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Prothonotary Warbler in Point Pelee marsh

Spring migration at Point Pelee: a bird photographer’s paradise

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Experiencing the North American spring bird migration can be an exciting experience for bird enthusiasts and photographers. From large birds of prey to small, colorful birds such as warblers, there are only a few areas in North America where you are guaranteed to witness this annual event, which happens every year between February and June.

Point Pelee National Park and other areas along the north shores of Lake Erie in Ontario, Canada, are some of the best places to witness this migration. This world-renowned area is one of the best birding locations in North America during this spring migration because it is at the confluence of two migration routes – the Atlantic Flyway and the Mississippi Flyway. I met people from as far away as Wales, Australia, and Japan this year. They were all here for the same reason I was—to see this fantastic birding event.

White-crowned sparrow
White-crowned sparrow

The spring migration can start as early as February in southern Ontario and progresses in several stages. The first influx of birds sees the return of waterfowl. The marsh and flooded fields north of the park are the perfect place to find swans and ducks, while the lake provides excellent views of grebes, loons, and diving ducks. Next to arrive are the Neotropic migrants (songbirds). They usually come in waves beginning in mid-to-late April, a pattern unique to eastern North America. Many birds don’t stay long because they are motivated to move north to breeding grounds.

Most songbirds moving through the Point Pelee area in spring are nocturnal migrants. That means they fly at night, finding themselves over Lake Erie near sunrise; they look for the nearest point of land to rest and refuel after flying up to two hundred kilometers at night. Since the Point Pelee area extends close to 20 kilometers (12.5 Miles) into Lake Erie, it is often the first land they see.

Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler

The Point Pelee area is just down the road from where I live. As an avid bird photographer, I venture out each spring to witness 40 to 50 species of warblers and other migratory species that stop here to rest and refuel after crossing Lake Erie. The park’s meandering boardwalks and trails through forested areas, marshes, and open fields offer excellent opportunities to photograph these birds up close before the tree canopies fill with leaves. The photographic opportunities and the possibility of adding to my “life list” keep me wandering my old haunts year after year with my camera in hand.

Here’s a list of the species I have seen the most at Point Pelee during the spring migration:

  • Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia)
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata)
  • Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens)
  • Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens)
  • Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia)
  • Cape May Warbler (Setophaga tigrina)
  • Blackburnian Warbler (Setophaga fusca)
  • Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia)
  • American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)
  • Northern Parula (Setophaga americana)
  • Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum)
  • Bay-breasted Warbler (Setophaga castanea)
  • Wilson’s Warbler (Cardellina pusilla)
  • Wilson’s Warbler (Cardellina pusilla)
  • Wormeating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorum)
  • Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus)
  • Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor)
  • Blackandwhite Warbler (Mniotilta varia)
  • Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus)
  • Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus)
  • Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus)
  • Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus)
  • White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
  • Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)
  • Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula)
  • Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)
  • Canada Warbler (Cardellina canadensis)
  • Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla)
  • Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)
  • Tennessee Warbler (Leiothlypis peregrina)
  • Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea)
  • Chestnutsided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica)
  • Blackburnian Warbler (Setophaga fusca)
  • Cerulean Warbler (Setophaga cerulea)
  • Louisiana Waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla)
  • Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina)
  • Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)
  • Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus)
  • Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors)
  • Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata)
  • Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
  • Great Egret (Ardea alba)
  • Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla)
  • Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)
  • Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
  • Yellowbreasted Chat (Icteria virens)
  • Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis)
  • White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
  • Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)
Point Pelee Prothonotary Warbler
Point Pelee Prothonotary Warbler

While these species represent a diverse array of birds that migrate through southern Ontario during the spring, you should always watch for other transients. Remember that bird sightings can vary yearly based on weather conditions and other factors affecting migration patterns.

I’ve noticed a pattern shift in the number of songbirds visiting these locations during the spring migration compared to previous years. In previous years, I saw more species of warblers at lower levels, making them much easier to photograph, but in the last few years, there has been a noticeable decline in species quantity.

In actual numbers, in 2021 and 2022, I saw 60–65 species of warblers. In 2024, I counted 39 species of warblers during the same time of year. While some still cling to higher counts, I would argue that the number of birds is 20–25% lower, making it harder to find, identify, and photograph these beautiful birds.

Ornithologists are better equipped than me to explain why the pattern changes, but I have noticed it. Don’t let that dissuade you from visiting. There is still the opportunity for epic bird encounters, but having an experienced local guide is more important. Point Pelee covers a large area, and you want to visit with someone who knows the preferred habitats and where best to find these species, ensuring you get the most out of your visit.

We operate bird photography workshops at Point Pelee during the spring migration that cater to both birders and photographers. We’ll help you locate and identify bird species and teach you how to anticipate behaviors and pre-visualize your images. We’ll also share techniques for finding the best compositions and the correct shutter speed, aperture, focus, and ISO settings to get great bird images. We’ll also have post-processing sessions where you’ll learn methods to get the most out of your bird images. Join me for a bird photography workshop at Point Pelee.

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