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Spotlight on the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula

By Kiah Jasper

To me, Bruce County is one of the most interesting and enjoyable spots to go birding in Southern Ontario, though I may be biased because I grew up with the peninsula as my backyard! Spanning over 150 kilometers from Point Clark to the tip of Tobermory, Bruce is one of the longest counties in Southern Ontario. It is also incredibly diverse in terms of habitats and species (birds, as well as other flora and fauna), making it a really fascinating place to explore. One of my favourite things about the region is the variety of habitats, and how driving only a short distance will bring you to a totally different ecosystem. My goal with this post is to give you an overview of the county and highlight some of my favourite places to visit.

A map of the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula.

The Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula

If you are driving to Bruce from anywhere in southern Ontario, you will have to pass through expansive farmland and fragmented forests. This patchwork of livestock pastures, cash crop fields and broken up chunks of deciduous forest make up the majority of southwestern Ontario's landmass, with seemingly less and less trees the further south you go. Once you enter the border of Bruce County, you won't immediately notice a difference from neighboring Huron and Wellington... flat extensive fields... occasional forests. If you approach from the southwest, on Hwy 21 along the Lake Huron coast, you may notice that the majority of the lakeshore has trees, from Point Clark all the way up to Southampton. While this region, named the "Huron Fringe" does retain some forested habitat, it is quite narrow and is heavily developed, with several major towns and houses along the lake wherever there is room to squeeze them in. The southern part of the county also offers some fantastic birding, however for this post I will focus mainly on the Saugeen (aka Bruce) Peninsula. Continuing north, you will enter the peninsula from either the east (Hwy 6 through Wiarton) or the west (The Sauble Parkway north of Southampton) and either way, there will be a pretty noticeable change of scenery. Now, the main landscape is mainly forested, with the fields making up a smaller part of the area and townsites few and far between. Approaching from either direction, most routes will take you up Highway 6, which is the only main road on the peninsula that will take you the 76 kilometres from Wiarton north to the end of the line in Tobermory. Granted, there are several large agricultural areas along this route (Mar, the Ferndale and Lindsay flats), but the forest will always be in sight in either direction, slowly shifting from mixed forest dominated by maples to mainly coniferous and ruled by cedars, spruce and fir. Only broken by roads and small townsites, the forest continues from Wiarton all the way to the northern tip of the peninsula, thousands of acres of intact forests (by southern Ontario standards anyways). Because of these large forests, the peninsula is still home to Black Bears, Bobcats and many other species that are rare or extirpated in the rest of southwestern Ontario.

As you travel up the peninsula, if you deviate off highway 6 and decide to explore in either direction, you will find extremely different landscapes depending on which coast you visit. Even though it is only around 10 kilometres wide at some spots, the east and west coasts of the region have very distinct views about them. The eastern side of the peninsula is characterized by rocky shorelines, the deep blue water Bay and the steep cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment. It has some of the most breathtaking vistas of the Bruce and is world renown for it's natural beauty. The western side is very different, with long sandy shorelines, shallow water and inlets sheltered by small offshore islands and, unlike the eastern peninsula, is very flat, with few hills or peaks along the coast. The birdlife is also starkly distinct east vs west. The lake Huron side features shallow water and unique "coastal fen" habitat where you can find Osprey, herons, dabbling ducks, gulls and terns, as well as shorebirds on migration. The wide sandy beaches around Sauble Beach and Oliphant have also provided breeding habitat for Piping Plovers, an endangered species of plover in Ontario. The Georgian Bay side by contrast has almost no shallow water along it's shores, and as a result lacks the diversity of wading birds and species that favor low water levels. It makes up for that with other species though, such as loons, diving ducks including scoters and scaup, and massive concentrations of grebes (in April a significant part of the worlds population of Red-necked Grebe stage offshore of north Bruce in Georgian Bay).

A banded Piping Plover stretching its wings above its body, on the beach with water in the background, at Sauble Beach, Bruce Peninsula.

Piping Plover at Sauble Beach

Moving away from the shore the habitat inland is equally varied and full of interesting birdlife. Small inland lakes and wetlands are scattered across the peninsula, luckily many of them are in protected conservation areas and parks, meaning access for the public and also sanctuary for wildlife. American Bitterns, Virginia Rail, Sora and Sandhill Crane are abundant, with smaller numbers of uncommon species like Least Bittern, Sedge Wren and Black Tern present as well. Most decently sized lakes on the peninsula have at least one pair of Common Loons nesting, their calls are often heard through the night during the summer months.

