

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One of the best places in Canada to see spring and fall migrations is Point Pelee. During peak birdwatching times, as many as 10,000 birders visit the national park each weekend.

Cooper's hawk
Cooper's hawk
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Carrying scopes, binoculars and cameras, they search for up to 380 species of birds that annually migrate through the 15-square-kilometer park. The triangular peninsula, which juts into Lake Erie, is the first resting place for migrating birds after they cross the lake from Ohio.

In size, Point Pelee National Park measures 10 kilometers long and four kilometers wide, narrowing to only three meters at its sandy tip. Located at 42 degrees north, Point Pelee is at the same latitude as Rome, Barcelona and northern California.

Driving directions

It's easy to get to Point Pelee, which is located in Essex County, 50 kilometers southeast of Windsor, Ontario. Take Exit 48 from Highway 401, and follow Highway 77 south through Leamington.

At Seacliffe Drive, in Leamington, turn left and follow County Road 33 southeast into Point Pelee National Park. Look for the blue and white Parks Canada signs, with beaver logos.

The park entrance is five kilometres southeast of Leamington. A tree-lined road brings you to the Point Pelee National Park Visitor Centre, where parking is free. There are several other free parking areas in the park, near trails, beaches, picnic areas and washrooms.

Point Pelee National Park sign
Point Pelee National Park sign
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Best time to see birds

During the spring migration, in the first three weeks of May, birders can spot between 75 and 150 species in one day. At dawn, the first waves of migrant birds arrive at the tip of Point Pelee. Starting at 6 am, park shuttles (from April to October, included in the Point Pelee entrance fee) transport birders from the visitor center to the tip.

Bird watcher with binoculars
Bird watcher with binoculars
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Fall migrations also draw birders. Autumn is the best time to see hawks and raptors. In the Point Pelee Visitor Centre, you can learn about predicted departure dates for species like sharp-shinned hawks, northern harriers and Cooper's hawks.

Bird species

Mississippi and Atlantic bird flyways converge at Point Pelee, bringing birds that migrate north in waves, with warm weather fronts. Cold or wet weather can ground the migrating birds, resulting in the descent of thousands of white-throated sparrows, northern orioles and red-breasted mergansers.

Point Pelee National Park Visitor Centre keeps lists of arrival and departure times for each bird species. Visitors can report daily bird sightings on a list.

Point Pelee is called the Warbler Capital of North America. Birders have spotted more than 40 warbler species in one day, including rare hermit warblers and yellow-throated warblers.

Although it is easy to see common species, like blue jays, spotting birds blown off-course and one-time sightings of rare bird species is the ultimate thrill.

Species of rare birds sighted and ticked off the lists of Point Pelee birdwatchers, include the Mississippi kite and the Iceland gull. Lucky individuals have also focused their binoculars and scopes on the scissor-tailed flycatcher, identified by its long black and white tail, pink belly and sides.

Hiking trails

Designated by UNESCO as a Wetland of International Significance, Point Pelee covers 4,000 acres, mostly marshland. Other habitats include Carolinian forest, swamp forest, cedar savannah, ponds, dry forest and overgrown fields. Beaches on both sides of the peninsula are good places to look for terns, gulls and shorebirds.

Point Pelee trails range from 0.5 to four kilometers, in length, and take 15 minutes to two hours to walk. Bird watchers frequently see red-wing blackbirds from the Marsh Boardwalk, which has an observation tower and telescopes.

Point Pelee National Park map
Point Pelee National Park map
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The DeLaurier Homestead Trail has an observation tower, from where birders can view the bald eagle nesting platform, near East Barrier Beach and Redhead Pond. At sunset, birdwatchers can scan the beach for bald eagles.

Hawk festival

Special events include the Festival of Birds, from early-May to mid-May. On guided hikes, visitors learn about birding techniques and bird identification. Friends of Point Pelee, a group which supports the national park, hosts a fundraising dinner, as well as breakfasts and lunches behind the national park visitor center.

Festival of Hawks, in mid-September, features daily two-hour fall migration hikes to the tip, with a park interpreter. One-hour family migration hikes, with park interpreters, take place on weekends.

Owl prowl

At a late-November Bird Feeding Workshop, experts tell visitors how to attract birds to their yards in winter and what to feed them. An annual Point Pelee Christmas Bird Count, in mid-December, is the world's largest citizen scientist program.

In early February, the annual owl prowl begins at the Point Pelee National Park Visitor Centre.

Guided tours

A guided tour is beneficial for amateurs, who want to learn about bird behaviour and how to identify birds, their songs and calls. Birdwatching trips are also fun for experienced birders.

Quest Nature Tours runs annual May spring bird migration tours that visit Point Pelee, as well as other Ontario birding hot spots. The tour includes transportation to and from Toronto to the best birdwatching spots, an expert guide, as well as meals and accommodations.

If you visit Point Pelee on your own, you can find places to stay and eat near Point Pelee on the Windsor Essex County and Pelee Island Convention & Visitors Bureau website. It also lists birding hotlines to call for migration updates.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Point Pelee National Park: www.pc.gc.ca

Windsor Essex County & Pelee Island: www.visitwindsoressex.com

More things to see and do in Ontario:

Stratford Ontario - Theater and Attractions

Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary

Book of North American Birds

York Region - Attractions for Everyone North of Toronto

Couples Resort Romantic Winter Getaway in Algonquin Park