What’s On During the Spring Birding Festival 🦉
Join the Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory (PEPtBO) in the South Shore during the Spring Birding Festival, May 12-21, for a chance to immerse yourself in the outdoors and discover one of The County’s natural gems.
Written by Karen Palmer
The southeastern tip of The County is a natural catch basin for migrating birds, giving them a place to rest and restore their energy levels after the flight across Lake Ontario. As a consequence, there is no other location on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario to match the diversity and abundance of migrating birds. Today, Prince Edward Point is a mecca for birdwatchers hoping to catch a glimpse of returning warblers, orioles, flycatchers, thrushes, swallows, swifts and more.
During spring migration, PEPtBO’s station master and bander-in-chief, David Okines, will band about 5,000 birds with the help of a group of committed volunteers. Banding helps track species of birds year by year, building a wealth of data that can point to shifts in bird population, longevity and migratory routes.
From mid-April to the end of May, PEPtBO sets up nets in a half-kilometre of lanes within the National Wildlife Area at Prince Edward Point, capturing thousands of birds that are banded in a process that takes under a minute.
In the early morning, nets are unfurled, gently capturing birds flying close to the PEPtBO station. The birds are then bundled in cloth bags and carried back to the station, where their species, sex and general age is determined. They’re given a light, aluminum band that fits loosely around their leg and contains a number unique to them. Their wings are measured and using a simple test – blowing back the feathers at their throat to see fatty deposits at their neck – information is recorded about their general health. Then they’re weighed and sent on their way.
Okines handles the birds like a magician, so deftly and quickly that they’re unpacked, classified, banded and sent on their way in mere seconds.
During the Spring Birding Festival, visitors can watch the banding process – Okines’ personal record is 784 birds banded in a single day! – or join a guided walk. (Note that banding only takes place in fair weather and only until the end of May. Rain not only dampens the number of birds, it is unsafe to leave the birds in the nets when there’s rain or wind.)
Okines will happily bring a bird out for visitors to get a closer look. He taught me to hold a tiny Phoebe – named after the sound of its call – and allowed me to release it when it had been banded. It’s a favourite activity for visiting kids and school groups, he says, creating a lasting memory that builds an appreciation for birds.
Plus, Okines is full of facts about birds and eager to share. How do you determine the sex of a mourning dove? Check for pink or blue on its head. Why shouldn’t a cowbird be in PEPtBO’s nets? It’s not native to eastern Canada and has only come here because early settlers altered the landscape, creating grasslands where there were once forests.
Volunteers have found that a little bit of knowledge goes a long way to building amateur birders. If a visit prompts even a single person to put a birdfeeder in their yard, that’s a success, Okines laughs.
The Spring Birding Festival goes beyond the PEPtBO station, including walks in Traverse Woods in the National Wildlife Area, the grasslands of the South Shore Important Birding Area, Millennium Trail, Little Bluff and Beaver Meadows Conservation Areas. Visitors might see Merlins, Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Eastern Towhees, Wilson’s sandpipers and several species of snipes, terns, wrens, herons, ducks and more.
There is also a rare walk through the Miller Family Nature Reserve, which is not usually open to the public, offering the chance to sight and hear evening birds, such as the woodcock and whip-poor-will.
Dress for a hardy hike, keeping in mind that the National Wildlife Area has ticks and poison ivy, both of which can be avoided with long sleeves and long pants. PEPtBO can lend a limited number of binoculars. Expect to spend about two hours on the walk, and remember to look beyond the trees: one of Anderson’s favourite sightings was a Harlequin duck, found in the water near the shore of the Prince Edward Point Lighthouse. (Harlequin ducks look a little like a Norval Morrisseau painting.) On the day of our walk, we spotted a painted turtle, a Blanding’s turtle and a little brown snake.
Given April’s surprise ice storm, this year is predicted to be an excellent year for sighting spring birds, as the trees are still in bud on the Point. As the leaves on the trees unfurl, the birds become trickier to spot.
Luckily, the area is a resting spot for some colourful stunners: two dozen types of warblers, many with bright yellow feathers; Scarlet Tanagers, with their dramatic red bodies and jet-black wings; Baltimore Orioles in flashy orange tones; and Indigo Buntings, with blue feathers the colour of the Caribbean sea.
To get a sense of the birds being sighted, visit PEPtBO’s sightings page.
There are washrooms and picnic facilities in the National Wildlife Area. PEPtBO is entirely volunteer-run and receives no government funding, so consider making a donation on your way in or out of the area. Information and sighting lists are available in English and French. Dogs are welcome if on a leash.