by Trev Feltham
I started birdwatching in the seventies and after buying the usual field guides; one of the first books I bought was The Audubon Society Encyclopaedia of North American Birds by J. K. Terres. It has well over 800 colour photographs of some fantastic species, which held me enthralled from the moment I opened the cover. I often wondered and dreamed if I would ever be lucky enough to actually be able to see them in their natural habitat. So you can imagine my wild elation when a couple of friends and myself made arrangements to fly across to Canada on a birding trip to take place on the 8th – 30th May a few years later. To be more specific our destination was Point Pelee on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, a well-known migration spot.
I waited impatiently for the great day to dawn, and when it finally arrived, I felt as though I’d been waiting years instead of months. We were flying with Wardair, a Canadian company from Manchester Airport, as this was the first time I’d flown I was more than a little apprehensive. As we boarded the 747, I looked up in awe at the sheer size of it, wondering to myself how on earth something this massive could get off the ground even, let alone fly. We had just taken our seats when the engines started, appearing to scream as we taxi along to the end of the runway.
We felt like a sprinter in the starting blocks, waiting for the starting
pistol, as the scream of the engines grew louder with every passing second.
We began to move slowly at first, then faster and faster, as the plane
thunders over the ground. Then just when you think you’re not going to
make it, everything goes quiet; you are pinned in the seat, feeling as
if you’re climbing almost vertically. It doesn’t take long to get used
to the relative quiet of the engines, after the cacophony they made when
you actually left the ground. You forget that you are at thirty five thousand
feet over the Atlantic, sit back, relax, and start to enjoy the flight
for the next eight hours.
We arrived in Toronto at 1.30pm, the weather was sunny and hot, and the first task after landing was to go and pick up the hire car. This was my first experience of driving on the right, I consider myself to be a good driver. But to be suddenly faced with a four-lane highway, and traffic hurtling towards you, on what appears to be the wrong side of the road, made life extremely interesting to say the least.
Our destination was Toronto Island, which was signposted, but finding the correct turning proved much more difficult than we had imagined. Eventually after three failed attempts to get to the ferry, we simply parked in the nearest car park, and walked to the terminal. During the walk, which ran alongside Lake Ontario, we saw the first bird of the trip. A Caspian Tern, its large red bill pointing downwards, as it flew back and forth in search of food. When it saw a small fish it would dive straight in, sometimes almost completely submerged. What a fantastic spectacle to watch and our trip not properly started yet.
The journey across the lake took around twenty minutes, and we passed the time looking at around 25 Long-tailed Duck, which were on view. When we landed on the opposite shore, I was reminded of the parks at home, with tennis courts, bowling greens, and neatly cut grass. As this was my first birding trip outside Britain, naturally I felt like a child let loose in a toyshop on Christmas Eve. There was so much to see and take in, I didn’t know where to start, in fact it was almost overwhelming, with the emphasis on the word ALMOST.
We saw 25 American Robin, and 10 Hermit Thrush foraging in the grass, hiding under a bush was a beautiful Ovenbird. There were Nashville, Cape May, and Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting amongst the trees. As we slowly ambled along, it was as if we had moved into a completely different area. This time it was White-crowned, and White-throated Sparrow that caught our attention along with the ever present Red-winged Blackbird. Then just a little offshore was a bird I had looked forward to seeing, a beautiful neat looking drake Bufflehead escorting four females, also along the edge of the beach were a couple of Spotted Sandpiper. Killdeer, sped back and forth, occasionally stopping to peck at some tasty morsel, Ring-billed Gull were there by the thousand all screaming and squabbling in a roost nearby.
By the time we had walked from one ferry terminal to the other, it was almost dark, and we were just in time to catch the last ferry at ten o’clock. As we waited all the skyscrapers in Toronto were ablaze with lights, and dwarfing everything else, was the magnificent C. N. Tower in all its glory. As the ferry docked, we saw a final flypast of 20 Black-crowned Night Heron. My first afternoon and evening of foreign birding had produced a host of birds, not only a host, but also 26 species for my tick list.
On arriving back at the car we were faced with two options, we could sleep in the car, or press on to Pelee. But there was no contest really, after the exciting few hours we had just spent, at 10.45pm we were on the road again. On the way, we called in at a diner for our first taste of burger and french-fries American style, not having eaten since our flight over. Having nourished our bodies, as well as our spirits, we continued our 200-mile journey, arriving in Pelee at around 2.30am. Although tired we were far too excited to get any sleep, so at 5.00am we started our first full day of birding. Point Pelee is a small piece of land that juts out from the northern shore of Lake Erie, and is around 30 miles from Detroit. It wasn’t what I had been expecting habitat wise. It was mostly wooded, with areas of marshland, a few grassy places, and a narrow strip of sand on both sides. The first place we visited was a boardwalk, but with a difference to those I knew back in England. This one actually floated in parts, as it wended its way through the marshes. This had the added attraction of giving us excellent views of Swamp Sparrow, Marsh Wren, and Great Blue Heron. We spent some time enjoying the first class birding views before returning to the car.
On our return to the vehicle we drove to the Interpretative Centre. Having first paid the appropriate park entrance fee. We could not take our car any further than this point, but we could catch a bus to the Tip of Point Pelee, well it’s not a bus, in the accepted sense of the word, being a Range Rover type of vehicle pulling two carriages. (As you ride in this vehicle all instructions were given first in English, then repeated in French.) During the journey we could only watch in wonder at the vast numbers of birds we saw. When we finally arrived and alighted from the bus, we weren’t ready for the variety of bird life waiting for us. Brilliant blue flashes of the Jays, the vivid splashes of gold from the myriad were Yellow Warbler. Each contrasted with the green foliage of the bushes as they dashed in and out, along with the bright Scarlet Tanager.
There was so much going on it appeared impossible where to look next as we sauntered through the various clumps of trees. Each appears to have something different to show us. Our excitement grew even more and we gasped at the beauty as we got our first ever glimpse of a Blackburnian Warbler, with its flame-coloured throat and the broad patch of white on its black wings. Also sighted were Black-throated Blue, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, and Cerulean Warbler, and each one resplendent in its colourful plumage.
We were so enthralled we completely forgot the passage of time, and had to wrench ourselves away from our continuing adventure of discovery, in order to find somewhere to camp for the night. On our way back to the car we were privileged to see both Northern and Orchard Oriole, and perhaps the most handsome Woodpecker I have ever seen, a Red-headed Woodpecker. Apparently this was the species that inspired the famous Woody Woodpecker. We didn’t have to travel far in order to find a campsite, as there was one just outside the park entrance. It looked both clean and tidy, so we decided this was the ideal place. We were invited to pitch our tents among the pine trees. Although it looked an idyllic spot, the ground was so hard the tent pegs just buckled as if made from rubber.
We were re-located on a patch of grass just opposite the office, whether it was because we were strangers in a foreign land and needed having our hands held, I’m not quite sure. Also parked opposite the office was an old school bus with long grass growing in profusion around it, even to the greenest tenderfoot, the vehicle hadn’t been moved for ages. This would make an ideal windbreak, after much deliberation deciding on which way the prevailing wind would be blowing that night we pitched our tents.
We had been informed that we could get a reasonable meal at ‘Doug’s Café’ a little further up the road. If we did eat there, we must sample one of his excellent Perch Dinners. The mere mention of food was enough for our stomachs to protest at the length of time since we’d eaten, so we went along and ordered the recommended Perch Dinner. It finally arrived on a silver tray, with about 25 small fish arranged around the edge of the platter, and in the middle was the biggest mountain of french-fries I have ever seen.
Although we all enjoyed our food we were unable to cope with that amount, and were only too pleased to share our meal with a couple of English birders at the next table. During the following 12 days all our meals would be taken at this delightful and friendly place. Once our bellies were stretched to bursting point, we decided there was enough time to explore a little more before darkness descended, and forced us to return to the campsite. We’d met a couple of local birders earlier; both were only too pleased in sharing their local knowledge with fellow birders from England. One was married to an English girl, whilst the other had been born in the old country, but had spent most of his life in Canada.
For the remainder of the afternoon and evening, we accompanied them, finding to our great delight we all shared a genuine and real love of birds. They really enjoyed pointing out new birds for the true birders obligatory tick list. Even more refreshing their excitement was real, and not affected because we were visitors to their adopted country. We then headed to what they referred to as the Onion Fields, but in fact were nothing more than ploughed fields.
There didn’t seem to be much going on in the way of birding except for a few Shore Lark and a Buff-bellied Pipit, but we did see a majestic Peregrine Falcon of the "Tundrius" race, resting on its way north. The next port of call was the town of Wheatley, as we arrived there, on the telegraph wires at the side of the road was our first sight of an American Kestrel, a small neat beautifully marked falcon.
Although our two friends had to leave us there, we arranged to meet up the following day. Left alone to our own devices, we decided that as it was too late to return to Pelee, we would go to Hillman’s Marsh, on the off chance we could spot a Virginia Rail. The first thing to greet us as we arrived in the car park, was a lone Cedar Waxwing in a bush. Walking across the boardwalk towards the observation platform overlooking a small reedbed, something caught our attention off to the right. Waiting patiently we watched and soon saw a Sora Rail appear very slowly as if it had all the time in the world, but then perhaps it had.
Climbing onto the platform we settled down and strained our eyes for the object of the exercise to appear, even so there was plenty of activity going on to keep us amused, with several Snipe delving deep into the mud for crustaceans, a few Lesser Yellowlegs were also busy feeding. It wasn’t until it was growing dark before we noticed something stirring in the reeds close by. The first thing to appear was the top of its head, then a little of its side and finally the entire bird. Success, it was the bird we had been waiting for, a Virginia Rail. Sadly it disappeared all too quickly, we returned to the car and Doug’s for a coffee or two, before returning to the camp.
We arrived back at the campsite, only to find all our trouble in selecting an easily recognisable landmark, or should I say bus mark had been in vain. During our absence some silly person had moved the bus, which looked as though it had been built in that position when we first arrived, and as the saying goes, ‘ It was never to be seen again’.
Our first exhausting and exciting day at Pelee had produced 33 new ticks for my list, plus many I had already seen in England.
The following morning we were up at the crack of dawn, a quick wash and brush up, then one mad dash to catch the first bus to the Tip at 06.00. The first bird of the day was a tick, this time an Eastern Kingbird sitting high in a tree behind the Concessionaire Centre. Common Grackle were to be found around every corner both in bushes, in trees, and on the ground. Occasionally we would get a glimpse of a Grey Catbird, and Brown Thrasher as they quickly disappeared out of sight.
The Tip was fairly quiet that day, so we headed for the Interpretative Centre through an area called Post Wood that was criss crossed with paths. Much to our delight and surprise it perhaps was the best place to go birding that day, Great-crested Flycatcher sat waiting patiently for insects to pass by. Some Black-capped Chickadee were busily feeding in the bushes. The Least Flycatcher with its Che-bek call will be one of the things I remember most about that particular wood. Back at the centre we met our newfound friends in a state of high excitement yet again, we were hauled away to see a bright yellow Prothonotary Warbler, along with an uncommon Blue-winged Warbler.
