Story by Tamara Baluja
LEAMINGTON, ONTARIO — You know when your guide book says such-and-such park has the largest population of some really exotic animal, but then when you arrive there is nary a sight of that prize? … Yeah, not at Point Pelee National Park. No disappointments or buyer’s remorse at this magical spot.
Adorable yellow warblers flitting around, great egrets flying over Lake Erie, ruby-throated hummingbirds whipping about the gooseberry bushes and scarlet tanagers on the sandy beach — there were birds everywhere we turned our eyes on a recent visit. And don’t forget the auditory overload of mating songbirds chirping at each other. Or of the camera shutters snapping as photographers turn obsessive about capturing the perfect shot.
The Festival of Birds is one of the most incredible experiences I have had in a national park. The annual event takes place in early to mid-May at Point Pelee at the southern tip of Canada, near Leamington, Ontario, roughly a four-hour drive from Toronto. Each year, Point Pelee comes alive with the sound of migrating songbirds.
And it’s honestly a great experience for people of all ages — the park is small and easy to get around. The terrain is flat, which makes it easy for seniors to navigate and kids have plenty to do — especially when you get them involved in bird-spotting. The only thing you really need to bring is a pair of decent binoculars.
Even if you are an experienced birder, I highly recommend going on at least one of the two-hour hikes organized by the Friends of Point Pelee. The hike leaders are warm and friendly and really enthusiastic about birding. They also scout the park before the designated hikes, so they have a pretty good sense on any given day of where are the best spots in the park to see birds.
The Festival of Birds offers several birding hikes and it’s worth it to take a couple because you’ll always see different kind of birds at different hours of the day. Start with the morning hike at 8:30 am. The sandy tip of the peninsula juts into azure waters of Lake Erie, and is one of the first points where birds migrating back north into Canada rest after flying overnight above the Great Lakes. That flight pattern means there are ample birding opportunities here.
Birdwatching Tips in Point Pelee
If possible, get to the point by dawn — that’s when all the serious birders arrive. Even though there is no organized hike at the time, there are enough experienced birders who are happy to point out what they spot and help you identify the unique birds.
In the afternoon, take the north end of hike or a shorebird hike. Usually after flying overnight, many of the birds migrate north through the park, feeding and rejuvenating themselves in the Carolinian forest and wetlands of Point Pelee National Park. In the later evening, take the twilight hike — the highlight of which is seeing the mating display of the American woodcocks. The males of this species fly high into the air and execute these incredible cock-screw aerial stunts in order to attract females, and it’s really worthwhile. Alternatively, head to nearby Hillman Marsh where there is an incredible number of shorebirds to be seen, along with seasoned ornithologists who are happy to share their telescopic lens and their knowledge in identifying the birds.
It can get a bit crowded at Point Pelee during the festival, so if you’re looking for a calmer scene, head over to Pelee Island, an hour-and-half ferry ride away. The island is laid back, so while there are no organized hikes, you’ll see an abundance of the same songbirds and shorebirds (and in our case, also snapping turtles, water snakes and baby beavers).
I’m not a birder — if I’m too be perfectly honest, years of dodging aggressive sea gulls and pooping pigeons have not endeared me to birds — but this festival is truly something else and should be on the must do-list of every outdoor enthusiast.
MORE ABOUT THE FESTIVAL OF BIRDS
Location: Point Pelee National Park, 1118 Point Pelee Drive, Leamington, Ontario (see map below)
Dates: The festival runs each May for close to three weeks. The annual event takes place during the spring migration of songbirds.
Entry Fees: Adult entrance fee to the park is $7.80 and a family rate is $19.60. A three-day birding pass is $25.60 ($49.20 for a family or group). Organized birding hikes with the Friends of Point Pelee cost $15 each.
Festival of Birds Website: friendsofpointpelee.com/festivalofbirds
Where to Stay: Leamington is about a 10-minute drive to the national park and Hillman Marsh, and an excellent foodie scene. Amherstburg makes a charming day trip, and is a heavenly drive alongside vineyards and Lake Erie. Pelee Island Winery also makes an excellent destination on the island.
When Else to Visit: The fall also offers opportunities to watch the migration of hawks and monarch butterflies heading south for the winter.