Our Up-close Encounters in the Birder’s Paradise at Long Point
The first trip that Bob and I booked for the sole purpose of birding was to the Birder’s Paradise at Long Point on Lake Erie in Ontario. Through different facebook groups, we had seen ample evidence of bird sightings at Long Point, and we were eager to check out the area for ourselves.
One birding spot that seemed quite popular is referred to as The Old Cut. The Old Cut was a channel cut across the Long Point isthmus by a severe storm in 1833. A fierce storm in 1906 refilled the channel with sand so the shortcut across Lake Erie was no longer available to boaters, and they again had to circumvent the 40-kilometre sand spit.
Upon arriving at The Old Cut, the first thing we discovered was a modest building that houses the Old Cut Research Station. It is a branch of the Long Point Bird Observatory and is operated by Bird Studies Canada. It had closed at noon that day, so we planned to arrive early the next day to observe some of the activities.
Bob and I set off to familiarize ourselves with trails leading from the field station. The first one skirted Lighthouse Woods and led to the Marsh Overlook.
It wasn’t long before we discovered the lighthouse that once marked the channel’s location.
Really, the woodlot referred to as Lighthouse Woods is very compact, a mere 0.5 hectare copse, but it is an island of habitat within the Long Point cottage community and is surrounded by marshland and channels.
The pine, spruce and cottonwood forest is a magnet for migrating songbirds, and conveniently, a series of public trails crisscrosses the forest floor. It wasn’t long before we started to see some spring migrants.
Yellow Warblers were aplenty, and quick little warblers that they are, these dabs of sunshine almost defy photographers. We managed a couple of quick shots.
Bob and I were aware of many little birds flitting among the branches high in the canopy where insects are plentiful, but it was a pair of Baltimore Orioles that afforded us an opportunity to practice our photography skills.
It helped that these birds are considerably larger than warblers and vireos making for a larger target.
Over the course of a couple of days, we came to know the forest trails pretty well and became adept at spotting birds such as this Blue-headed Vireo.
Originally it was so focused on gleaning insects that it barely noticed our presence. Later, it seemed curious about us.
In other cases, patience was required when waiting for the birds to show well because of the dense conifers and new spring growth on the deciduous trees. This Black-throated Green Warbler spent long minutes darting behind and under the boughs of an evergreen tree.
I was searching the canopy for signs of movement when this Black-throated Blue Warbler landed right in front of me on a sprig of fresh greenery. I was so excited that I could hardly operate my camera.
Brightly lit by the late afternoon sunshine, the red eyes of this Red-eyed Vireo helped me promptly identify the bird without having to refer to a book.
As planned, Bob and I arrived very early at the Old Cut Research Station the following morning. Trained field assistants were already in the forest carefully extracting warblers from mist nets.
With the birds becoming active at first light, there were many in the nets waiting to be removed. Experience is required to prevent injury and added stress to the birds, so visitors are asked not to touch them or approach too closely.
It was quite the experience to have such close views of an Ovenbird.
Multiple Gray Catbirds were entangled in one mist net, which kept a lab assistant very busy.
The mist nets are monitored very frequently so this Gray Catbird would only be ensnared for a brief period.
Captured birds such as this American Redstart…
are carefully placed inside a soft cloth bag to keep them calm and safe while being taken back to the lab.
Bob and I went into the Old Cut Research Station to witness the staff processing some of the birds from the morning’s mist net line.
Each bird is inspected to determine age, weight, and condition of plumage.
The wingspan is measured, and if a bird is banded, the numbers are recorded. If no band is present, one is affixed to the leg of that bird.
All information is diligently noted before setting each bird free through a specially designed escape tunnel.
Back out on the trails in Lighthouse Woods, we soon spotted a Gray Catbird,
a Wood Thrush skulking through the leaf litter,
a female House Finch,
and a male House Finch looking radiant as the sun grew stronger in the sky.
Eager to check out some of the other reputed birding locations nearby, Bob and I decided a stop at the Bird Studies Canada Headquarters would be worthy. We spent some time looking at the interpretive displays and enjoyed watching the Tree Swallows from the observation deck.
Many nest boxes have been positioned for the birds, and they were making good use of them.
There was constant activity as pairs of Tree Swallows made forays out and back with nesting materials.
We spent a good hour exploring some of the intersecting trails that bisect the 32-acre site and were rewarded with several interesting sights not the least of which was this Warbling Vireo.
We were thrilled to find a Lifer, a Milbert’s Tortoiseshell Butterfly,
many Yellow Warblers, and this odd arrangement of skulls placed predominantly in the crook of a tree.
Over the course of four days, Bob and I learned of other productive birding areas such as Jackson-Gunn Old Growth Forest.
It was delightful spending time in this small patch of Carolinian forest that rewards visitors with a glimpse into pre-pioneer times. It was peaceful and our own private corner while we were there.
Beech and Sugar Maple Tree trunks soar 25 metres in the air and branch out into an unbroken canopy.
A lack of understory in the forest allowed us to move easily along the trails, and wildflowers such as this Red Trillium thrived in the dappled shade.
Not to be outdone by the Red Trilliums were many White Trilliums that grew in clusters throughout the woods.