They also informed us with great pleasure that a Kentucky Warbler had been seen on a trail near the main gate, so we decided to go and look for it. Pelee is at the most Northern part of their range, as such it was well worth seeing. Having said that, they are very shy birds, and spend most of their time in dense cover, that day being no exception. We were forced to wait patiently for twenty minutes, before it decided to put in an appearance. Thankfully once you catch sight of it, it’s easily recognisable with its unique facial markings, and the yellow underbelly.
It had been suggested the previous day that a visit to of all places, the Sewage Farms of Harrow, Essex and Comber could prove productive so off we went. On our arrival the first sight to greet us were 100 plus American Golden Plover in summer plumage, in a field alongside the road. After climbing over a gate and walking up banking, we looked over a large area that was full of Waders of every possible shape and size. 100 Short-billed Dowitcher, 50 Least, and 12 Pectoral Sandpiper, Semi-palmated Plover, Killdeer, Lesser Yellowlegs, and many, many more. What a sight for sore eyes, with so many birds milling around.
After spending quite some time there we, reluctantly decided it was time to move on. As we drove away two Turkey Vulture slowly soared past on their vee shaped wings. At Essex Sewage Farm it was more of the same, apart from the addition of Greater Yellowlegs, Wilson’s Phalarope, and 29 Lapland Bunting some looking absolutely breathtaking in their breeding plumage. At Comber four Solitary Sandpiper were the only different birds, but that did nothing to detract from the day’s enjoyment.
After all this excitement we did learn something useful. One of our friends asked if we knew what this was, pointing to a carpet of green leaves. We walked across to where he was standing, and were about to pick some up when he shouted. "Don’t do that, That’s Poison Ivy, you want to keep well away from it, as it gives you a very painful itchy rash that lasts for days. Not only that, it spreads easily so if you get it on your trousers during the day, it will transfer to your hands, then to the rest of your body when you take them off at night."
After they had pointed out how to identify this scourge for future reference we left. As our ever-empty stomachs were again asking if our throats had been cut, it was back to Doug’s Café and a welcome meal. There our two new found and like-minded companions informed us a touch sadly, they would be going home as their long weekend was over. Before they took their leave, they gave us their telephone numbers making us promise, if ever we got up into their neck of the woods, we would give them a call. A promise I might add, we would be only too willing to take advantage of later during the trip. Then after another satisfying meal, it was back to the tent to dream happily of the treats that were in store for us the next day.
Next morning we were awake in plenty of time to catch the first bus of the day. The first sighting of the day just off shore were in excess of 1500 Red-breasted Merganser, although I had seen them in England, I’d never seen them in such numbers before or since. On a sandbar just off the Tip were numerous Ring-billed Gull interspersed with a few Bonaparte’s Gull. Further down the point things were constantly on the change.
Yesterday there had been 25 Rose-breasted Grosbeak, today only one. Today it was the turn of the Yellow, and Yellow-rumped Warbler to increase in numbers, along with Wood Duck, Indigo Bunting, and the brightly coloured Northern Oriole, with their striking orange and black plumage. There were only three ticks on our lists that day but lots and lots of other birds to keep us enthralled. The three were a solitary Yellow-breasted Chat, which played hide and seek for a while in some bushes on the edge of the Sparrow Field. Yet with a little patience we eventually had a good sighting of it. The Carolina Wren, its noisy Teakettle, Teakettle, Teakettle, call, soon became another familiar sound ringing through the woods during our stay.
Finally we caught a glimpse of some small projectiles that flash up and down the pathways leaving you wondering ‘What the hell was that?’ I’m talking about the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, talk about, ‘now you see it now you don’t,’ I have never seen anything like it, they are perhaps the prettiest birds around. The iridescent green on their backs, contrasting with the red throat patch which appears to shimmer, and change into any number of various colours, depending how the light catches it. These tiny birds are constantly on the move, so we can consider ourselves extremely lucky to spot one perched long enough for us to fully appreciate its beauty.
We had been so engrossed in our search of that pretty little bird, we had lost the track of time again, so it came something as a surprise when we realised the time had come to head back for a meal and another nights sleep. Back in the car park we saw several Tree Swallow swooping on unsuspecting insects, a Common Yellowthroat was singing its heart out from a nearby patch of reed. Yet another splendid day spent at Pelee with a couple more ticks for the all-important list.
So far we had been very lucky with the weather, very sunny and hot, but it was about to alter with a vengeance. We had just got back to the tents, when an electrical storm broke and what a storm. It was the worst one I could ever remember having seen, with torrential rain and fork lightning the likes of which you cannot begin to imagine. Sleep being out of the question, not with the rain hammering against the top of the tents, so I sat in the car. Lightning has always fascinated me and this was well worth watching. First there would be three or four flashes in quick succession, followed by tremendous claps of thunder, which rolled on and on. The storm had started suddenly without any warning, and as with all quirks of nature, it stopped just as quickly after an hour.
The next morning it was business as usual catching the 06.00 bus. After the previous night’s storm, it seemed as if some unknown force had been at work, re-painting the whole countryside in order to refresh the vivid colours. After such a storm the first thought that crossed our minds was, would it have sent the birds seeking shelter or brought some new ones in? Our spirits soared when we saw the Red-breasted Merganser still holding station just off shore. Also in some bushes nearby we caught a brief glimpse of a Golden-winged Warbler. Initially we dived from side to side in a vain attempt to get a clear sight of this beautifully marked bird.
Eventually sanity returned and we sat quietly. Sure enough once we had stopped disturbing its morning’s deliberations, it slowly crept into sight. The black ear and throat markings combined with the golden crown all on a pale grey background made it an outstanding sight, even without the wing markings from where it gets its name. As with the majority of American Warbler, it was another little gem to add to our rapidly growing collection of new birds. A little further away, the Vireo’s were having a party, there were the small White-eyed, and Solitary, in the presence of two Yellow-throated, four Warbling, the uncommon Philadelphia, and finally the Red-eyed, showing off its ruby red eyes and slate-blue crown, all within thirty metres of each other.
As we had seen all the common thrushes, with the exception of the Veery we returned to the Interpretative Centre, to enquire if they were around and if so, where to find them. The man at the centre said we shouldn’t worry as they would be around either Tuesday or Wednesday as this was Wednesday there would be at least one before nightfall. As if they had been waiting and right on cue, we counted twelve during our morning’s walk, plus a further 20 Swainson’s Thrush. It must be nice for your self-esteem, or am I talking about ego, to be so sure about the movements of birds.
Apparently a Whip-Poor-Will had been located near the Tip, so we went to have a look. It was sat on a dead tree that had fallen down, just off the main path we had been told. On arrival we thought it was not worth wanting to get too close, so we went off the path and into the wood some one hundred metres away from where the bird was supposed to be. To our dismay a man with a camera was just about to knock it off its perch with his lens, in doing this, he then looked up at us, who were still nowhere near it. In fact we couldn’t even see it until it flew, but he still looked accusingly as though we had flushed it.
It flew across the road and disappeared from sight. We had to search some time before one of my friends spotted it; I cannot thank him enough for finding it. Again it was perched on a fallen tree, but the markings camouflaged it so well, it would have been easy for us to have missed it completely. Happy as sandboys we went along our way.
We were informed while we had been there, about three juvenile Great Horned Owl that were sitting in the same tree, just off the road near the park entrance. When we arrived not only to find they were in the same tree, but on the same branch, looking exactly like the proverbial three wise Monkeys, or should I substitute Owls for Monkeys, no matter. Guess who was sitting immediately under the branch, the same idiot, along with his camera. We only stayed for a short time, for by now it was lunch, so it was away to Doug’s for a snack and the inevitable cup of coffee.
On our return we decided that we would spend the remainder of the day at the other side of the park, in a heavily wooded and partly damp area called Tilden’s Wood. We had visited it a couple of days before, on that occasion all we saw had been a tired looking Racoon fast asleep up a tree, with a couple of Northern Waterthrush keeping it company. As we walked quietly over the boardwalk, we came across some other birders sitting staring straight ahead. We whispered to the nearest what the interest was, and were informed that a Hooded Warbler was not far away although not in view. He also assured us that it wouldn’t be out of sight for very long, sure enough in a little while it reappeared, its prominent black hood contrasting sharply with the yellow underparts.
Our birding activities now had to be put on hold for a couple of hours, for as I’ve already stated, we had a torrential downpour the previous night. Someone who I have no wish to name at this time had left his tent flap open, ‘Not A Lot’ but enough to give my watch a bath. Not being waterproof it decided it wasn’t going to play any more games, as it was our only means of telling the time, we had to get another timepiece from somewhere. The consensus of opinion was that we should purchase an alarm clock. The only one we could find was one of those old fashioned objects. The trouble being when it went off, it not only woke our merry little band of birders, but the entire campsite, and I shouldn’t be surprised to learn all of Canada as well.
While in the supermarket car park I went to check the oil and water, so under the car bonnet I dived. From the corner of my eye, I could see something moving around, and lifting my head, saw that it was a Killdeer, another closely followed this. It was amazing they didn’t appear to be worried by all the cars, and people milling about in the car park. To think, back home I had travelled 250 miles in freezing conditions to see one of these delightful little birds, now here they were gallivanting around not fifteen feet from where I was standing, Ah well! That’s birding. The shopping taken care of it was back to Pelee for an hour. At the Interpretative Centre we had our last new bird of the day, a very petite and smart looking male Wilson’s Warbler. Then it was back to camp for a meal and some sleep.
Back to the usual routine with an early start, much to our chagrin discovered it had been rather cold during the night. Here I hasten to inform you that washing in ice cold water, not only gets the circulation going it certainly ensures that you are wide awake a split second after the water touches your face. Our routine for the day was to spend up until lunchtime at Pelee then drive to Stony Point. Out at the Tip it was business as usual with two or three Blackburnian Warbler. They are so bright and cheerful they always warrant a closer look.
A little distance from the Tip was an area with trees and dense undergrowth. As we walked quietly along a path a small bird seemed to appear from nowhere, fly twelve metres along the path before dropping out of sight again. We crept a little closer but had only closed to within six metres when it climbed a little way up a bramble and we could get a good look at it. It was a Worm-eating Warbler, within seconds it flew across the path, landing almost at our feet in a bush giving us an excellent view albeit brief. Again this one was at the Northern-most extent of its range, although not as brightly coloured as some of the family. It was mostly olive, buff, and had black stripes on the head, but they still seem to be a bird to fire people’s imagination.
We drove towards the park entrance, as I wanted to obey the call of nature, where public toilets were close to hand. I hardly had time to get comfortable, when one of our party informed me that I needn’t rush but he had something to show me. Of course, I could hardly get out there quick enough. I think he had done it deliberately, but anyway, in double quick time I was outside where he had a scope set up pointing up at a pine tree not far away. Putting my eye to the eyepiece, there in the lens was an Eastern-Screech Owl, its head twisted right round and looking at me over its shoulder. How on earth he spotted it was a miracle, because they are usually timid birds and take a hell of a lot of finding.