Forest nesting species can be found in very high concentrations in the region, with high species diversity due to the mix of habitats. Near Tobermory the mixed coniferous forest is in the boreal transition zone, and has nesting species such as Olive-sided Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Swainson's Thrush and Northern Parula that are often associated with northern Ontario. Walking almost any forested road in North Bruce you will hear American Redstarts everywhere you go, with Black-throated Green Warblers not too far behind. Near the southern end of the peninsula outside of Wiarton there are several large broad-leaf forests with tall oaks and maples, here you can find species including Yellow-throated Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Wood-Pewee and Wood Thrush. For several years Hooded Warbler and Cerulean Warbler were on territory here as well, both species at the northern edge of their range. Finally, there are also a number of grasslands around the peninsula where you can encounter rare and threatened species of the open country such as Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, Grasshopper Sparrow, Barn Swallow and Upland Sandpiper. An unfortunate trend in recent years is the destruction of cattle grazing pastures in favor of high yield cash crops, which are cut several times per season and sprayed with pesticides. This does not allow time for these birds to nest and it also destroys their food source, which is a major cause of decline in these grassland nesting birds. Nonetheless, there are still a good number of fields where they can be found thriving in good numbers compared to a lot of other regions in the province.

The following list is our recommendation for top birding spots to visit on the Bruce, as well as some of the most notable species found at each. Of course there are too many locations to mention, but starting with some of these will build up a familiarity with the region, which you can then build on by exploring less frequented hotspots.

  • Notable birds for each location highlighted in bold

#1 - Isaac Lake

Overview: One of the largest wetland complexes in the region, Isaac Lake is part of the Rankin River system, connecting with Sky Lake, Spry Lake and finally emptying into Lake Huron at Sauble Beach. The birding here is quite simple, as only one road (Isaac Lake Rd) runs through the hotspot including one trail that leads to an observation platform. Entering Isaac Lake Road you will first drive through a narrow corridor of wooded habitat with pastures on either side, then a large hill will lead you down to the marsh area, where the road cuts straight through the wetland for around a kilometre before turning and heading into a broad-leaf forest. At this point there is a large parking area, which you can stop at and either walk back into the wetland area, into the forest, or around a small pond to the observation platform. The road ends in another 800 metres at a large parking area, with a large field on one side and a boat launch and Isaac Lake on the other. It's worth noting that this road is gravel and is only serviced once or twice a year, so be careful driving because there are lots of potholes!

Birds: Isaac Lake is worth a visit anytime from late March through November, with the best birding between April and October. During the spring large numbers of waterfowl can be found in the marsh and on the lake, in recent years over 600 scaup, redhead and other diving ducks can be seen from the boat launch area during April (One year there was a Eurasian Wigeon with them). Late April can be a great time to visit, as the bitterns and rails have returned, but the grass hasn't yet grown up so you can actually see these secretive marsh species. During the spring and summer this is often the best spot on the lower peninsula to find American Bittern, Sora, Virginia Rail, Marsh Wren and Black-crowned Night-Heron. Black Terns and Least Bittern are also found here occasionally. The lake hosts a breeding pair of Common Loons each year, and Caspian Terns can often be seen fishing there during summer months. The forest alongside the road is a great spot to look for migrant songbirds during spring and fall, as the narrow strip of forest beside the wetland acts as a concentration point. During the right conditions in May, you could exceed 100 species at Isaac Lake.

An adult Caspian Tern in flight at Isaac Lake, Bruce Peninsula.

Caspian Tern

An American Bittern in flight over the treetops at Isaac Lake, Bruce Peninsula.

American Bittern

#2 - Malcolm Bluff

Overview: An Ontario Nature property, Malcolm Bluff is a 15 minute drive Northeast of Wiarton and is a 1,140 acre property on the shoreline of Colpoy's Bay. A large stretch of the Bruce Trail runs through here, and there are several smaller side loops that you can explore as well. Even if birds aren't your focus, this spot is worth visiting for the view alone. Parking at the access point on Wright's Crescent, a short walk will bring you to a breaktaking vista atop the Niagara Escarpment. From here you have a sweeping view of Colpoy's Bay and the escarpment on the other side of the water, in my opinion one of the top viewing points on all of the peninsula. It is also a very cool location because there is several hundred meters of forest ahead and underneath you before it ends at the shoreline. During breeding season this is a lovely place to spend a morning, because all the birdsong from the lower forest carries up along the cliff. I recommend parking at the Bruce Trail lot on Wright's Crescent, then walk the side trail around 600m to the edge of the escarpment. From there you can walk either direction on the Bruce Trail for as long as you want to, then return the same rout to the parking area. The trail is well maintained, however there there are plenty of roots and rocks on the trail, so mind your footing.

