by Rob Alvo, Bob Manson and Peter Manson
What serious birder wouldn’t take flight at the chance for a week at an isolated prime location during the peak of spring migration? An announcement in Bird Studies Canada’s e-newsletter read, “Are you interested in experiencing spring migration at the Tip of Long Point, in southern Ontario?” Rob immediately contacted the Long Point Bird Observatory (LPBO) to find out more.
Since 1960, LPBO has been operating a research station at the extreme eastern tip of Long Point, where scientists study migration (bird, bat, insect) and other aspects of natural history. It opportunistically opens some of its accommodations to members interested in being immersed in the research, education, and training programs. The point itself is the longest (about 40 km) freshwater sand spit in the world, is the most remote wilderness location in southern Ontario, and is a Globally Important Bird Area (395 species).
We were able to join LPBO at the tip for the minimum 5-night stay from 15 to 20 May, but an additional 1-2 days had to be reserved on either end because of weather-based uncertainty. The tip is accessible only by a 1.5-hour boat trip with a probability of travel on any given day around 40%.
We spent our initial 2 days birding the 700-km2 Long Point area, for which there is an excellent bird-finding guide (Ridout 2010), and covered about a third of its 45 sites. We spent the following 6 days at the tip of Long Point immersed in life at LPBO. Our group total for the trip was 137 species, with another 24 species recorded by LPBO researchers during our stay, likely a good indication of how rapidly some birds pass through the area.
Trip highlights included a Harris’s Sparrow that many other birders saw at Long Point Provincial Park, and a Cerulean Warbler at the tip. The banders later caught and banded this bird and allowed us to release it. We had 22 warbler species on the trip, and Peter, a quick-learning novice, picked up 51 lifers.
One of Ontario’s first bird-banding stations was founded at Point Pelee, but it was later moved to Long Point (McNicholl and Cranmer-Byng 1994). LPBO, the oldest bird observatory in the western hemisphere, is one of more than 30 stations that comprise the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network (Crewe et al. 2008). LPBO has three research stations: Old Cut, at the base of the peninsula and accessible by car; Breakwater, about halfway out to the tip and accessible only by boat; and, the tip, also accessible only by boat. “Old Cut” is a small forest that is excellent for birding. It is very close to a large marsh and the Long Point Provincial Park. A store, open daily from 0900 to noon (in season), is run by volunteers and sells the Ridout (2010) guide and other birding goodies.
The other parts of Long Point proper include Long Point Provincial Park, Long Point Crown Marsh, Long Point National Wildlife Area, Nature Conservancy of Canada land, and a world-famous waterfowl hunting club, The Long Point Company. The tip comprises Transport Canada land and a provincial conservation reserve.
The Tip Cabin sleeps six people in four single beds and one double. Our only neighbours were 10 researchers housed at the Tip House (the old Lighthouse keeper’s house), about 500 m away. We also had a visit from a private float plane from Brantford, whose pilot turned out to be an old high school mate of Bob’s and took him on a flight over the tip, giving him an excellent view of our “study area.”
The sandy tip itself, like Point Pelee’s, was good for gulls, terns, shorebirds, and waterfowl. A small viewing shelter facing the point, the “Slanty Shanty,” seated the three of us tightly and required a scope. Walking west from the tip, we noticed that as the north and south beaches got farther apart, they became separated by dunes sheltered from the wind by sand ridges that were much steeper on the south beach than on the north beach. In the vegetated dunes close to the tip were placed 12 mist nets and the huge funnel-shaped Heligoland Trap, first used in Ontario at Point Pelee before the use of mist nets (O’Neill 2006). The Tip House was always worth checking because it was alive with occupied Purple Martin “apartments,” Barn Swallows nesting under the eaves, and well-maintained busy feeders. This area had some of the first tall deciduous trees that incoming migrants encounter.