We had been informed by some other birders that a Summer Tanager, a bird from the South had been seen near to the park entrance, we thought as it was lunchtime we would try and get this added to our list on the way out. Adult males are rosy red, but as this was a first year male, it was mostly green/yellow with only a few red patches, but it was nevertheless a good bird to see. The time had come for us to head North towards Stony Point. Driving along we noticed several roadside stalls, the type you get in England selling farm vegetables. One thing that caught my eye among all the fruit on sale, was a brightly coloured red object. Being rather inquisitive I pulled over to investigate, to my surprise found out they were tomatoes. Not I hasten to add, the size you usually associate them to be, and these were as big as grapefruit.
Carrying on, we arrived at Stony Point to find it was a pond with mud flats around the edges and some open water fringed with reed. The bird we had come to see was the Yellow-headed Blackbird. They were easy to spot, as there was a male with a couple of females flitting around the pond almost before we had chance to get settled. There were also both Yellowlegs, Least and Spotted Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Dunlin, along with various species of Duck, and American Coot. Also looking like a swarm of midges flitting back and forth across the water were 50 Black Tern. They are so graceful with their acrobatic antics, that given the opportunity, I can stand and watch them until the cows come home.
On the way back to Pelee we decided to stop off at Comber Sewage Farm, but we were having a little difficulty in locating it. In a farm drive an old couple stood side by side, dressed in something that looked very much like sackcloth, also they were wearing tall rounded hats. I went across to ask if they could help, but was met with a very aggressive "Wa do ya want" when I asked if they knew where the Sewage Farm be, the answer was a sharp and emphatic "No". As it turned out our destination was only a half-mile down the road. We found that for all our trouble there was nothing out of the ordinary about anyway and returned to the park.
We pulled up outside the Interpretative Centre, and were told that an American Woodcock had been seen. Sure enough when we got to the right spot a ‘Woodcock’ came flying over, it gave a flying display especially for us, before disappearing from whence it had come. As an added bonus, just as we were on the point of departing we heard a strange sound; it was as if someone was saying beans, beans. In the gloom we saw a Common Nighthawk flying over the same stand of trees.
We were now on our sixth day, and obvious the longer you stay in one place, the number of new birds you see diminishes accordingly. Instead of the double figures we were getting when we arrived, we were now down to a mere handful each day. But for all that the birding was still excellent, and the area could still spring some unexpected surprises, not all of them very pleasant ones. One of which was going to happen today. After our usual early morning trip to the Tip, looking at a few Bonaparte’s Gull, the usual array of Red-breasted Merganser, but not much else out of the ordinary.
We slowly made our way back to the boardwalk, choosing one of the several paths that led virtually all the way back to the Interpretative Centre. On this particular morning we hadn’t gone very far before being inundated with insects. Every step we took literally millions of the damned things would fly up, getting in our clothes our hair everywhere, and one thing we didn’t dare do was open our mouths, as we didn’t relish their meat content. They were the same shape as mosquitoes, but much larger, these having a wing span of about one and quarter inches. Discretion being the better part of valour we beat a hasty retreat.
Eventually we arrived back at the Interpretative Centre to be told that they are only harmless May flies, they might be harmless but they were certainly irritating and a nuisance. It must have been their breeding season, because we had to endure their annoyance for the next two or three days. The only way we could cope with this unwanted natural phenomenon was to walk as quickly as possible until their number were too great, then stand still for a couple of minutes until they settled down again, before making another mad dash to where we were heading.
Now there were several clumps of bushes with virtually no grass growing under them, something like Rhododendrons which block out all the light, and on the sixth morning it was under one of these we came across our first new bird of the day. A Mourning Warbler which spent its time hopping around, occasionally flitting up into the bushes to grab a tasty morsel, before dropping back onto the ground. Then just around the corner was an area of grass, living up to its name of Sparrow Field.
For in this was a very secretive and uncommon Henslow’s Sparrow. This little bird can be found by simply walking through the grass, but even then it’s difficult to see, as this happens so often, it usually flies a few metres before going back into cover. It can be very frustrating as on this particular morning, but we were lucky to get it clinging precariously to the top of a blade of grass long enough to get a good sighting. Then we set off again on the tarmac road which started at the Concessionary Centre near the Tip, and runs through the park and well beyond, lined on both sides with trees and bushes.
One of the snags you soon come up against birding at Pelee is a stiff neck as some of the trees are so tall. Constantly looking up soon starts to affect you. However with a little bit of practice you can study the shadows moving about in the trees canopy, and only look up when something catches your eye. We saw our first Canada Warbler using this method, a very smart looker it was too. Grey/blue above, yellow below, with a prominent black necklace, extremely smart indeed. After this we decided to call at Doug’s for a coffee before going on to Hillman’s Marsh.
As we drove to Hillman’s we noticed a large bird of prey circling over a lake, stopping the car we were soon focusing our binoculars on the national emblem of America, our first sighting of an American Bald Eagle. This was a juvenile, but still impressive and a fantastic sight for any dedicated birder. We reached Hillman's Marsh and after climbing up the observation platform, we were rewarded by seeing Great Egret sitting in the many trees across from us. Also a few Short-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper, 60 Grey Plover, a Forster’s Tern, and several Rough-winged Swallow swooping around feeding.
As dusk was approaching our thoughts turned once again to Virginia Rail. On this occasion in a very short space of time we were lucky enough to see not one but two together, which leads me firmly to believe the old adage persistence always pays. Then with the same suddenness of the storm a few days earlier, the heavens opened once again drenching us to the skin in a couple of seconds. Our birding activities curtailed for the evening, it was off to Doug’s a little earlier than usual. But we had no reason to complain because we only had two rainstorms during our stay, the rest of the time it was lovely hot sunny weather.
On the seventh day of our adventure of a lifetime, the Red-breasted Merganser had risen to an estimated 2500, and the Bonaparte’s Gull to 300. Also until today we had only seen one or two raptors per day, now five passed in quick succession. The first an Osprey flying North, and a Northern Harrier followed this, then Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, and finally our second Peregrine Falcon. We had become rather blasé about mentioning Turkey Vulture as there was always some circling about, but these are birds of prey too. By now our early morning walks were beginning to produce their fair share of birds, the numbers of American Redstart had gone up, so too had Warbling and Red-eyed Vireo.
Along the path we came across a Yellow-billed Cuckoo sitting quietly in a tree, and amazingly a few yards away was a Black-billed, only this was far more active than the other. This was our first proper weekend, and during the week we had stumbled across several quite spots from where we could indulge our passion for birdwatching. Sadly this was Canada and all good Canadians like getting out and about into the great out doors, when someone reported seeing a Louisiana Waterthrush. We, along with 30 fellow birders were straining to get a glimpse of a feather, let alone the entire bird. After about ten minutes I decided the time had come to move on.
Going to the other side of the bush, I was looking straight at a bird walking slowly towards me along the path, bobbing its short tail as it did so, rather like a smaller version of a Sandpiper. I motioned to the others to be careful but by the time that they arrived it had already disappeared into cover, not for very long as it was back a few seconds later, surprisingly appearing at the top of a bush for everyone to see.
Back towards the park entrance was a grassy area that we hadn’t visited yet, as the walkways were crowded with other birders, we decided now was as good a time as any to explore it. It was covered with a few scrubby bushes, as it turned out it was an excellent decision on our part to go there. As soon as we arrived the first thing we saw was a Field Sparrow with its pink bill, the second new bird of the day. A Sedge Wren was also new; this was sat in a bush by the path. But by far the most spectacular sight were 40 Bobolink, a couple of females, but mostly males in their all black plumage with a golden hindneck, white scapulars and rump.
A few other birds wheeled around, these consisted of Song, Lincoln’s, and Chipping Sparrow, along with eight bright yellow American Goldfinch. Eastern Kingbird were feeding among the bushes whilst overhead a dozen Chimney Swift were swooping on unsuspecting insects. Two noisy Cardinal were displaying nearby, everywhere we looked there were birds of every shape and size. However this was Pelee and nothing was out of the ordinary for this time of the year.
Making our way back through the woods we came across a Downy Woodpecker doing a bit of head banging, this is similar to our Lesser-spotted Woodpecker. A little further along still, on an old tree trunk were two Eastern Wood-Peewee engaged in a courtship display, whilst a third perched in another tree singing his slow plaintive Pee-a-wee song. The last thing we heard as we made our way back to the car after another very satisfying days birding, were the distinctive calls of a couple of Least Flycatcher.
The next morning we decided it was time for a change to our normal routine, so instead of heading for the Tip as was our wont, we headed for the East side of the park where a ridge of old Beech trees beckoned. A fair few had long since given up the battle to grow straight up and had fallen haphazardly. Some had fallen into water creating swampy areas, we saw several Brown Creeper quickly making their way up the trunks, then moving on to the next, a Swainson’s Thrush was running along the path in front of us pausing only to snatch a beetle or insect snack for breakfast.
There was one large tree, which as it fell, had torn up a fair amount of earth so the roots were creating hundreds of crevices and ledges, an ideal place for birds to perch, or so we thought. However as we drew nearer we noticed the trunk appeared to be alive, on closer inspection found hundreds of snakes basking in the hot morning sun. Now we had often seen a snake on our travels though not in this number, although we had been assured that they were not poisonous, I don’t like tempting fate, not with reptiles anyway, so we quickened our steps and hurried past.
Making our way to the Tip we saw several Tree Swallow nesting in some trees that were still standing, eventually arriving at the Tip we discovered Status Quo, no not the pop group but our own personal heaven. For there were seventeen species of Warbler our best tally yet. All those already mentioned plus Black-throated Green and Nashville. The Blue Jay had increased to over a hundred. We walked entranced by the wonderful, and colourful birds thronging the area, then it was decided to try Harrow Sewage Farm, and finally if we had time Hillman’s Marsh.
As with everywhere else when we climbed the gate into Harrow Sewage Farm the place was thronged with people, but after all it was Sunday, and they had just as much right to be there as we did. This of course raised a few minor problems, because with all the people milling around the birds didn’t settle but flew back and forth. Making our choice on which way to go we set off, and we hadn’t gone very far, before we came across several Waders not far out from the bank. Although the group consisted mainly of Dunlin and Short-billed Dowitcher, there was one bird that stood out from the rest.
In England, Ruff are so plentiful they don’t raise any undue excitement, but that day whenever anyone asked if there was anything different about, and we casually remarked there was a Ruff a bit back, they would take off at a run. Before long word had spread like a bush fire and looking back we could see quite a crowd gathering to look at the Ruff. This was an unexpected bonus because they were busy watching what to us was a common bird, we had a very quite and peaceful walk, and with the birds gradually calming down and starting to feed, everyone had a marvellous time.
Leaving Harrow we pushed on to Hillman’s, and again the obligatory crowd of people, some milling around but some were staring intently at something. Going across we were informed there was a King Rail in a clump of Cattails (Bulrush). Someone told us that it was making a circuit of the reeds, and would soon come into sight. Sure enough a couple of minutes later it appeared, and I was quite surprised by its size compared to other Rails I’ve seen. We were able to study it for several minutes, before it disappeared behind another clump of reeds searching for whatever it was after.