Birds: The best time to visit this location is between May and July, when there are large number of migrants and breeding birds in the area. Of course the view is there year round, but the bird diversity can be quite poor in late fall - early spring. Peregrine Falcons breed nearby and can often be seen and heard flying along the cliff, and in late summer I sometimes see them with their recently fledged young. In the forest there are many sought after breeding species, such as Scarlet Tanager, Yellow-throated Vireo, Veery, Wood Thrush, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Eastern Wood-Pewee and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Both Cerulean Warblers and Hooded Warblers have been on territory here, not too surprising really as the habitat (tall broad-leaf trees with a thin understory).

A view from the top of Malcom Bluff looking out over the trees and lake below.

Malcolm Bluff

#3 - Oliphant Shoreline

Overview: Only a few minutes north of Sauble Beach, the Oliphant Shoreline is easily one of my favourite spots on the peninsula. Unlike a lot of the shoreline on the peninsula, which is hidden behind private residences, you can see Lake Huron for the majority of the 9 kilometre road along the Oliphant coast. Offshore from Oliphant are the "fishing Islands", a series of small offshore islands that provide sheltered waters and offer protection from Lake Huron's westerly winds and waves. Several of these islands are home to large nesting colonies of Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Ring-billed and Herring Gull. The water along the shoreline is very shallow, which is great for foraging herons and shorebirds. Much of the shoreline here is also a rare habitat type on the Great Lakes, the "freshwater coastal fen". There are many rare orchids and wildflowers in this stretch of shore, so if you're interested in botany this is a must-visit location (June-July is best). There is a large boardwalk through this sensitive habitat at the Oliphant Fen Nature Preserve, where you can get up close views of many of these species and learn about the ecosystem from a series of recently installed signs. Besides the boardwalk area the birding here is all roadside, and can easily be done from a car.

Birds: The main attraction in this area would have to be the herons and terns, which can reliably be seen from April through later summer alongside the road at Oliphant (often good opportunities for photographs. Other breeding birds include Wilson's Snipe, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Canada Warbler and Belted Kingfisher, there are also a few nesting pairs of Osprey, most frequently seen at the Oliphant Fen Nature Preserve area. In October, the Oliphant Fen area can be a great spot to find a few tough species like Nelson's Sparrow and American Golden-Plover. If you want to get up close views of nesting herons and gulls, there is a boat tour company called "Boat the Bruce" at the Oliphant Marina that will take you out around the islands. The water levels here fluctuate a lot year to year, but in seasons when there is exposed sand and rock on the shoreline this location becomes the best spot on the peninsula to search for migrating shorebirds. This is also the only location in the county that has hosted 2 first records for Ontario, the Eurasian Dotterel and Reddish Egret, on top of a large list of lesser rarities such as Marbled Godwit, American Avocet and Black Vulture.

A view of the mudflats along the Oliphant shoreline.

Oliphant shoreline

Tour guide Kiah Kasper looking out over the fen with binoculars along the Oliphant shoreline.

Oliphant Fen Nature Preserve

A Nelson's Sparrow peaking out from the reeds on the Oliphant shoreline.

Nelson's Sparrow

#4 - Red Bay Road

Overview: This location is only a few minutes North of Oliphant, so if you're already in the area it's worth checking out. Coming from the West, the first part of Red Bay Road is forested and isn't too different from the surrounding roads (though stopping to listen during the summer could turn up sought after birds such as Canada Warbler and Eastern Whip-Poor-Will). After a few kilometres of forest the road losses a bit of elevation and makes a hard left, when it then runs directly alongside Sky Lake for 2 kilometres. Sky Lake is a large, but shallow inland lake that feeds into the Rankin River system and hosts a large number of breeding species during the summer months. The lake is covered in reeds and other vegetation, making it hard to access for boats and ideal for nesting marshbirds. Past the lake the road continues through a series of cattle pastures before ending at Highway 6. Do be careful birding here, as there aren't many places to pull over and traffic can be busy (there is a parking area beside the lake though).

