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Pelee Island Spring 2024 Part 1: The Arrival and the Apocalypse

By Alessandra Kite

Visiting Pelee Island with the specific purpose of birding during peak migration has been a long-time dream of ours. I had worked there as an assistant bander with the Pelee Island Observatory (PIBO) in 2021 and 2022, but, due to the commitment of manning the bird observatory for the entire spring, I didn’t have the time to experience reverse migration or fully cover different hotspots in the morning. That being said, I did witness amazing migration during censuses and general birding across the Island when I had the time/energy. I could only dream of the potential that dedicated birding at Fish Point or Lighthouse Point may have in the early morning. So… I really hyped up Kiah about the wonders of migration on Pelee Island for the past two years, with no means to actually visit due to the commitment of his Big Year and then seasonal field work. Part of the magic of setting up this company was planning exactly where we could be at specific times of the year so that we could have the means of exploring places we wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. Pelee Island had always been one of our goal destinations for birding since before starting this company… and finally we had set up two private tours as a means to go! We are so grateful to our supporters who book with us and share our content, because, not only do we want a means of travel, but we want to be able to share it with you!

three expert birders with cameras birding at the tip of Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, Pelee Island

Birding the tip of Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve with Taylor Kennedy and Sterling Sztricsko

On April 25th we set off from the Leamington Ferry Docks midday after driving from the Bruce that morning. The ferry ride was peaceful, smooth, and before we knew it an hour and a half had flown by: we had arrived! We were immediately greeted by the cacophony of clicks and buzzes of the Barn Swallows that were already setting up nests on the dock shelters. They danced around us with expert grace, all the while we felt warm wind brushing our skin for the first time in…surprisingly not too long ago (winter in southern Ontario this year was shockingly warm). Nevertheless, as soon as the front wheels of our lil red chevy cobalt hit the dock we knew our spring adventure had finally begun and there was no stopping from this point on.

expert birding tour guide Alessandra Kite standing on the outer deck of the Pelee Islander 2, the ferry that crosses lake Erie from Leamington to arrive on Pelee Island.

On the deck of the Pelee Islander II, ready for our next adventure!

With no time to waste, we set out on the Island with a fury and a vengeance of someone who hasn’t seen a Brown Thrasher in at least six months. This was Kiah’s first time on the Island so we started by driving around the ~30 km perimeter while I pointed out all the best birding spots and reminisced about my wild days of 3 years past when I spent my spring/summer biking across the Island and exploring every nook and cranny. We ended our first day with a peaceful walk up the beach at Fish Point, getting excited whenever we spotted a new bird for the year. The cherry on top was watching our first American White Pelican of the year effortlessly glide past the tip and disappear into the horizon.

Expert birding tour guide Kiah Jasper posing along the path at the base of Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, Pelee Island. There are trilliums and a bright green undergrowth with trees that are not fully leafed out in the background.

Enjoying the evening at Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve

Pelee Island is an amazing location to witness some of the first large pushes of migrants for the spring. For much of April we had been scouring eBird reports and watching as the northern coast of Ohio filled with observations of the migrants we longed for. We knew that millions of birds were just beyond our reach and they were just waiting for the right weather conditions to make the leap across lake Erie and continue their frantic push north. We also knew that the perfect weather conditions for mass migration would fall into place…the night of April 26th into the 27th… TONIGHT. Over the night of the 26th there was predicted sustained south winds all night continuing on into the morning, with a storm predicted to hit the south end of the Island at dawn. Apart from persistent rain, this is ideal weather for witnessing a phenomenon called reverse migration: a feat in which nocturnal migrating birds (mainly songbirds) filter southwards across land after dropping down for the morning, apparently seeking geographical landmarks such as a coastline. A low pressure system pushing northwards towards the shoreline at dawn almost ensures that birds migrating northwards across Lake Erie will drop down to the first spot of land they see… in this case, Pelee Island. After hitting the shore, birds will gather in groups and take off into the wind, rising so high into the sky until they disappear from sight. With the overnight prediction of millions of birds migrating north across Ohio paired with the inbound storm system, we knew we had to be at Fish Point bright and early on the morning of the 27th to witness what was coming…

An adult male Baltimore Oriole in flight with wings fully spread, flying off the tip of Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, Pelee Island.

Baltimore Oriole "reversing" off the tip of Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, by Kiah Jasper

April 26th was packed with adventure from dawn to dusk as we set out to scout every location we planned to tour. Perhaps we were hyped up in anticipation for the next morning’s birding, or the excitement of starting our first tours on Pelee Island, but we ended up visiting nine hotspots and walked ~20 km (30,000 steps) that day. Throughout the day we were searching for the most likely spots to observe small pockets of migrating warblers. Finding a pocket of warblers in early spring is like looking through a treasure box, trying to pick out all the different jewels and hoping you’ll find one jewel that shines a little brighter. We were so excited that day to find our first Black-throated Green Warbler of the year, and relished its sweet and cheery song as we watched it forage through the low shrubbery. We saw our first of year Palm Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Red-headed Woodpecker, and our first pockets of migrant Yellow-rumped Warblers that day and fully realized the excitement that migration had begun, although not yet in full force as we were to soon find out.