Back at Doug’s, the car park was full to capacity and we drove by thinking it was overflowing. However someone suggested we take a look anyway and walking back from where we had parked went inside, after a short wait we were able to get a seat. As we waited to be served, I casually asked who had the car keys; everyone looked at each other repeating those dreaded words NOT ME. Back at the car sure enough there they were, safely locked inside still in the ignition. From the look on Doug’s face when we asked if he knew anyone who could open our car he was thinking, ‘Typical English can’t go anywhere without someone having to hold their hands’.
Despite the initial reaction he proved to be extremely helpful, by contacting a locksmith who within the hour was scratching his head as we were trying to open the door without smashing the window. By this time it was completely dark so he couldn’t read the number on the key even with the aid of a torch. Our last hope was for someone to contact the hire firm, to get it from them. This was duly done and over three hours later, and 40 dollars lighter in our wallets, we were able to breath a sigh of relief as at last we could get into the car again. Thoroughly chastened by the experience drove back to the camp.
It was another early start the following morning but with a difference, as we were going to visit the Rondeau Provincial Park about 50 miles East along the edge of Lake Erie. We had chosen to visit there because we had been reliably informed we would see plenty of Woodpeckers. During the drive there we were listening to the radio, although the weather again was hot and sunny, a warning of hailstorms in the area was given. These weren’t your run of the mill hailstones, but one and a half inches in diameter, as these could do quite a substantial amount of damage to the car, as well you can imagine, we managed literally to steer well clear.
On our arrival at Rondeau we began walking along the trail with water and a scattering of both live and dead trees at one side, thinking the dead ones would be where the Woodpeckers would be hammering out their tattoo. However the first indication didn’t come from the dead trees nearby, but from across the water. Stopping we focused our binoculars eventually finding the culprit. Our first sighting of a Hairy Woodpecker, which is very like our own Great-spotted. Passing through more woodland, we saw a few Warblers feeding, a Prothonotary Warbler, the bird Rondeau is famous for.
We had seen one at Pelee on migration, but this is their breeding area, in fact it is the largest colony in the whole of Canada. As we listened to its delightful song saw in the background a bird running up and down a tree trunk. We had seen plenty of its cousins the Red-breasted, but this was the first White-breasted Nuthatch we had seen. Again things were happening so fast, it was almost impossible to keep up with proceedings. From the dead trees we had just passed came a drumming and we returned to investigate.
As the trees stood right at the waters edge I got my feet wet by having to actually step in, in an attempt to try to get a better look. As I did so a Pileated Woodpecker flew out, disturbed by my crashing around. My friends had a very good sighting. Me, I came last in the sack race as usual and missed it, although we spent quite some time searching for the elusive bird, we were doomed to failure. Heading towards the beach side of the park we happened upon some cottages alongside a small stream.
On the opposite bank we saw a Killdeer act rather strangely. As we watched, we were lucky enough to catch sight of two young, lying quite still and expertly camouflaged. Quietly we crept away to avoid disturbing them. In the distance we caught sight of a small bird swooping between a couple of cottages, but we were too far away to identify it. By the time we had got to where it had been seen, it had long gone, or so we thought at first, but as we paused to catch our breath it reappeared. We were able to identify another new species, this one being an Eastern Bluebird. By this time we were tired hungry and thirsty from our endeavours, so we slowly drove back to Doug’s for some well-deserved nourishment, and after which were soon fast asleep.
Next morning after a good night’s sleep we awoke to some heavy rain. So it was out with the wet weather gear and off we went again. As we neared the Tip, the bushes were alive with Cedar Waxwing, around 200 or so, sitting next to each other looking for the entire world like a load of old women having a good chinwag. The by now usual Red-breasted Merganser, Ring-billed Gull, and Herring Gull had, for the first time been joined by 6 Common Tern.
In a small stand of trees near the Tip, a male and female Hooded Warbler chased one another through the undergrowth, probably with amorous intentions. Back at the Concessionary Centre we were standing outside having a cup of coffee, watching a few American Robin. In fact they had built a nest just behind the Centre in the fork of a tree, and as we watched the spectacle there was an almighty bang. A Robin had flown straight into the window and knocked itself out, or so we hoped.
Racing around to where it lay still on the ground fearing the worst, as we picked it up, it opened its beady little eyes, and within a few moments had recovered enough to fly merrily on its way, much to our delight, all be it with a massive headache. That entertaining interlude over with, it was time to get back to the serious business of birding.
It wasn’t very long before we came across a group of people standing around the edge of some dense undergrowth. We asked what they were trying to catch sight of, and were informed a Connecticut Warbler, which is a rare bird. We excitedly took our places and waited, and waited, and waited. Because the undergrowth was so dense, when it did appear briefly some could see it, while others were not so lucky. Eventually after what seemed like a lifetime it was our turn. My friends were lucky enough to spot it; as usual I couldn’t seem to get on it. Connecticut’s spend most of their lives on the ground feeding, so it was an age before it put in another brief appearance.
This time it was on the trunk of a dead tree covered with moss, lichen, and overgrown with brambles. Yet again my two friends had a clear sighting of it, desperately they tried to get me looking in the right area, and yet again I failed to see the damned thing. Disgusted with my poor efforts, I walked away with suicidal thoughts starting to dominate my mind, when about 50 yards further along, I came across a couple of birders away from the rest staring up at a pine tree. They eagerly explained there was a Connecticut, and pointed in the general direction. Again I couldn’t see anything, but this time I was determined not to move until I had been successful. At long last it began to hop along the branch, having been hidden behind a clump of needles. Its white-eye ring contrasting with its blue/grey head, and yellow underbelly. A feeling of relief and excitement surged through my veins as I finally added this elusive bird to my tick list.
As it had been raining on and off all morning, we decided to go and dry out a bit, then get some warm coffee inside us. After several obligatory cups of marvellous coffee in Doug’s welcome refuge; it was back to birding again. This time we had selected an area called Sleepy Hollow, which was on the West side of Pelee but as it turned out there wasn’t much to see, apart from a few isolated birds we had already seen in the afternoon our visit wasn’t all that productive. This we put down to the bad weather.
When we had first started eating at Doug’s we asked him if he would get us a steak before we finally left Pelee. He came across to ask us if we still wanted one, and if so he would have one ready for us tomorrow. On our penultimate morning, it dawned rather cloudy and a little on the cool side. The Tip was more or less the same, Red-breasted Merganser down to around 1500. Three Spotted Sandpiper standing on a sand bar, with their constant companions the Gulls. The Cedar Waxwing were down to about 80, while Chimney Swift were taking full advantage, feeding off a swarm of insects on the West Side.
In a small clearing a little further along, we came across some Barn Swallow also feeding on nature’s bounteous pantry of insects. The Northern Oriole were now down to eight in number, and although there were still quite a few Warblers around, it was nothing to get excited about. So we decided to return to Rondeau, which I got the feeling was just for my benefit. On our arrival we went straight to where we had seen the Woodpeckers, determined not to walk anywhere near the distance we had done the first time, besides it had started to rain again.
Two Wood Duck were swimming around by a tree; it is easy to understand why they are so sought after for collections. A little way ahead we could here the familiar taptaptapping, we soon came across a small Downy Woodpecker, even as we watched it at its labours 2 Hairy Woodpecker flew past, alighting on a tree not more than a few yards away. Hairy Woodpecker is similar in plumage to Downy but far larger, so we had the perfect comparison between the two.
A little reluctantly we started to walk back to the car, where half a dozen Swainson’s Thrush and two Veery were running around in the woodland as we passed, along with a single Northern Flicker. When we got to a place where we could see the whole length of the lake, we heard a call we had not heard before. Almost immediately a large black bird appeared with an undulating flight pattern, small patches of white on the wing, a black and white striped face and a red cap. It was the bird I had missed on our previous visit the Pileated Woodpecker, as if trying to make amends for me missing it earlier, another joined it and they flew down the lake, disappearing out of sight together.
Sadly it was time to head back to Pelee and on our way we stopped off at a small pond where we had been told about a Surf Scoter, but all we could see from the car were a few Canada Goose and Mallard. Getting out we went closer to the water edge; at long last we were rewarded by seeing it and so close that we could see it was an immature male. Everyone was silent with their own thoughts as we drove back to Pelee for a nice hot meal. As we waited for our meal to arrive, Doug came over holding a huge lump of meat, telling us that this was the steak for tomorrow and was it big enough.
We said it looked fine, but to make sure that he divided it up into three equal portions. A look of disbelief crossed his face; he quickly reassured us that there were two more pieces in the kitchen. This time it was our turn to look in disbelief, we could only mutter a barely audible ‘Oh! For each lump of meat weighed at least 16 ounces. We were just hoping our bellies were as big as our eyes, because from our experience there would be a mountain of chips, sorry french-fries, to go with the meal.
The final morning of our trip was overcast but warm, even after making the same journey every day the excitement still hadn’t worn off, for there was still a good chance of been able to add another name to our already bulging tick list. Again it was business much as usual; the Cedar Waxwing had increased to 250 in number and was a fantastic sight to behold. Looking over the lake, the Mergansers were still present; in the middle of these we saw our first sighting of a Common Loon, or Great Northern Diver to the uninitiated. Also another bird we hadn’t seen since our arrival, four Whimbrel flew over, probably going to their breeding grounds on the Tundra.
Sadly it was time to start heading back, taking a trail on the West Side of the park; we passed Blue Jay, at least 20 Northern Oriole, plus a few Grey Catbird. My two friends being more interested in something that had caught their attention, I wandered off on my own, and very soon I heard the distinctive song of the Connecticut Warbler, which sounded very close. Getting down on hands and knees I peered into the undergrowth, just after I’d started "pishing", I saw first one, then three not more than a few feet from where I was lying. To think of all the trouble that I’d had the other day, trying to catch sight of my first one.
Getting to my feet I rejoined my friends and as we came into an opening we saw a Black-billed Cuckoo, also there much to our delight was another first, an Olive-sided Flycatcher, a large brown bird with white spots at either side of its rump. For some unknown reason we felt compelled to retrace our steps instead of going to the Interpretative Centre as we usually did. At the edge of the clearing where the Cuckoo had been earlier, was a small Empidonax Flycatcher, with a bright yellow underbelly merging to slightly greyish on the breast. With the help of the field guide, we identified it as a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, something that was confirmed later in the evening by the locals.
We had been told about these Flycatchers and how awkward they are to identify. Luckily in a bush a little further along the path, we had seen another one, but this one was actually calling, sounding very much like sneezing. The field guide was spot on with its description, for the call is described as a sneezy ‘Fitz-bew’. Definitely a Willow Flycatcher, our third new bird of the day, which was not a bad days haul to finish the trip off with, but more was to follow, for as the day progressed, we saw more species of Warbler than on any other day of our holiday.
There were as many as 10 Tennessee, eight Chestnut-sided, Yellow, and Bay-breasted, twenty Magnolia, seven of my particular favourite Blackburnian. Also 4 Canada, Wilson’s, and American Redstart, three Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, Black and White, Ovenbird, a Common Yellowthroat, of course the Connecticut, single Northern Parula, a Nashville, and finally a sighting of a Northern Waterthrush. You can imagine our feelings at seeing all those species in about an hour. Not just the Warblers either, we also saw 12 Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Oriole, and many more, it was if the birds knew we would not be there the following day and were turning out to give us an unforgettable send off.
