It's just after dawn in Canada's Point Pelee National Park. As we step out of the car, birds tweet, chirp and chatter all around us. Several people stand nearby, fishing hats flopped on their heads, swinging binoculars up as singing birds flit from tree to tree.
|If You Go ...
Where to Stay
The closest hotel to the park is the Days Inn Pelee (519-326-8646). Nearby Leamington includes several hotels.
By car: It's a four-hour drive around Lake Erie to Point Pelee, through Toledo and Detroit. Bring a passport or birth certificate.
By ferry: A car ferry runs from Sandusky to Leamington late on Friday nights in May and returns to Sandusky on Sunday afternoons. It fills up in advance in May; call 1-800-661-2220 for reservations. Tickets are $46.50 CAD per car and $21.25 CAD per adult.
Tours: Pelee offers daily guided bird hikes from late April to mid-May, $10 CAD, at 7:45 and 8:30 a.m. and 12:45 and 1:45 p.m., plus 7:30 p.m. some nights. May 8 and 15, a bus tour visits birding hot spots; it costs $25 CAD. (519) 326-6173; www.parkscanada.gc.ca
Hiking and biking: Pelee includes seven miles of hiking trails. A 3-mile biking trail to a mile-long boardwalk over a marsh, where you can spot turtles and frogs amid the cattails.
Point Pelee, the southernmost tip of Canada, is a sharp triangle of land pointing toward the Lake Erie Islands. In May, it's one of the best places to bird-watch in North America. Birds flying north for the summer, tired from a long journey across the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern United States, home in on the lush green point. Its trees and bushes promise rest and food.
"These little guys have come all the way here from Brazil and Venezuela," marvels Barbara O'Hair, a bird-watcher for 20 years. She and Bill Rapai, president of a suburban Detroit chapter of the Audubon Society, are friends of mine and guides on my first bird-watching trip.
We follow a trail south through woods. Barbara and Bill point out a Baltimore oriole in a tree. It's the bird calling out, "Ta tew tew tew." Its bright orange belly shines and I can even see the white band on its wing.
Barbara, who's seen more than 300 species of North American birds, plus more abroad, pages through an old bird guide. Bill, whose "life list" includes exactly 379 North American species, doesn't need a book. He identifies birds by sight and song: a mourning dove, speckled gray with a little head and beak; a white-crowned sparrow, brown except for his black- and white-striped head; and a red-bellied woodpecker chanting "brr-brr." Heading down the trail, we notice a bird that's bright yellow from head to claw, then another. They're yellow warblers. Pelee is full of them every May.
"Ta tew tew tew," a bird says, and I recognize the song. "The Baltimore oriole is following us," Bill notes without looking.
If you've never bird-watched, but you'd like to spend a weekend hiking and exploring a beautiful park, you can enjoy Pelee in May as much as the experts.
"The birds are here. You simply walk through the forest," says Jeff Mills of Mississippi Mills, Ontario, who passes us on the trail. "The birds have their spring plumage. They're advertising: 'Here I am.' "
Even obsessive birders never tire of Pelee. The wealth of birds reminds them why they picked up the hobby, and they have a good chance of spotting a species they've never seen before.
"At the risk of sounding hoity-toity, I like it because it's an intellectual pursuit," Bill says. "It leads you to other things, like a wider understanding of the ecosystem the bird lives in."
Birding puts people in touch with nature's order, Barbara explains; when you go to a woods or marsh, you count on seeing certain species. It gets her thinking cosmically, she says: If there's order in nature, there must be an order to her life, too. And she loves the chase and indulging her collector's instinct.
A rushing sound wells up beyond the birds' voices: the sound of Lake Erie breaking against the beach. We head down a sandy shoreline trail through scraggly bushes and trees.
Barbara and Bill spot an Eastern bluebird in a faraway tree. I only see a spot of blue with my naked eye and, through binoculars, a blue line like a ribbon caught against a branch. Then he turns to face us, and I see his blue head and back, red throat and tan stomach.
Several Baltimore and orchard orioles with chests as bright as sunrises perch inside a willow tree nearby. Someone walks by on the beach and they alight, a dozen in all.
"Point Pelee this time of year is about the only place you'll see something like that," Barbara notes.
A final trail, full of red-winged blackbirds, leads to the sandy point. Bill aims his binoculars at the birds on the last spit of land, trying to tell the terns from the gulls. Pelee Island hovers on the horizon. I imagine the other Lake Erie Islands and Sandusky behind it, Cleveland 50 miles southeast as the birds fly.
On the way back along the western shore, Bill gets excited. He's spied a whimbrel, an unusual waterfowl. I just see a long, thin creature gliding south, but Barbara shows me the picture in her guidebook: It has a slender curved beak and would be interesting to see up close. Back at the nature center, birders mark Xs on a board to show which species they've sighted. Only a few other people have seen the whimbrel this May.