Late yesterday afternoon I walked at Point Pelee National Park in southern Ontario. Known world-wide as a birding mecca in the spring, it’s quieter in the fall, although migrants still pass through. Yesterday it was blue jays, in the thousands, and in two – or perhaps three – layers. The highest birds were flying south, towards the tip of the sandspit that is Point Pelee, jutting out into Lake Erie. From here – or to here, in the spring – birds can fly over the the lake, never too far from land, following the point and then the islands – Pelee, Middle, – to the other shore. It’s why it’s such a hotspot for birding, the first landfall for tired birds making the long trek across the lake.
But jays don’t like to fly over water, so the waves of birds fly south, see the water, and turn back, to follow the shoreline around to the west and cross the Detroit River.So the second layer of jays, lower than the southbound birds, is flying north. There are so many birds the skies look like Toronto highways in rush hour, except the birds are moving faster.
The third layer of birds are those that have dropped down to tree height to feed. Migration needs energy, and the woods are full of jays seeking any source of energy they can find. Like all corvids (the crow family) blue jays are omnivores, and dragonflies, migrating monarchs, other insects, berries, – just about anything edible – will provide fuel for this long flight.
Other than the jays, the park is quiet. A few cyclists on the empty roads, a few other walkers, no other birders late in the afternoon. I don’t think I have ever been here on a weekday afternoon in September, although I have been walking these trails since I could toddle. I grew up close by, and the park was a frequent Sunday afternoon destination for our family.
Here, too, I brought BD when he first started to make the long trek from Toronto to my childhood home to see me the first summers we were going out, and, perhaps most importantly of all, it was here I introduced him to birding. I’d been a casual birder since earliest childhood, identifying the birds of woodland and fields from a children’s bird-book, part of learning my world, along with trees and wildflowers and insects and rocks. One May afternoon – probably Mother’s Day weekend – as we walked along the west beach trail, BD said “What are all those people looking at?” “Birds,” I answered, and pointed out in quick succession a yellow warbler and a Baltimore Oriole. One casual question, an equally casual response – and our lives changed forever.
We learned to bird properly in the early 80s, taught in the field by the companionship, generosity, and good nature of some of the top Ontario birders. It’s been a passion ever since, although what that looks like changes with time. We no longer come to Pelee in the spring: the long drive, crowds, and the too-competitive nature of some birders (and the disregard for the fragility of the ecosystem by some bird photographers) has kept us away. We’ve evolved now into patch-watchers, birding our own local area and watching and recording the seasonal and yearly changes – the return of ravens and sandhill cranes, the increase in red-bellied woodpeckers, the disappearance of house sparrows. It’s a way of birding I prefer: not a competition, but a study, deepening our understanding of where we live, of our world. And as much of it is done on foot, or after a very short drive, it’s more sustainable.
But it’s good to come back to a place that nurtured and nourished us as beginner birders all those years ago. At every turn of the trail memories of what we saw there – a screech owl in that clump of cedars,the red-headed woodpeckers on that snag, the northern waterthrush in this swamp – come back to me. A passion born on these trails has taken us to seven continents, to places in China and India and Tibet that most Westerners never see, and given us friends and contacts around the world.
Like these north-flying jays, we’re looking now for easier ways to do things. Long trips over water are no longer as appealing as they once were, and moving to warmer climates for the winter holds great attraction. But as long as there are trails to walk, birds to watch, and a place to hang a feeder or two, we’ll be fine.