Our last day at Pelee had probably been the best of the entire trip, it certainly had been as far as the Warblers had been concerned, but as the saying goes, all things must come to an end and so it was with our Pelee trip. We went to fill up with petrol for an early start the following day, and whilst in Leamington it was suggested that we could drive over to a park in Wheatley which wasn’t all that far and still be back for dinner. The park consisted of a lake surrounded more or less by a large mixed woodland.
Even as we entered we knew the trip was going to be fruitful, because the first bird we saw was Eastern Meadowlark sat on some wires. In the lake were some fallen trees where 2 Belted Kingfisher were feeding, as well as a Red-headed Woodpecker, the other birds were more Warblers, three Swainson’s Thrush, and a Peewee.
Earlier in the day we had been talking to a local female birder, during the conversation the subject of where we would be going next cropped up; we told her that we were off across the border into Michigan and back around to Algonquin National Park. On hearing this she had pulled a wry face stating that the end of May was the worst possible time for blackfly in Algonquin. As we had never even heard of blackfly we were rather curious. She wasted no time in telling us that although they don’t bite like mosquitoes, they scrape a small patch of skin to get to our blood instead, and that as there were so many we could end up looking like a piece of raw meat on a butchers slab.
We had already bought some insect repellent, which was fine and dandy for mosquitoes but not the blackfly. Thankfully we hadn’t had a problem with mosquitoes, but came to a unanimous decision it would pay us to get something a little more potent. In the shop we found an old man, who when we explained what our problem was, willingly gave us the benefit of his experience. The best thing is musk oil, but be careful not to get it in your eyes, after buying a small bottle each. He then advised us to tuck our trousers into our socks, tie something around our cuffs and collars, finally wishing us good luck as we left.
All too soon the time had come for us to drive back to Pelee and our special steak dinner. Normally when we entered Doug’s we just walked in and sat down, but tonight were a special occasion as we were about to find out. Tonight we were ushered into a small side room which we knew was reserved for special occasions, asked what we would like for starters, then after we had finished those, Doug himself brought in three huge oval plates with our one pound steaks, side salad, and a mountain of french-fries.
After that we were given a large slab of bilberry pie, ice cream and of course as much coffee as we could drink. We sat there feeling bloated and at peace with the world, our only worry now was whether our budget would be over stretched after such a magnificent repast. But we needn’t have worried; for it came to $8 and 25cents which in good old sterling roughly is £4.
We had become friendly with all the staff at Doug’s, and one of the waitresses had invited us out for a drink in the nearby town of Leamington. We arranged to meet her later in a particular bar. After it was decided we would move to another where there was some music. It soon became quite obvious that ear-plugs were needed, as the bar was so small, and the music so loud it was almost impossible to think let alone talk to anyone, we were forced to shout at the tops of our voices in order to be understood.
As I was driving when we pulled out later in the night I made my farewells,
took my leave returning to the car in order to try and get a little shuteye.
I had arranged for my friends to join me there later. I drove the five
miles to the entrance to Pelee Park, so the music didn’t disturb me all
that much but I couldn’t get to sleep. Instead my thoughts were full of
the memories of the past few days birding and what a superb and wonderful
sight this is.
My friends didn’t arrived back until two thirty the following morning, although I still hadn’t managed to get any sleep, we decided that we might as well set off straight away, at least the roads would be free from traffic at that time in the morning. Our destination in Michigan was the Waterloo Recreation Area, close by was the Haenle Sanctuary both in Southern Michigan about midway between the towns of Ann Arbour, and Jackson. The route we had mapped out would take us through Windsor, across the border at Detroit, then we would make for Ann Arbour, and finally on to our destination.
Everything went as smooth as silk until we reached the border. There are small barriers with stop and go lights, you simply took your place in the queue and waited your turn, or so I thought. Again the first part went like clockwork, but after reaching the head of the queue, things began to go pear shaped. My first mistake was to obey the traffic signals that were on green, Wronggg! I should have waited to get permission before moving off. Then as I set off immigration official stepped out into my path, making me brake sharply. He jumped back in alarm and his hand flashed to his pistol.
My immediate reaction was OOPS! Or words to that effect, once he’d regained his composure. To say he came across to our car looking a little annoyed was a bigger understatement than Chamberlains ‘Peace in our time.’ In a very stern voice he ordered us to go and park in front of the office and wait. My first thought is ‘Now we’re for it,’ I wondered what the penalty would be if we offered him a few dollars to let us off pleading ignorance, or for that matter insanity, after all we were mad dogs of Englishmen at large.
We followed him into the office feeling like naughty schoolboys going in for a caning from the headmaster, where he handed us some forms. In a voice cold enough to ensure we knew he definitely wasn’t a happy chappy, told us to go over to a table, fill them in and not to make any mistakes, insinuating that if we did, we’d be incarcerated in some godforsaken cell block, awaiting the electric chair. This we did in double quick time, after he’d stamped our passports, we were back into our car and away, a tiny cloud of dust on the horizon, before he could say Watch It.
We were still a little distance short of our destination, when as we were going by a field I noticed a bird stood all alone, my first thought was it might be a Crane but wasn’t entirely certain, so we turned the car around to get a better look. Sure enough my first idea had been right, because it was a Sandhill Crane, another first and we still hadn’t arrived at Waterloo Recreation Area. Sadly nature is a cruel taskmaster, because we were certain it had a broken leg from the erratic movements it made.
The Waterloo Recreation Area covers quite a large area; several small roads intersect it. There are also wooded areas, and we decided we would begin our visit by walking through one of these. It was heavenly to get into the shade, because the sun was turning the car into a furnace. We wandered though rolling hills and shady glades of old type woodland, although the actual trail we had selected was about two miles in length, the only problem we faced was there were no birds, so it was back to the car.
As we were driving along another road leading though some woods. We saw three large birds run across some distance ahead of us, as no one managed to get a good view of them, I sped to the spot. Jumping out of the car hoping against hope that we were not too late. A short distance from the roadside were three Wild Turkey, in Michigan these birds live wild, so we were very lucky on this occasion because although large, they are usually secretive. A little further along we came across what at first sight appeared to be a large black boulder at the roadside. But when we got close enough to see it properly, it turned out to be a large Turtle.
Once again curiosity got the better of us, because we were supposed to be birding, not on a general nature ramble. We stopped the car in order to get a closer look. Going back we had no difficulty in identifying it as a Snapping Turtle and at forty centimetres in length was quite large for this species. We walked around having a good look at it, but instead of turning its head to see what we were up to. It would manoeuvre like a tank, to make sure we couldn’t attack it from behind. We know that Snappers have a very powerful set of jaws and could take a finger off without any trouble, so we took a photograph and let it continue on its journey.
We thought it was time that we tried to find Haenle Sanctuary, which is a 500-acre marshland overlooked by wooded hills. We had also been informed that it could be awkward to find, but after a relatively short space of time we came across the car park. With growing excitement we were soon back to the business that had brought us this distance from home. It didn’t take us very long to start seeing birds, 11 Sandhill Crane, two White-breasted Nuthatch, several Yellow Warbler, a couple of Cardinal, and two Downy Woodpecker sat on a dead tree. However our lack of sleep was beginning to take its toll, and our enthusiasm was starting to wane, so we decided to go back to the car.
Although weary, it was unanimously agreed we should push on to our next destination, which was a further 100 miles along our long winding road. Our route would take in Flint, Saginaw, and Bay City…. Remember the Rollers, ah well, happy days…. And finally to Nayanquing Point, in Saginaw bay on the shores of Lake Huron a little North of Bay City. This place had some reed fringed lagoons, along with stretches of open water, although a little disappointing for bird life, I would lay bets that it could be a wonderful place if watched on a regular basis. Even so we saw a pair of Redhead, a new one for the tick list, Caspian Tern, Double-crested Cormorant, and a few Wood Duck.
It was fast approaching dark by this time, as we left Nayanquing Point we passed a stretch of water that was no bigger than a puddle at the side of the road. On which were a couple of Solitary Sandpiper, a Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, a Dunlin, a Wilson’s Phalarope, and an Upland Sandpiper. Also circling over head were a pair of Common Nighthawk, not bad for a puddle. We had decided that we would like to bird around the Marion area, if we went there now we would save time tomorrow.
It had been so long since I had slept that I got passed it, for a while, anyway. Heading Northwest towards central Michigan we didn’t have any major towns to negotiate, so the drive was relatively simple. During the journey we saw White-tailed Deer everywhere along the back roads, and the few major ones we had to contend with. On the major roads you had to have your wits about you, as much as possible anyway, for I had been driving for nearly 42 hours without sleep by the time we arrived. The only thing of note during the journey was a Great Horned Owl that nearly flew into the windscreen.
Just as we found ourselves somewhere to park, another thunderstorm blew up and I was doubtful that I would get any sleep even now, although I had difficulty in keeping my eyes open by this time. However it didn’t last for very long, and I went out as if I’d been pole axed. Next morning having managed to get four hour’s sleep, I woke with pins and needles, and a stiff neck, anyone who has ever slept in a car will know what I’m talking about. Anyway after getting the circulation going we opened the windows to see where we had parked. We had actually parked in a municipal yard full of grit for the roads, so we thought it better to move off before anybody was about.
Marion is not a large town by any stretch of the imagination, so it came as a pleasant surprise to find a café open so early in the morning. Ravenous we tucked in to what is my favourite breakfast consisting of three pancakes with maple syrup, bacon and eggs, finished off with toast and jelly, all washed down with lots of coffee. Replete once again, it was time to get down to the matter in hand. Marion is situated in the remnants of a prairie with a couple of farms dotted here and there. Birding was simple we were driving along dirt roads and stopping whenever we felt like it.
We were looking for the Brewer’s Blackbird in particular, but as we drove hither and thither, we didn’t see a single Blackbird of any sort. That didn’t mean to say we didn’t see any birds, because we spotted a beautiful male Northern Harrier quartering the fields. The various grain silos of the farm, proved to be the most productive, with Savannah, and Song Sparrow galore. Perched on top of a telegraph pole we saw a watchful American Kestrel, it was as if he couldn’t make his mind up what he wanted for breakfast, a mouse or one of the Sparrows. Shore Lark sang in the fields as they flitted about, in the farmyards Cliff Swallow were catching insects, while a Short-eared Owl was also on the lookout for a meal.
After about 2 hours it was decided to move on, we made our way back onto the main road, then as we approached a "T" junction we saw 10 birds perched on the telephone wires. A quick glance through our binoculars and they were identified as Brewer’s Blackbird. It only goes to prove birding can be a funny old game, as Jimmy Greaves is so fond of telling us. Two hours looking for a certain species without any luck, then when we move away they appear as if by magic. Turning north once again we head for Houghton Lake about forty miles away which was to be our next stop.