Birds: Starting at the small parking lot on the west end of Sky Lake, I recommend getting out of the car for a few minutes and walking around the area by the bridge. This is one of the most reliable locations in the area to get Least Bitterns, as well as American Bittern, Virginia Rails and Sora. Looking further out into the lake, there is a good chance of seeing Black Terns and Common Loons during the late spring/summer, as both species nest here. Visiting during the evening is ideal, because marsh birds will be more vocal and there's the added chance of Black-crowned Night-Heron, Common Nighthawk and Barred Owl. Birding along the road further west in the field habitat, you may encounter grassland species including Eastern Meadowlark, Bobolink and Eastern Bluebird. This is one of very few locations on the peninsula that has breeding Brewer's Blackbirds, a bird that is found in no other county in southern Ontario. For the blackbirds look on the hydro lines a few hundred metrs before Highway 6, they are there most of the time between Mid-April and August.

A Brewer's Blackbird in song on a wooden post, on Red Bay Road, Bruce Peninsula.

Brewer's Blackbird

#5 - Dyer's Bay Road & Dyer's Bay

Overview: Dyer's Bay Road is quite long compared to some of the other locations I have mentioned, 13 kilometres from Highway 6 to where it ends along Georgian Bay to the East. The good birding locations are all in the last few kilometres of the road though, so that's where I'll focus on. After leaving Highway 6 you will first drive through mainly coniferous forested habitat for several minutes before arriving at a large field, this area is still mainly pasture and supports good numbers of grassland birds. Worth noting that this area is also a good place to observe Black Bear. Continuing down the road there will be a stop sign, at which point you will turn right and drive through a broad-lead forest for 1.5 km before descending a steep hill and arriving at the Dyer's Bay Dock. Scoping from there can be a bit tricky since there's no parking, so either stay with your car or park at the Bruce Trail parking lot at the top of the hill you just came down (it will be about 500 m to walk from the parking lot down to the dock). That's normally the furthest down the road we recommend because after that there are cottages on either side of the road and it's tough to see.

Birds: The pasture mid-way down the road is a great spot to observe grassland species including Eastern Meadowlark, Eastern Bluebird, Bobolink and Savannah Sparrow during the spring and summer. Keep an eye on the fenceposts because Red-headed Woodpeckers nest in this area and can often be seen foraging beside the road. Sandhill Cranes and American Bitterns are common in the fields here and can often be seen or heard at any point during spring and summer. If you visit in early spring, a few of the fields often flood with water, making for excellent shorebird and dabbling duck habitat. After birding the grassland, check out the dock area for Red-necked and Horned Grebes, Common Loons and diving ducks.

*There are 2 additional sites that I feel like I have to mention while discussing Dyer's Bay (mainly if you visit between May and July). The first is Lindsay Road 40, which is one concession North of Dyer's Bay road and can be access by Bartley Drive (the stop sign I mentioned before, turn left this time) or Crane Lake Road. Walking along the scrubland of Lindsay Road 40 (starting 200m west of the Bartley/Lindsay 40 intersection) you will be in prime habitat for Golden-winged Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler and Eastern Towhee, one of the best spots for these species in the county.

The second spot is Crane Lake Road, which in itself could easily take a whole day to explore. If you do have the time I recommend parking at the wetland area 1km North of the intersection with Lindsay 40 and walking from there, it's a great spot to encounter a variety of marsh, forest and grassland birds and is just a fun hike in general! This is part of the Bruce trail so you can go as far as you want before turning around. If you are in a rush though, drive Crane Lake Road 2.2 km North of Lindsay 40 and bird the alvar habitat here. This is some of the best alvar habitat on the peninsula and has breeding Grasshopper Sparrow, Upland Sandpiper and American Kestrel. This spot is also great to see Black Bears walking across the field. Be careful driving this road, as it can be quite bad with potholes and flooding at times.

The beautiful rocky shoreline of Dyer's Bay, Bruce Peninsula.

Dyer's Bay

The Dyer's Bay Dock, a beautiful vista of the Georgian Bay, Bruce Peninsula.

Dyer's Bay Dock

An adult Horned Grebe in breeding plumage floating in the water at Dyer's Bay, Bruce Peninsula.

Horned Grebe

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