The inter-beach portions of the peninsula had scattered cedar trees and ponds, the latter mostly overgrown by the invasive emergent plant Phragmites australis. On the west side of the study area adjacent to the Tip Cabin was an extensive grid of Tree Swallow nest boxes that has been studied by LPBO for over 35 years. The water levels in the tip’s wetlands varied from no water to about a metre deep. One, directly north of the Tip Cabin and swallow grid, had a muddy area that attracted shorebirds. However, it was a poor spring for shorebirds there, and we found only eight species on the entire trip, despite having checked numerous shorebird sites on the peninsula and mainland. The pond just south of the Tip House had Virginia Rails, and a rarely seen Yellow Rail was spotted there earlier this year. The small wetlands also housed an American Bittern and had likely been good for waterfowl earlier in the spring.
Mixed forests of cedar and deciduous trees were among the first dense forest encountered by birds moving west up the peninsula, providing wind protection. We had 11 species in one cottonwood tree. Both beaches would have been excellent for observing waterfowl in early spring, but the only species seen were White-winged and Surf Scoters, the always-late Redbreasted Merganser, and a flock o f seven, normally-early, Common Mergansers.
We maintained the two feeders at the Tip Cabin, which were visited by 17 species, providing excellent views of Tufted Titmouse, Red-headed Woodpecker and Redbellied Woodpecker. An amazingly tame companion was a lost competition Rock Pigeon, according to its yellow leg band.
We met some volunteer banders from central England, where each village hosts a different, though always strong, accent. We learned that a certain Dave, who had invited them to do some banding at his place in southern Ontario, was a “cracking bloke” (a fine fellow), that Britain has many more bird banders per capita than North America, that most British banders are male, and that many have their own banding sites over and above those that are officially recognized. The highlight for them are the beautiful North American warblers, which they told us don’t sing nearly as well as their drab Old World counterparts. All the researchers were very friendly and engaged us in their research activities, answered our questions about banding and migration monitoring, and gave us updates on the day’s birds they had banded or spotted, though we were careful to respect their time given the high intensity of their work.
Recognizing amphibian calls can help you avoid wasting time trying to identify something that turns out not to be a bird. The calling season extends from early spring to late summer, with each species having its own calling period and distinct sound (www.carcnet.ca). Thus it was strange to hear five species calling on the same day, from the early Western Chorus Frog and Spring Peeper, through the mid-season Fowler’s Toad (a lifer for all three of us) and Northern Leopard Frog, to the late-season Bullfrog. Salamanders don’t call.
No biting insects were active during our trip, but we checked ourselves every night for ticks: tiny deer ticks and larger wood ticks, both of which can carry diseases such as Lyme disease.
Birding the Long Point area during spring migration got us much the same birds as has Point Pelee, but was a totally different experience: the wilderness, greater time commitment, smaller area to bird once at the tip, banding activities, and the dearth of other birders.
Many thanks to Stuart Mackenzie for facilitating our trip and reviewing this article. For more information about the Long Point Bird Observatory visit: www.birdscanada.org/lpbo.
- Crewe, T.L., J.D. McCracken, P.D. Taylor, D. Lepage, and A.E. Heagy. 2008. The Canadian Migration Monitoring Network: ten-year report on monitoring landbird population change. CMMN-RCSM Scientific Technical Report #1. Produced by Bird Studies Canada, Port Rowan, Ontario. 69 pp.
- McNicholl, M .K. and J.L. Cranmer-Byng. 1994. Ornithology in Ontario. Special Publication No. 1, O ntario Field Ornithologists. Hawk Owl Publishing, Whitby. 400 pp.
- O’Neill, H.T . 2006. Birding at Point Pelee. James Lorimer and Company Ltd., Publishers, Toronto. 224 pp.
- Ridout, R. 20 10. A birding guide to the Long Point area. Bird Studies Canada and Long Point Bird Observatory, Port Rowan. 146 pp.
Rob Alvo is a member of the OFNC and currently sits on the Events Committee. He and his birding buddy Bob Manson are co-authoring a book entitled, Being a Bird in North America, North of Mexico (www.babina.ca), due to be published in late 2014. Peter is Bob’s brother.
This article is reproduced with permission from Trail & Landscape 2014;48(1):36-39.