An hour later we find a place to park with a good viewpoint, we had three nesting platforms where we were, each home to a pair of Osprey. While on the lake itself there are Pied-billed Grebe, two Blue-winged Teal, an American Coot, and 3 Ring-necked Duck. About 70 Black Tern were skimming the waters of the lake like bombers making a bombing run, circling overhead three Turkey Vulture were acting as fighter escort. No that’s the wrong way round size wise, so you could tell how tired I was getting. I thought it would be a good idea to find a motel at Grayling and take it easy for the rest of the day, before we had a serious accident through lack of sleep.
Arriving in Grayling we soon found a motel, and after a lovely refreshing shower, I collapsed into the unadulterated luxury of a proper bed with, sheets, blankets, and a nice soft mattress, instead of the hard bumpy car. The next morning after a long restful night’s sleep, the weather was overcast with occasional drizzle. We had phoned the Dept of Natural Resources Office to enquire about where we could go to see the very rare Kirtland’s Warbler, they informed us they organised trips the first being at 7am.
Not knowing the area we had a little difficulty in finding the office, and were driving around trying to find a signpost, when we came across a police car parked at the side of the road. Although our experience when we had crossed the border from Canada had unsettled us, I knew this would be our only chance of discovering where to go. My peace of mind wasn’t helped by the fact that as I leaned through the window to get directions, I saw a twelve bore shotgun where our gear lever would be. Three tear gas canisters, his police baton or night stick as they call them that are about three feet long with a handle, plus a pistol in a holster at the hip.
Casually I asked if they had a lot of crime around Grayling, he answered just as casually "not much" and went on to explain he was waiting to go and give a talk at the local school. I managed to bite my tongue in the nick of time, just stopping myself from blurting out, "what do you need all that weaponry to go and give a lecture at school", what on earth did he carry when he was actually on patrol? Eventually after a few more pleasantries, he gave me directions on how to get to the Dept of Natural Resources Office, we found that we had plenty of time to spare. We weren’t the first to arrive, because when we got there we found several birders patiently waiting. Eventually a ranger arrived; leading us into a classroom, where we received a lecture about Kirtland’s Warbler, and how they are trying to protect them. Plus the measures they were going to, that would hopefully help them back on the road to recovery. We learned the ideal habitat, was small Jack Pines, also that they fell victim to the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird. One of the methods of control, was to set traps to catch the parasite, which was then asphyxiated, although this might seem a little extreme, it was allowing the Kirtland’s Warbler to recover and increase slowly. We were told that during the last seven years of the programme nearly 30,000 Cowbirds had been destroyed.
Next we were driven in convoy to the nesting area, which was about 20 miles away; again we learned that we could only visit the sites in this manner, because they were out of bounds to the public. As soon as we had parked our vehicles the ranger heard one singing, there, in a tree about 30 metres from where we were, was the bird we had travelled such a distance to see. During what appeared to be an extremely brief visit we sighted another two, when the time came for us to be escorted back to Grayling. We could take some pride and an enormous amount of pleasure from the fact that we had probably seen one of three of America’s rarest birds. There was an area of old prairie just north of Grayling that was supposed to have some Sharp-tailed Grouse, but although we searched diligently, we didn’t find any, but we did see a Rufous-sided Towhee on its breeding ground singing away quite happily. Two Common Nighthawk a male and female, were going absolutely potty and diving at us continually which led us to believe they had a nest close by, so we quietly left to allow them to settle down again. In the distance we saw a couple of Sparrows in a bush, it took a while for us to identify them as Clay-coloured Sparrow, yet another new bird.
There were plenty of Chipping Sparrow flying around with its bright chestnut crown, along with one Field Sparrow, and three larger ones with short tails and prominent white outer tail feathers. We had searched various locations in Canada for a glimpse of this bird without any luck, but here on our first full day in Michigan we were fortunate to see three Vesper Sparrow, not an uncommon bird but nice to get on the tick list. During the afternoon we saw a couple of Eastern Bluebird, and a Brown Thrasher that about wrapped up the proceedings. Again rather than waste time by staying overnight we drove a further 90 miles to our next stop on the most Northwest tip of Lower Michigan.
Waugoshance Point in Wilderness Park is a long sandy point off the shores of Lake Michigan, with hinterland of woodland, it is reached by a dusty track, which gets progressively rougher, until it is impossible to take the car any further. Leaving the car we had another two and a half-mile walk before we got to the place we had been heading for, which was where the Piping Plover are reported to nest. This is a very rare breeder in this part of the States, also uncommon throughout the rest of its range. It seemed as if we had walked half way across the state and hadn’t seen hair or plume of it, but we had seen several Turnstone, Killdeer, Dunlin, Sanderling, etc.
But no sign of the bird we so desperately wanted to see, having eventually decided we would pack it in for the day we were about to turn around, when a small mound of sand caught our eye, one last attempt was tried. They say that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again, in this instance our persistence paid handsome dividends. As we came up to it a small Wading bird ran off, as we followed it paused for a short while and we were able to get our first glimpse of the Piping Plover. They are a cross between a Snowy, and a Semi-palmated Plover, very pale above, with orange legs and bill, the latter having a black tip. What a fantastic sight and a great relief to actually see it.
Our next destination was Mackinaw City, about 10 miles away, as we joined the main road we saw an American Woodcock sat a the side of it. Unfortunately we saw it far too late to be able to pull up and have a good look. Then a little further along we came to a truly magnificent piece of engineering, and a fantastic sight to see. It is the bridge that joins the Upper and Lower Michigan together, a suspension bridge that is five miles long.
Once across this we were heading due north for another 70 miles to Whitefish Point where we would settle down for the night. When we awoke the next morning the windows were white over with frost, for although it was sunny it was still brass-monkey weather. Whitefish Point is a sandy peninsular which juts out from the Southern shore into Lake Superior, with a coniferous forest just behind it. From the beach we could see six Great Northern Diver, one Red-throated Diver, and a few Red-breasted Merganser.
I had been telling one of my friends that he would perhaps see Velvet Scoter here, but because he hadn’t seen them in Britain, said he wouldn’t look as he didn’t want to see them thousands of miles away first. He emphatically insisted that he would not look. So when I saw 4 birds flying towards us, he happened to be standing at my side, I said, " Quick get on to these 4 Duck coming up," when he focussed his binoculars he muttered "Oh bother!"…Well I think that’s what he said, but we had a good laugh about it.
Turning and looking over the forest behind us we could see several Sharp-shinned Hawk circling, every so often they would dive towards the trees. Then around 500 Blue Jay would take to the sky, wheeling and screaming at being disturbed, which made a tremendous spectacle at first. But as this went on all that morning the novelty began to wear a bit thin, and in the end we just ignored it, to concentrate on what we were doing. Whitefish Point had actually got a Bird Observatory, so slowly we made our way to this. On our way we came across something that looked like golden jewels in a bush, Evening Grosbeak shining brilliantly in the early morning sun, simply demanding to be looked at.
At the Observatory we found that ringing, or banding as the Americans call it was going on. When we got there they were busy ringing a Sharp-shinned, which is very much like our own Sparrowhawk both in size and colour. But with the notable difference in having red eyes, quite nice to see at such close range as normally you can only see any bird from a distance. After watching the banding for a little while, it was time to move on, no point in hanging around when there is plenty of ground to cover. Paradise was our destination this time and breakfast, on the way you go down a straight tree lined road. Above this we saw several birds soaring on the thermals. Stopping to have a look there were two Broad-winged and eight Red-tailed Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Common Raven, and a new bird for us a Red-shouldered Hawk.
Now when back in Britain my usual breakfast is beans on toast. So you can imagine my dismay for he last couple of weeks I hadn’t seen anywhere that served my favourite delicacy. Then to my delight in paradise there on the menu was my own personal manna from heaven, so it was not too difficult to figure out what I ordered. Funnily enough the waitress gave me a look of disbelief, even double checking to make sure her ears hadn’t been playing tricks, but was forced to admit that she got it right the first time when I said very slowly that I wanted beans on toast.
When the meal arrived I couldn’t believe me eyes, oh it was beans on toast all right, but on toast covered with what looked like icing sugar. What the blazes she thought I’d ordered I hadn’t a clue, but I was so ravenously hungry and didn’t feel like arguing that I polished it off in double quick time. After the meal during which I got some very strange looks, I found out that is what they call French toast, another lesson learned never ask for beans on French toast. After breakfast we headed for Lake Andrus, which on our arrival found it to be surrounded by coniferous trees. As there were quite a few people, there was a lot of disturbance.
Even so there was still plenty to see, my favourite a Blackburnian Warbler singing away merrily, together with an Ovenbird, its song reminiscent of our own Great Tit with a Teacher, Teacher, Teacher, call. There were Dunlin on the shoreline, whilst a couple of Raven were performing acrobatics, as they twisted and turned during their courtship flight. Perched in the trees a short distance away were about a dozen Yellow-rumped Warbler. Back towards the car we saw our one and only sighting of a Golden-crowned Kinglet. Because America is such a huge country, we couldn’t afford to spend too much time in one place; we had to move on. We thought it would be nice to go somewhere different, than following the information that we had brought with us all the time. The place we chose was Seney Wildlife Refuge seventy miles to the west.
This Refuge covers about 95,000 acres, half of which are marshes, also having 7000 acres of open water, the remainder being woodland. Pulling into the car park we saw hordes of little fury mammals running around under cars and almost over our shoes. If you sat in the car with the door open they would come to investigate; they were of course the delightful little chipmunks. I half expected someone to shout out "Alvin" and they all would disappear. I slipped that one in for those of you who could remember the hit single by The Chipmunk’s back in 19 something or other.
Bird wise, we saw 50 Canada Goose, five Ring-necked Duck, and a Belted Kingfisher, walking through the woods several Downy and Hairy Woodpecker, along with a Yellow Warbler and a Warbling Vireo. Then as we came out of the woods we stumbled across some Purple Martin lofts. Across the paddock was a marshy area, as we neared this we could hear the call of an American Bittern. Although we were absolutely certain it was directly in front of us, we couldn’t see a thing. So we separated, each one standing 30 metres apart from one another.
We were beginning to feel ridiculous because the marsh wasn’t very large, or particularly dense, but still we were unable to see anything of the bird. To make things even worse the mosquitoes were beginning to stir in order to find their evening meal, us being the only cafeteria around. However patience has its own reward, and after an hour it was finally sighted. It was where we had correctly surmised directly in front of us, but not the ten or 20 metres we had first thought, but a mere five. All that time it must have been laughing itself silly at our feeble attempts to get him in view.
Then just as we were about to retrace our steps we heard a Yellow Rail call. We had been told by one of the rangers, because we had discussed Yellow Rail with him earlier, that if you tap two pebbles together this gives a reasonable imitation of the call, and the bird can be duped into showing itself. Although we had been sceptical at the time, we tried it and to our great delight it worked. Within seconds one responded and began walking towards us before it realised it was being tricked, doing a hasty retreat towards cover again.
It had taken us well over an hour to spot the Bittern, which in comparison with a Rail is a monster of a bird, so we hadn’t fancied our chances of seeing it, so we said "Ahh forget it". Mind you we did have a little consolation on our way back to the car, for sitting on some railings was an Eastern Phoebe. After last night’s cold snap as us Yorkshire folk say, we didn’t relish spending another night in a freezing cold car. So we drove to Seney, found what looked like a comfortable motel and booked in.
