A first timer at the Festival of Birds
I love to travel. But travelling stresses me out when my focus is on optimizing every second for sightseeing with a tightly packed itinerary. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to reconcile those feelings on a trip to Point Pelee and Pelee Island with my parents and their friends; to join the annual Festival of Birds. Honestly, I just liked the idea of tagging along and being a kid all over again.
It was a great few days of nature immersion. Funnily enough, the adventure was advanced a few hours by a northern cardinal that sang non-stop near my bedroom at 4 a.m.! Sleep deprivation aside, I was ready to escape the concrete jungle for Carolinian forests, marshes and beaches for the next few days. After hours on the road and checking into our motel at Leamington, Ontario, we made a beeline to Hillman Marsh Conservation Area. With my binoculars around my neck and others with their professional cameras and telephoto zoom lenses in hand, our group marched on to an opening in the woods.
What happened next took my breath away.
Imagine walking through a noise screening tunnel into an auditorium, except we were greeted by a concert of croaking frogs and chorus of bird songs. We watched as hundreds of swallows skimmed the pond surface and whizzed at amazing speeds with near misses but never a crash. Unperturbed by our presence, the swallows sometimes fly so close I can feel their tail wind.
Other birders set up scopes on tripods and offered us a look into the distance. We got to see some semipalmated sandpipers and dunlins; both new on my checklist! Before that, all I could recognize were killdeers and only by their sweet calls.
The next day, we headed for Point Pelee National Park to visit the southernmost tip of mainland Canada before catching the ferry to Pelee Island. There, we learned to differentiate between yellow, yellow-rumped and yellow-throated warblers; also all new on our list, and again identified by asking fellow birders. On that morning, we were also able to see a yellow-breasted chat, a great blue heron, marsh wrens, swallows and some painted turtles!
During the trip, there were no internet distractions. Instead, we had lots of free time and that meant conversing around the table and campfire.
I was curious to know why, out of many other wildlife, birds are the subject of so much interest. Some of the group said it began with photography. Many recalled their “nature’s firsts,” such as seeing a swallow doing aerial acrobatics for the first time or a great blue heron catching a fish, shuddering as the fish gets swallowed whole. Others admitted that they love the challenge of photographing the hummingbirds in their backyards and logging a new find.
Another highlight of the trip was our visit to Pelee Island Bird Observatory's (PIBO’s) bird banding demonstration on the island. (A side note to anyone wishing to visit: bring rubber boots because to get to the station, it is a 10-minute walk through muddy areas!)
Sumiko Onishi, PIBO’s field supervisor and migratory bird expert, showed us how bird banding works — from checking the nets, to carefully untangling the birds, to measurements and finally release.
We dropped in on a relatively quiet morning but were still lucky enough to see a female red-winged blackbird and white-throated sparrow in the net. Seeing them up close and personal was a real treat!
Despite waking up to 6 a.m. alarms throughout the trip (already being the latest to rise among the group), I felt well rested and content. I reflected on what we’re missing while living a city life versus that of the islander. Of course, a vacationing mindset is much different compared to actually living there. But I wouldn’t mind visiting again next spring, perhaps fall, in time for the fall migration.
As for my husband, who is not particularly the outdoorsy type, even he found a new interest through the trip. The red-winged blackbird that he has come to know well is now his favourite — he calls it his newfound friend, which he has even learned to identify by ear. From the classic musical trill of conk-la-ree to the series of check notes that the bird produces, I was amazed what a few days of nature immersion can do to a tech guy. Since then, we set a goal to learn and identify one new species in our future outings.
Pelee Island, we’ll be back next year!
Male red-winged blackbird on common reed (Photo by Keven Chan)
Great blue heron at Point Pelee National Park (Photo by May Ng)
These swallow houses were all over Pelee Island (Photo by Jack Pang)
Designated bird resting area, Point Pelee National Park (Photo by Wendy Ho)
Painted turtle basking in the sun (Photo by Wendy Ho)
Horned grebe (Photo by Wendy Ho)