By Marie-France and Denis Rivard
February 15, 2016
The spring migration of birds in North America offers many opportunities for photography. A trip to Point Pelee National Park during the Festival of Birds in early May has become a yearly event for us. Point Pelee is the southernmost point of Canada, reaching into Lake Erie at the same latitude as northern California. This point is along primary bird migration routes and is often described as a critical area for birds migrating northward in the spring. The 50km crossing of Lake Erie can be exhausting and the point offers a place for birds to rest and feed before pursuing their migration. Bird sightings and photography are made easier because leaves are not fully developed at that time of the year and there is a good number of birds moving northward along this narrow point. The warblers are in their breeding (usually more colourful) plumage, making them perfect subjects for photography. While Point Pelee is known as the “Warbler Capital of Canada”, sightings are not limited to warblers. You will also find sparrows, wrens, woodpeckers and thrushes, many of which remain shy and elusive at other times of the year. During the peak of the migration, it is relatively easy to see 50 different species of birds in a single day. Guides and volunteers are always happy to assist with identification or in providing information on sightings of newly-arrived species.
Northern parula (paruline à collier) during spring migration.
Point Pelee National Park has trails covering a variety of habitats. The Marsh Boardwalk, the DeLaurier Homestead & Trail and the numerous trails at the tip of the point are typical stopovers in our daily routine. You will find warblers, vireos, wrens and much more along these trails. Close to the park, Hillman Marsh Conservation Area is another hotspot where birdwatchers congregate to see waterfowl and shorebirds. Egrets, herons, ducks, swans, gulls and terns are common there and you might see raptors over the marsh or farmland.
Yellow-throated Vireo (viréo à gorge jaune) busy looking for insects.
Migratory birds can of course be seen in other parks and conservation areas. From Ottawa, we usually make a stop at Presqu'Ile and Rondeau provincial parks on our way to Point Pelee. Depending on the timing of your visit in the spring, you might find species that are still moving in their migration and others that are establishing their territory for nesting. The Colonel Samuel Smith Park, an urban park on the western side of Toronto, is also interesting as red-necked grebes have established there to breed, thereby providing opportunities for photos of mating rituals in April-May and of baby grebes in June.
Yellow-rumped warbler (paruline à croupion jaune).
On the south side of lake Erie, in Northwest Ohio, you will find the USA counterpart of Point Pelee National Park. The Magee Marsh Conservation Area and Boardwalk, the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, the Maumee Bay State Park and the Metzer Marsh Wildlife Area, are amongst the most famous birding areas in North America during spring migration. Ohio’s spring festival is promoted as “The Biggest Week in American Birding” and the area is called the “Warbler Capital of the World”. Indeed, the Magee Marsh Boardwalk can be crowded at times. Interestingly, this does not seem to bother the warblers which are easier to watch and photograph than in any other area we have visited so far. You can always retreat to other birdwatching sites nearby when it gets too crowded. As distances between these sites are relatively small, you can easily move to another location during the day. Together, these parks and refuges cover a wide variety of habitats were migrating birds can rest, feed and wait for proper weather conditions before crossing Lake Erie in their northward migration.
Chestnut-sided warbler (paruline à flancs marron) at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.
Bay-breasted Warbler (paruline à poitrine baie) at Metzer Marsh.
Cape May warbler (paruline tigrée) at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.
Our first sighting of a Kentucky warbler(paruline du Kentucky), at Maumee Bay State Park.
Eastern Screech Owl (petit duc maculé) with prey at Maumee Bay State Park.
Further north and east, well into the Atlantic migration flyway, there are a number of interesting sites to photograph birds during their spring migration. Cap Tourmente, close to Quebec City, is well known for snow geese as they stop in large numbers to feed in both their spring and fall migrations. Because of the variety of habitats, Cap Tourmente is also a good place to see warblers, sparrows, flycatchers and raptors. Further east, along the north shore of the Saint-Lawrence river, Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive and Isle-aux-Coudres are well known to bird enthusiasts. The migration peaks there at a later date in May. We were surprised by the number of species present in these areas, with more than 60 species seen over two days. You may also want to continue on to Tadoussac for whale watching and breathtaking scenery. You might see brants, eiders and red-throated loons along the way.
Nashville warbler (paruline à joues grises) close to Saint-Joseph de la Rive.
Along the Saint-Lawrence river, between Montréal and Trois-Rivières, we regularly stop over at the Réserve Mondiale de la Biosphère du Lac Saint-Pierre (RAMSAR site) as this is a good location to observe waterfowl and snow geese. This is where we were able to photograph this American bittern. Bitterns blend so perfectly in their environment that you do not see them until you get so close that they flush away with a big noise (and a big surprise for you). It is always a lucky day when you can find one that “poses” for you.
American bittern (butor d’Amérique) at Réserve Mondiale de la Biosphère du Lac Saint-Pierre.
Spring is upon us and will offer many opportunities to photograph birds in their breeding plumage. As they establish in specific locations after a long migration, they get busy finding a place to nest and start defending their territory. Some are very vocal in doing so and will perch in the open to signal their presence. This only lasts a short period as most will soon revert to a quiet behaviour so as to avoid revealing the location of a nest or the presence of newly-hatched chicks. They get busy finding food for their young and their behaviour clearly change to one of being more secretive. It is then time for photographers to retreat and leave the birds to their family duties.
The authors, who like to combine bird watching and nature photography in their travel, visited Point Pelee National Park a number of times during the spring and fall bird migrations. Recently, they extended their spring observations to the southern shore of Lake Erie and the northern shore of the Saint-Lawrence river in Quebec. For the photos presented here, they used a Sigma 150-500mm lens attached to a Canon 70D and a Canon 100-400mm lens mounted on a Canon T3i. The headshot photo was made by Marcela Zuluaga during a field trip to Colombia (see links to other articles below).
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