It was decided that we would spend another morning at Seney N.W.R. Getting there early we pulled into a different car park, one of the first things we saw as a female Hooded Merganser. It didn’t hang around for very long, so once it had flown away, there didn’t seen to be much else around so we went back to the main car park. From there we slowly started to walk alongside one of the lakes. In the centre of the lake was a Great Northern Diver sitting so still, that for a fleeting second we thought it might be one of those decoys. Dabbling around the edge were a few Blue-winged Teal, along with a couple of its cousins the Green-winged Teal. As we carried on we came across several Ring-necked Duck; just then a pair of Hooded Merganser flew by, the male being in magnificent plumage.
Going through a small wood where Pine Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher, also a couple of Evening Grosbeak were all busily feeding, we emerged into a grassy area covered with sparse bushes where an Eastern Phoebe was catching flies. Glancing upwards we caught our first sight of a magnificent adult American Bald Eagle, its white head and tail seeming to glisten in the morning sunlight, we actually lay on our backs looking up, enthralled watching as it slowly glided out of sight. We had a long journey ahead of us, which also meant a very long drive, so again it was back to the car. It was one o’clock as we set off for the Algonquin Provincial Park back in Canada.
As we left Seney behind one of the first things we saw was an American Bittern flying across the road in front of us, wouldn’t you just know it, a wasted hour looking for one yesterday, today one nearly dive bombs us. Then a little further along as we were passing a stretch of open water, we were privileged to see an Osprey actually catch a fish in its talons, the first time I had seen this happen. After about 80 miles and halfway to the American/Canada border we saw our last tick for the list in Michigan.
We had past quite a few birds perched on telegraph wires, when it suddenly
dawned upon us that they might be a bird we had not seen yet, approaching
another flock we stopped and checked. Sure enough they were indeed a new
bird, and the one that nearly got away, for after those we never passed
any more, they were Rusty Blackbird. When we got to the border, our first
worry would there be a repeat performance of our last crossing; our hearts
were literally in our mouths as we arrived.
At the checkpoint at Sault St Marie, a female immigration officer leaned out of the window and asked if we had anything to declare. I have to admit when I feel nervous I come out with all sorts of drivel, so it came as no surprise to hear myself answer…"No just a boot full of booze and fags" one of my friends said, " you can’t say that". But instead of being surrounded by pistol waving, hard-faced officers, she just smiled and waved us through without any trouble. Perhaps some American officials should come here for a few diplomatic lessons. Because it just goes to show the difference in people, but as we Yorkshiremen say "There is nowt na queerer than folk"
Once over the border we have to pass over the great Soo Locks and what massive structures, they are reputed to be the busiest in the world. Having seen them I can quite well believe it, most impressive. The next significant place was Sudbury 170 miles away. We were making reasonable progress when everything ground to a halt in the middle of nowhere, we couldn’t see anything ahead, so we were forced to sit and wait it out. After a time out came the maps to see if we could by-pass the bottleneck which was holding us up. But there was nothing, no townships, no back roads that we could take to make a detour, zero, zilch. After a while word began to filter back, there had been an accident, so all we could do was to wait a fair length of time, I do mean a fair length of time like hours rather than minutes.
Finally we began to edge our way forward again, as we neared the scene of the accident, I enquired what had happened and was informed that an articulated lorry had been in collision with a moose. When we came level to the scene, all we could see was the aftermath. The container that had been carrying tons of meat, after the collision it had careered off the road, the cab being flattened, then rolling down an embankment. The actual container had ripped open depositing its load everywhere, until it had come to rest at the bottom of the embankment.
What a charnel house, there were raw meat everywhere and so much of it, the emergency services were having to clear up the mess with a J.C.B. digger. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, the moose had come out of it not feeling very happy with the situation, and was giving the workmen quite a headache trying to sort out what meat belonged to the load, as well as belonged to the now defunct and definitely deceased moose. Because of the delay, we didn’t arrive in Sudbury until well after dark, from there the drive to Algonquin Provincial Park was only about 150 miles, so after stopping to get some food for the following day we pressed on, eventually arriving at two o’clock in the morning.
As we entered the park we had seen several signs warning motorists to beware of moose, because apart from the dead lump of mincemeat which had argued with the articulated lorry, we had never seen a live one yet. We were driving along slowly trying to find somewhere to park, to spend another uncomfortable night in the car, when we saw something in the glow of the headlights, not full beam more of half light. Stopping the car we could only sit and stare in amazement, as our first moose slowly emerged out of the gloom. Its size was awesome, standing about 8 feet high at the shoulder, we watched not one but three of them slowly cross the road, eventually disappearing from view. Having just driven for thirteen hours, I was ready for a little sleep, unfortunately in the car.
Next morning we were woken by heavy rain hammering on the roof of the car. Although it was raining it was still quite warm, but undeterred and recalling the old man’s advice earlier about how to avoid been eaten alive by insects, we muffled up until we looked like creatures from outer space, all be it very warm ones. Then smeared musk oil liberally over all the bare parts still open to attack. That musk oil has a distinctive aroma all of its own, a cross between a seven week dead carcass and a cesspool. No wonder the insects didn’t relish feasting on anyone smothered in that foul smelling stuff. The smell alone was enough to turn anyone’s stomach, but rather that, than to get eaten down to the bone.
Looking like the first survivors of a nuclear attack, we set off to start exploring one of Canada’s largest parks. Algonquin covers approximately 4,700 square miles of mostly coniferous forest and lakes, so we had plenty to explore. We were right in the middle of it, or so it appeared to us. At the north end it’s coniferous forest, then as you move south it gradually becomes more deciduous. We decided to go along the nine and a half mile long Mizzy Lake trail, too far to do in one go, but we still went in the hope of seeing a couple of birds we were particularly interested in.
We had passed several of the lakes from where the trail gets its name, and were stood on a boardwalk about a metre above the marsh, when we heard a bird call from some trees on our right. Unable to see anything my friends backtracked and disappeared into the undergrowth. A couple of moments later a Black-backed Woodpecker appeared, resting briefly on a tree not more than fifteen feet from where I was standing. After it had flown off I called to my friends asking if they were alright but got no answer, then I heard a movement behind me and turning I saw a couple of moose standing about ten metres away.
For a few seconds we simply stood staring at one another, not knowing how to react. I began to jump up and down, waving my arms around like a demented windmill, and shouting for it to go away…or something like that. In any event I don’t think it understood. The moose simply stood its ground regarding me with those big brown eyes as if I was in need of pity, before slowly turning away and ambling off. Feeling quite relieved, I shouted to my friends again but still no answer and thought that they had circled around me in the woods and we would meet further along the trail.
I walked and walked, still no sign, it never dawned on me that they wouldn’t be around the next corner, in fact it was nearly half an hour before I finally realised that they might be in trouble, also I was well and truly lost. I had just arrived at a small lake ringed by several dead trees, when I heard the same call that had started this whole episode off, watching intently for several minutes before I could make out a bright yellow coloured crown of a bird.
Even as I watched, the head was withdrawn, appearing sometime later on the other side of the trunk. This game of peek-a-boo went on for several minutes, eventually it came fully into view to be joined by its mate, then just to confirm my suspicions that it was a Black-backed Woodpecker, it gave another call. After that bit of excitement I was still faced with what to do for the best and decided I would be as well going on instead of trying to retrace my steps. On I went, drenched to the skin but thankfully the musk oil still held up and I walked on for another hour. By this time I was worried and had visions of coming out at the North Pole.
As if to add to my troubles I needed to obey the call of nature and hoped that I could hang on until I got back to the car. However it soon became apparent I had no idea how long that might be if ever, so I found a suitable spot away from prying eyes and did what a man had to do in situations like that. Now you’ve all heard of the saying like flies around a honey pot, well I didn’t know anything about that until a couple of days later. I went into the shower and discovered to my irritation that the dreaded mosquitoes that I had taken so much trouble in guarding against had used my nether regions as a bombing range counting at least thirty bites that itched like anything to put it mildly.
Coming out into a clearing I surprised three Raven that had been feeding, they took to the air in alarm before disappearing into the wood. By now my mental state was starting to affect me, for I had lost the trail a long time back. I was absolutely certain I had passed this place several times already, when I heard a Woodpecker drumming. When I found it, it turned out to be Pileated, the first since I’d seen those two flying off in the distance at Rondeau. As I watched it, I heard voices and heading in that direction soon found a path. After about 400 metres along this path I could see a clearing, as I came out what met me was the welcome sight of the car, you will never be able to imagine the relief I felt at seeing it.
Unfortunately my two friends didn’t seem to share my joy and elation. I had been walking around for nearly six hours after they had taken off into the blue yonder. Then finding I wasn’t around after they’d re-emerged from the woods had made their way back to the car, as I still had the keys in my pocket, they had been forced to stand around in the rain until I had reappeared. They treated my explanation with a great deal of scepticism, but if you read this guys it’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I’m sorry for the inconvenience you suffered, well that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
We drove to the Information Centre to see if there was anything about, on the counter the first thing I looked at brought a rueful smile to my lips. I put one in my pocket for you never know when it might come in handy, even though the horse had already bolted when I’d shut the stable door. It was a card explaining, what to do if you ever get lost in the forest. During the next walk my friends, still not too certain with my excuses, ensured we stayed together at all times. This walk was called the Spruce Bog Boardwalk, what fascinating names the Canadians have for their natural beauty spots. It passed through a damp wood where we should be able to see Spruce Grouse if we are lucky, sadly we aren’t.
Where the boardwalk passes through the wood Black-capped Chickadee were moving among the bushes feeding, two Chestnut-sided Warbler sang from opposite sides of the walk, along with two Ovenbird, and a White-throated Sparrow. Suddenly one of my friends spotted a small bird flitting through the bushes. We followed to identify it as a Boreal Chickadee a Northern species, and one we wanted for our list. We did look for somewhere to spend the night, but I had been off on my impromptu walkabout for such a long time, that it meant I’m afraid another night in the car, which didn’t endear me to my travelling companions very much.
As we drove around looking for somewhere to park up, we saw six Evening Grosbeak, a perfect photograph. The only trouble was all the cameras were locked away in the boot. Of course with our recent run of luck, by the time we had found a place to park up and sort out the gear, the damn things had got fed up waiting and flown off in a huff. Finally exhausted we parked up and spent a very uncomfortable night in our damp clothes, along with that clinging nauseating smell of musk oil.
Next morning dawned clear and bright, so it was more musk oil, which by this time we had got used to, well nearly anyway. My friends were not willing to have a repeat performance after our experience of yesterday so we kept to the road, walking up and down until we came to a certain habitat where we would be likely to find certain birds. What we thought would put up Ruffed Grouse didn’t, but instead put up two beautiful Grey Jay. Where we hoped to come across the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, we came across nothing but a Goosander sat on a pond at the side of the road, the first one of the trip.