A Lincoln’s Sparrow graced us with its presence while Pileated Woodpeckers were heard drumming on some distant tree trunks.
It was so satisfying to know that no logging had ever taken place in the Jackson-Gunn Old Growth Forest and that the majestic trees will be enjoyed by the public for years to come.
It is amazing how much you can cram into one day when you get an early start. Our list was long for areas to explore, and another one calling our name was Big Creek National Wildlife Area.
A modest 2-kilometre loop around the wetland impoundments is managed by the Canadian Wildlife Service.
We set off along one of the berms in hopes of seeing some waterfowl.
The first thing to draw our attention was a Beaver plying the water of a feeder canal.
Big Creek National Wildlife Area is one of the largest wetlands remaining in southern Ontario. The loop trail takes about 1.5 hours if the gate is open to allow completion of the circuit.
The only things impeding our progress that day were the Canada Geese. Large families of these protective birds almost forbade our passage as they shepherded their newly-hatched goslings. It goes without saying that we were intimidated.
Creatures of every sort dotted the wetlands as we quietly and furtively trod along the berms. A Red Admiral Butterfly was nectaring on a plentiful supply of wildflowers.
A Green Frog balanced precariously on a broken stalk in order to bask in the sun.
The habitat is perfect for an assortment of waterfowl like Bitterns and Rails, but our luck had only Bob spotting a Sora with a fledgling.
Numerous Common Yellowthroat Warblers like this one that burst into song added to the din of Red-winged Blackbirds, Tree Swallows and the rustling of marsh reeds.
Getting around Long Point, we had to be conscious of the reptiles and amphibians that cross the road to get from one section of the wetlands to another. The Causeway is flanked by cattails on both sides, and this route to Long Point is ranked in the top 10 most dangerous roads for wildlife in North America.
Bob and I drove on The Causeway frequently when going to and from the Old Cut Research Station, both the old and new Long Point Provincial Parks, as well as Crown Marsh. It was there that we came across the longest Eastern Gartersnake that we’ve ever seen.
A visit to the new section of Long Point Provincial Park was in order one afternoon because reports had come in of a Red-headed Woodpecker being seen there. Neither Bob nor I, up ’til that point, had ever seen one of these woodpeckers, and we were keen to add one to our Life list.
The sandy nature of the spit that is Long Point was obvious there on the beach. The new section of the Provincial Park is bordered on two sides by water, with wetlands being the dominant habitat, but along the southern edge, sand dunes rise up above the open waters of Lake Erie.
As Bob and I patrolled the beach and other areas of the Park, we encountered a Killdeer, House Wren and Eastern Kingbird, but the pièce de résistance was the Red-headed Woodpecker that made our day when we caught sight of it plucking fruits high in the canopy.
I’ve got to admit that we trailed the Woodpecker for quite sometime as it moved around from tree to tree.
We were smitten with its diminutive size and the brilliance of its red head.
A well-kept secret at Long Point is a short hiking trail that conducts visitors to the heart of the Crown Marsh. Late one afternoon, Bob and I decided to close out our day by walking the 1.4 kilometre distance to the end and back again in hopes of seeing a Bittern, Rail or Moorhen.
Dogwood and Willow thickets at the parking lot soon gave way to thick stands of phragmites as we walked north, one reason that we had no luck seeing the once common King Rail. Phragmites preclude most any creature living where they grow.
It was a bit of an adventure where the water depths increased. Cattails became more dominant and the going required a bit of daring. We made mad dashes across flooded sections of boardwalk to avoid getting our hiking boots soaked.
It was after returning to the parking lot that we discovered a Melanistic Eastern Gartersnake curled up on a discarded bale of straw. It seemed that we weren’t the only ones enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon sun. More detail about this sighting can be found in a separate post.
On our third day at Long Point, Bob had arranged for us to go by zodiac across a section of Lake Erie to The Tip of Long Point at the end of that 40-kilometre spit of sand. A very early morning start from Turkey Point was made beneath a cloudy damp sky.
The exhilarating boat ride had us ready to explore The Tip under the guidance of our captain. It took a few minutes to get our land legs back.
Only a handful of visitors are allowed to visit The Tip each day. We had the place to ourselves except for the staff at that remote bird observatory. A full account of our 3-hour stay at this location can be read in a separate blog post.
Bob and I finished our visit to the Long Point area that same afternoon with a return visit to the Old Cut. By then, our bodies were warmed by full-on sunshine, and lingering by the research station, we discovered another couple of neat features.
A hummingbird feeder hung from the eave of a nearby building attracted a Ruby-throated Hummingbird that was eager to sample its sweet syrup.
In Lighthouse Woods, we had already espied a Ruby-throated Hummingbird taking a few moments to rest on a perch.
Just off the end of the research station’s deck, a water feature attracted all sorts of birds. A pair of House Finches contemplated their next move.
A Gray Catbird, Yellow Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, American Robin and even a Scarlet Tanager could not resist the quiet tinkling of water that supplied the shallow pool with refreshing water.
One Scarlet Tanager put on a real show for us after splashing in the water.
It sat mere feet away from the building’s porch and fluffed its feathers while a gentle breeze disheveled his drying plumage.
Even as we regretfully parted for home, Bob and I were determined to plan a return visit to the Long Point area. There is so much more to see and explore.
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