An adult Red-headed Woodpecker perched in the thin branches at the top of a budding tree, its bright red head stands out against the pale blue sky. Photo taken by Kiah Jasper at Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, Pelee Island.

A gorgeous adult Red-headed Woodpecker posing on top of a tree, by Kiah Jasper

Our local friendly snake researchers and birders Taylor Kennedy and Sterling Sztricsko offered a helping hand by giving us the lowdown of how migration had been going throughout early spring, and keeping tabs on the best locations to look for shorebirds. There is very limited habitat for shorebirds on Pelee Island; most are constrained to the last remaining flooded untilled fields of the season, which are sometimes hard to keep track of given the dynamic landscape of active agriculture. In previous years, the Florian Diamante Nature Reserve has been phenomenal for stop-over shorebirds during its transition from restored field to mudflat. However, in recent years the rapid growth of reeds and marsh vegetation, as well as the increasing water level has altered the landscape to favour spectacular numbers and a high diversity of dabbling ducks and marsh birds. So, if you want to track down shorebirds on Pelee Island, it’s crucial to stay up to date with the changing landscape to locate good habitat.

After a long day of birding and exploration, we ended the night once again at Fish Point. This spot is a personal favourite to visit in the evening, not only for the views and vibes but for the foraging flocks of migrants moving low along the beach. We watched as the small groups of warblers darted back and forth along the beach, frantically snapping up gnats in the last of the light. Perhaps we could all feel the buzz of what was yet to come…

A close up of a Warbling Vireo perched in the branches of a bush along the west beach of Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, Pelee Island.

Warbling Vireos had already taken Fish Point by storm, by Kiah Jasper

We arrived at Fish Point at 06:30 on the morning of the 27th and met up with our birding pals Taylor and Sterling in the parking lot, all the while keeping tabs on the predicted storm, which we could feel and hear brewing to the south. The storm was now predicted to hit land at around 07:30, so we had some time to bird the forest and beaches down towards the tip until then. As predicted before the storm, the forest was dark and quiet (bird-wise) and there was very little movement in the canopy. We saw less than 30 individual warblers foraging sparsely in the canopy on our way down, however, there was a large movement of White-throated Sparrows moving north through the low undergrowth and along the path parallel to Fox Pond, perhaps migrants that had dropped down earlier in the morning. White-throated Sparrows are a species of bird that typically do not participate in reverse migration, so this movement is to be expected. Just west of the Fox Pond lookout Kiah spotted a male Yellow-breasted Chat foraging quietly in the understory! This was Kiah’s first self-found chat and it was very exciting to see one of our main targets of the trip. We had several good views of him sitting on exposed branches before he eventually took off deeper into the forest understory never to be seen again. That experience ended up being our only viewing of a Yellow-breasted Chat for the whole trip! With our spirits even more amped up, we continued onwards towards the tip, now with rain to guide our path. Just before we reached the tip, Sterling spotted a Louisiana Waterthrush (LOWA) foraging along the east beach among the undergrowth and driftwood! This surprising individual was our first Pelee Island LOWA for the whole group! LOWA is a tricky bird to get on Pelee Island due to their early and brief spring migration period and skulky personalities. However, this individual decided to stick around Pelee Island for the next several days, consistently and conveniently foraging along the path further north next to Fox Pond (much to the pleasure of the few local and visiting birders).

A Yellow-breasted Chat perched just above the undergrowth on a leafing bush at the base of Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, Pelee Island. Trilliums and greenery fill the background.

Yellow-breasted Chat (not very chatty) at Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, by Kiah Jasper

A Louisiana Waterthrush foraging along the sandy beach among the driftwood at Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, Pelee Island.