So off we went again still searching for the elusive Sapsucker. By this time the air was filled with swarms of mosquitoes, the blackfly were also out in force making life very uncomfortable, so we returned to the car for some respite. Driving a short distance it was time to eat the last of our stale bread and cheese. As we were eating one of my friends happened to notice a nest hole in a tree opposite to where we were parked. Even as we watched both male and female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker flew back and forth continuously, obviously feeding their young. During the morning we had seen in quick succession Evening Grosbeak, Cedar Waxwing, Brown Thrasher, and quite a few more species.
By this time it had started to rain quite heavily again and as I had only one set of dry clothes to my name, which I happened to be wearing at the time, I had no intentions getting out of the car to get soaked. But it was impossible to watch from inside the car, because every time I opened the window the interior would soon become filled with mossies and blackfly. I had never thought insects hated the rain just as much as humans, but there again each to his own I suppose, if we don’t enjoy it, it stands to reason they don’t either. So after a relatively short discussion, it was decided to up stakes and head farther south.
We had been informed by our Canadian friends who were at Pelee, that we might find one or two Loggerhead Shrike at Kirkfield. These birds are not very common this far north, but they do breed at the most northern extent of their range. We decided it was well worth a look, even if we didn’t see one we should see plenty of other birds. On our arrival, instead of parking up and moving around on foot, all we had to do was drive up and down the road and what a variety of birds we saw. Beside the Shrikes we had Eastern Bluebird, the males with their brilliant blue upper feathers and rusty red throat and breasts. Also 10 Bobolink, three Eastern Meadowlark, and one Vesper Sparrow, all in the same area.
It also dawned on us that Peterborough wasn’t all that far away, which is where our two birding companions from Pelee lived. A quick phone call and it was all arranged, and a very short time later we were being introduced to his wife and family. After getting a quick wash he showed us around his private little domain, and what a domain he lived in. It was on two levels and extremely spacious, the upper level consisting of the living accommodation, the lower given over to a library, study, pool table, and television room. We spent a lot of time in his study just talking about what else but birds. Then he asked to see our tick list and after studying it he announced airily.
" I know where we can see one of those and maybe one of those. If you like I’ll take you first thing in the morning."
If we liked indeed, as the birds referred to were not yet ticks. His wife made up three beds on the massive sofas, where we spent a comfortable night, instead of getting stiff necks in the car. He’d said bright and early next morning that’s exactly what he meant, after a short drive we turned down a side road and he stopped the car.
Listening it didn’t take long for us to hear a bird singing, which sounded like FEE-BEO, FEE-BEO the song of an Alder Flycatcher, and there it was sat in a tree 20 metres away. The reason we were up and about so early was because he had to go to work and didn’t have much time. But he wanted to help as much as he could, which is what I call the dedicated friendliness of birdwatchers.
A little further along and he stopped, saying. "I can hear a Grasshopper Sparrow," then pointed to a clump of grass about 100 metres away, and there was the bird in full view. Then all too soon we had to go back for breakfast.
On the way we discussed why we hadn’t seen any Ruffed Grouse or Prairie Warbler, which he found very difficult to understand as they were so easy to see. Over breakfast he suggested some areas where we might see them. We were also given a real insight into his love of birdwatching when he said he would actually take us to make sure we did the right things. But a warning shake from his wife’s head knocked that idea on the head almost before it was born. After thanking his wife for her hospitality, we took our leave, but not before arranging to meet that evening at Presqu’ile.
We did actually go to a couple of the places he’d told us we would see Ruffed Grouse but without any luck. Then on to Long Lake where if we hired a boat, and went out onto the small islands we couldn’t fail to see a Prairie Warbler. Turkey Vulture wheeled overhead as we neared the lake. As per instructed we hired a boat for four hours. This would allow us two hours on the outward journey and two to return, for Long Lake was aptly named. After getting instructions on how to work the engine, we set off but the motor was having trouble of its own, for even on full throttle we were barely moving.
Again as per instructions, we would stop off at each island we came across that had bushes and have a look for the elusive birds. We still hadn’t seen any Prairie Warbler before we had searched the last island; the last straw was when the motor just refused point blank to start. I pulled and pulled until I was in danger of passing out from lack of oxygen. Still we weren’t that downhearted for there were a couple of oars in the bottom of the boat. Sorry I must amend that last statement, one and a half oars, as one had split right down the middle of the blade.
My friends, who had agreed to do the rowing, tried their hardest but progress was painfully slow. With the one who had only got half an oar having to row twice as hard as the other to stop us from going around in circles. They had struggled and worked very hard, and were within one hundred metres of the jetty where the boat owner was waiting for us, when someone came alongside and asked if we wanted a tow. VERRRY FUNNNY although my friends failed to see the joke as they had got blisters the size of plates on their hands. The boat owner spoiled our miserable day even more, by innocently telling us that he was about to send a search party out as we were four hours late.
Again I suppose in all innocence, he asked what the trouble was and on being told the engine refused to start, he refused to believe me stating quite emphatically there was nothing wrong with the engine it must have been me. Tired and annoyed I muttered "you start it then" and went back to the car. When we drove away he was still trying his best to give himself a heart attack trying to get it started. I’m not a vindictive person by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to admit I did feel a sense of elation at being proved right.
Heading for Presqu’ile Provincial Park we stopped off at Brighton, but we didn’t see very much, only a solitary Red-tailed Hawk, another Alder and Willow Flycatcher within a couple of hundred metres of one another. As they look so alike we had to stop in order to identify each one, thankfully they made the task much easier by calling. We also saw 6 Black Tern flying over a small stretch of water as we continued on our way to Presqu’ile. We had an hour to wait for our friendly birder, but it showed his dedication to help all he could, because he would have driven well over 70 miles just to spend a couple of hours with us.
Whilst we waited we took a good look around. Presqu’ile juts out into Lake Ontario with a wooded area and some lovely beaches on one side, with picturesque cottages lining the other shore. Walking down the beach side we were in luck because the amount of birds was staggering. On a small island not far from the shore were about 700 Double-crested Cormorant, interspersed with 2000 Ring-billed Gull. Along the beach were Semi-palmated Plover, Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Dunlin, and our first Red Knot of the trip. Also Caspian Tern patrolling the waters edge along with a couple of Common tern.
Going back to the car we saw three Northern Flicker hopping around on a grassy patch, in the car park itself a female Wilson’s Warbler was feeding in a hedge. The time had come to meet up with our friend; we arrived at the park gates just as he drove up. As we were strangers to the area, we let him lead the way and he took us across to the other side of the point. Where we saw five Common Loon, as he called them, a few Pied-billed Grebe, Wood Duck, so many Gadwall it was impossible to count them, 26 White-winged Scoter flew past, and on the tide line were two Spotted Sandpiper. Just off the point we saw among eight Redhead, the last two ticks for our list. A male Canvasback, and a male Lesser Scaup.
After a couple of hours the time had come for us to part company with our Canadian friend. With a feeling of sadness we took our leave after thanking him once again for the kindness he’d shown us during our visit. We drove through Toronto, on to Niagara and spent the night in our car. The next day was red hot, and we spent the morning around the village of Niagara birding, with out a great deal of success. Then on to the falls the obligatory visit, for who would have believed us if we hadn’t gone there… ‘What you’ve visited Niagara and not seen the falls, pull the other one sunshine.’ Mind you we weren’t disappointed by our decision.
You have all seen it at the pictures, in books, or on television but believe me there is nothing to compare it to when you see it in real life. The mighty Niagara Falls are made up from two sets of falls, The American and Horseshoe; it is the last one, which is the largest. Every second, over 205,000 cubic gallons of water plummets a distance of 176 feet. As it smashes onto the rocks below, a fine spray is sent up which gives the falls the appearance of being situated in the middle of a rain cloud. You can actually stand right at the water edge just before it reaches the lip of rock that forms the waterfall.
In fact you can become mesmerised as the water rushes past it makes you feel dizzy, also the noise is tremendous you have difficulty in hearing what anybody is saying. We spent a few hours there taking photographs and watching the water cascading down onto the rocks, but as the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end. As we were flying back to England the following day, we had to get closer to Toronto for the night.
We booked into a motel in Mississauga. Even as we booked in, it dawned upon us that our car looked the very much the worse for wear on the inside, having being virtually lived in solidly for three weeks, that combined with the terrible stench of the musk oil. We asked politely for a dustpan and brush and got some very strange looks. Yet for all of that one was produced, and we set to work. Within three-quarters of an hour it was finished, apart from the musk oil odour. A shower and shave plus all the other associated ablutions, then we went for a meal, after which we always left a tip.
On this particular occasion, because we had cleaned out the car, had a massed a handful of small change. Five and twenty five-cent pieces, during the last couple of weeks any loose change had been thrown onto the car floor or in any handy pocket. So we had eight or nine dollars in loose change weighing heavy in our pockets. We didn’t pay for the meal with these assorted coins, but the waitress looked flabbergasted when we dumped this lot on the counter.
However she eventually burst out laughing and thanked us. We returned to the motel to sleep in a comfortable bed for a change. Even though we had spent the night in a soft bed, we’d got so used to getting up at first light it made no difference. Long before anything was open we were in the middle of Toronto. Thankfully we managed to find a café open for breakfast, after which it was time to go shopping. Again this was easier said than done, because all we could find was block after block of offices, that is until we passed a lady who looked as if she was just returning home after having been out all night, particularly according to all the make-up and type of dress.
We were very grateful for her instructions, as it was only when she told us to go along a block, turn right down into the basement, did the penny finally drop, everything was underground. At last we found what can best be described as a city under a city, shops, superstores, everything you usually associate with London, or in my case Sheffield. Shopping took a couple of hours; we still had time to kill, so a virtually unanimous decision was taken to visit the C. N. Tower. I say virtually unanimous, because I don’t get over enthusiastic about heights, but gave in grudgingly, knowing I’d never get another opportunity to see the tallest freestanding structure in the world, from the top.
It dominates the Toronto skyline, opened in 1976; it took over 1,500 workmen 40 months to complete. It weighs in at a mere 130,000 tons of steel, concrete, and glass, and stands an impressive 1,815 feet, as I was saying, the tallest building in the world. To arrive at the world’s highest observation platform, is done in two stages. The first by lift, which travels up on the outside of the building, unless you fancy walking up the 2570 steps, this whisks you up to the first platform which is called the skypod, where you find a revolving restaurant and of all things a night-club.
From here another lift takes you up, up, and away to a place called appropriately enough, the Space Deck, at 1465ft you are at the highest point. The view when we finally arrived was certainly worth battling with my apprehension for heights. It was absolutely stunning, no more than stunning; breathtaking would be a more appropriate description. At ground level the skyscrapers that made you feel like a midget, now appeared more like Legoland Blocks, and not so imposing. Cars and trains travelling far below, were now just like Dinky Toy dots, to say I was impressed with the view and the building is an understatement.
Then it was time to get back to the airport and our flight home, after
taking our last look around we boarded the jumbo jet at eight o’clock in
the evening. We had just taken off when we ran into an electrical storm,
with lightning flashing from the wing tips; occasionally the plane would
shudder in the turbulence. What an exciting end to probably the most unforgettable
twenty-three days of my life, I had driven 5,500 miles, seen 225 species
of bird. Definitely an experience I’ll never forget for as long as live.