Louisiana Waterthrush on the beach, what he gonna do, by Kiah Jasper

We arrived at the tip at 07:15, gazing in awe at the lightning storm that we could see drifting past along the western horizon. We were cautious, of course we didn’t want to get struck by lightning on one of the best birding days of our lives so we hugged the treeline and kept a close eye on the dark wall pushing past us. The storm passed us by and hit land on the Island shore just north of us; we were probably the only people on the Island that had evaded the worst of it. As the rain faded, we positioned ourselves at the tip of Fish Point and began watching for reverse migration. The first few minutes started off slow, with a few blackbirds and Yellow-rumped Warblers, then around 07:30 the dam broke and a steady stream of hundreds of warblers started passing by, along with several groups of kingbirds and orioles. We were so caught up in the chaos and the magnitude of it all that we didn’t start actively counting individuals until 08:36, although we had conservatively estimated that at least 1000 birds had flown past our heads. From that point on we clicked (counting using a hand held clicker) 10 minute counts of the flight, keeping track in groups of 10. After the first 10 minutes we had counted 590 warblers. By 08:46 another 1550 warbs had flown by, and 10 minutes later, another 710 warbs! Things started to get really intense closer to 09:00, when we were getting over 100 warblers a minute, and sometimes closer to 240! Within the next half hour, at least 4130 warblers had passed us heading south. Clouds of birds were covering the sky, some darting between our bodies and along the beach nearly skimming the water, and most at varying heights as far as the eye could see. They were all heading south off the tip; northbound birds (very few) were not counted. The flight stopped abruptly during a few light showers, which lasted only a minute or two, however, after 09:56 the numbers began to steadily drop every 10 minutes: 1100, to 680, to 620, to 520, until our last count at 10:56 yielded 180 birds. Just after 11:00 the flight dropped off heavily so we decided to walk back along the beach to see what had remained. Surprisingly to us after such a dumping of birds, we only had about 120 individual warblers on the west beach and forest on the way back, however the difference in activity and diversity compared to earlier this morning was night and day. By the end of the morning we had counted a whopping 12,590 warblers!

A Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle Warbler) perched on a thick piece of driftwood along the beach of Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, Pelee Island.
A bright Yellow-rumped Warbler in flight with its wings fully outstretched, flying off the tip of Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, Pelee Island.

Yellow-rumped Warblers at the tip of Fish Point, by Kiah Jasper

A full body shot of a Western Palm Warbler standing in the sand along the beach of Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, Pelee Island.

Western Palm Warbler at the tip of Fish Point, by Kiah Jasper

So I’m sure you’re wondering after all those numbers… What species were we seeing and did we catch anything rare? Well before Sterling and Taylor left for work at around 09:30, Taylor managed to pick a Yellow-throated Warbler out of a group of 50 Yellow-rumped Warblers flying right over our heads. With four cameras frantically snapping at as many warblers as possible in one group, only one snagged the Yellow-throated! It was overwhelming to say the least, with hundreds of birds flying over at once how are you supposed to know which birds to take photos of? Generally, shape, size, and sound are a great help in identifying birds in flight during reverse migration. Most birds will make one or several distinct flight calls when “reversing” off the tip so if you can pick out the differences between species it helps a lot with counting, and narrowing the field for taking pictures. With experience you can learn these flight calls as well as the differences in size and shape with your naked eye to help filter through as many birds as possible. With that being said, I did have bruises on the bridge of my brow from my binoculars at the end of the morning from lifting up my bins so much ; ) The Yellow-throated Warbler was the only rarity seen during the flight that morning; despite such high numbers, the diversity of warblers was relatively low.

We had achieved MEGA YUMPAGE. About 90% of the warblers in the reverse flight that morning were Yellow-rumped Warblers. There were massive movements all morning; none of us had seen anything quite like this in Ontario. There were clouds of 30-200 yellow-rumps in the sky for most of the morning, coming in waves… constant action. By the end of the morning we had broken the Ontario Highcount record for yellow-rumps with 11331 birds! The old highcount was in the 1990s from Point Pelee, when observers counted 7000 birds. The remaining 10% of warblers consisted of Palm Warbler (500), Nashville Warbler (400), Yellow Warbler (250) and Black-throated Green Warbler (110), in that order of abundance. We also counted one Prothonotary Warbler (the first for Ontario in 2024) and a handful of early migrants in comparatively low abundance.

A Prothonotary Warbler in flight with its wings fully tucked in, flying off the tip of Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, Pelee Island.

The Prothonotary bullet, by Kiah Jasper

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in flight with its wings fully outstretched, flying off the tip of Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, Pelee Island.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher reversing off the tip of Fish Point, by Kiah Jasper

If you would like to see more species' numbers details and more pictures, please check out the eBird checklist we made through this link!

The morning of April 27th was our largest morning flight on Pelee Island numbers wise, but it was only the tip of the iceberg as we were to soon find out. The next two days proved to be equally intense and exciting as the diversity ramped up and the rarities started to filter through…

…But that’s enough reading for one blog post don’t you think? Have to leave you off on a bit of a cliff hanger ;P So make sure to keep up to date with our socials and website to catch Part 2 of the Pelee Island Spring 2024 series!

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1 Comment

Jun 27

Amazing account of such a wonderful and bountiful migration, you guys are the best! I can’t wait to read the next blog. Did you think the island was going to be this productive compared to Point Pelee?

Thanks for your detailed account!

All the best with Gyrkite!

Cindy McGregor

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