Bird Photography at Point Pelee National Park

Early May is our absolute favorite time of year because it means enjoying bird photography at Point Pelee National Park. From taking a tram to the southernmost tip of mainland Canada to walking along the picturesque marsh boardwalk at sunset – this park is a nature lovers’ paradise.

The annual spring songbird migration and the Festival of Birds is a chance to break from our day-to-day hustle to walk the beautiful trails of Point Pelee and breathe deeply.  The Carolinian forest at Point Pelee is home to 390 species of birds and 70 species of trees.

Bird Photography at Point Pelee
Some of the beautiful songbirds seen at Point Pelee in 2017

Below, you’ll find our report from a 3-day bird photography trip that includes covering much of this small, yet ecologically diverse park in Ontario, Canada.  Although we enjoy all aspects of visiting this park, our primary focus is bird photography using our cameras and telephoto lenses.

Day One of Birding at Point Pelee

We left Wednesday night after finishing our work days and headed for Chatham which cuts our drive for the next day. Pelee is about 3.5 hours from Niagara, and we wouldn’t make it to the campsite before dark without leaving work early.

Ashley and Trevor
Ashley and Trevor on their way to Point Pelee!

Given our short stay in Chatham, I booked something cheap which made for some noisy neighbors. Something tells me a group of young teenagers wouldn’t have understood our reason for getting so early in the morning, what do you think?

We headed out Thursday morning at 6:30 to get to the park as early and get in as much birding as possible. We brought along our Parks Canada Discovery Pass, celebrating Canada’s 150 anniversary, granting us free admission to the park.

Even arriving at 8:30 we couldn’t make it any closer than Black Willow Beach for parking, but luckily they had a shuttle taking people to the Visitor’s Centre. This would be helpful later when we have spent the entire day on our feet.

Bird Photography at Point Pelee

Rose-breasted Grosbeak at Point Pelee
Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Our first stop was the Woodland Trail, located in behind the Visitor’s Centre. Without fail we spotted a Rose-breasted Grosbeak – time after time, we get to shoot a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that is incredibly cooperative in posing for photos. Along the trail, we spotted a few typical species; Black & White Warbler, Palm Warbler, Orchard Oriole, and a Yellow Warbler.

These photos were captured by Ashley using a Canon 7D Mark II and a 400mm F/5.6L Lens.

Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler

We took the tram down to the tip and spotted one of our favorite and most striking birds for southern Ontario, the Scarlet Tanager. No matter how many times we get the opportunity to see this species, we rapidly fire off photos and observe them in all their glory. We eventually pull ourselves away from the potentially tired Tanager to move along down the west path.

Scarlet Tanager during spring migration
Scarlet Tanager

During this trip to the tip, we also had a great time shooting a Black-throated Green and Cape May Warbler. Making quick decisions about which bird to photograph based on which one catches our eye. Not knowing where to point your camera lens next is a great problem to have!

Point Pelee during Spring Migrations is a Bird Photographers Paradise

During this time, I remember thinking you don’t get this kind of excitement with bird photography anywhere else, or at any other time of year. We also spotted a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Yellow-rumped Warbler and got a great chance to shoot a Blue-winged Warbler.

Songbirds of Point Pelee
Songbirds of Point Pelee

As usual, on the first day we arrive, we like to check the board in the Visitor’s Centre to see what birds have arrived, and what we should keep an eye out for. It always amazes me that a bird you can spot a bird in a  particular location one day and still have the opportunity to see them a few days later.

Bird Photography Trip at Point Pelee (Day 1 Video)

On day one we noticed that a Prothonotary Warbler had been spotted in two locations, and was the talk of the park. This was a species that we had never seen before, so we were particularly interested in the opportunity to see this bird.

We still have a lot to learn when it comes to bird identification, and if we are unable to 100% ID a bird, or get clarification from another birder who is certain of the species, we do not include it on our list. Getting clarification of a bird species from an experienced birder is a great way to learn and to make note of those field markings to identify them next time.

Bird Photography with a 400 camera lens

We always arrive on the first day with the feeling that we need to catch up. This day was no different, but we did need to leave to ‘check in’ to our campsite, unload our gear, charge batteries, and start emptying our memory cards. We also carve out some time to write down a list of the birds that were spotted that day to keep a running count for the duration of our trip.

After we get settled in for the night, we try and head to bed at a reasonable time, and we are generally too exhausted from walking so much that it is never a problem.

Day 2 – Full day of birding

Friday was our first full birding day in the park, and we took full advantage of this extra time by taking multiple trips to the tip.  We had plenty of time to and visit our favorite trails at least twice, including the often active Tilden Trail.  In the back of our mind, was the missed opportunity from day 1, the Prothonotary Warbler.

We ventured out, seeing the usual suspects; Chestnut-sided Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Red and White-breasted Nuthatch, White-crowned Sparrow, Magnolia Warbler. While on the Tilden trail, we ran into a fellow birder who recognized us as the Bird Nerds, and few other birders later in the day.

We make these videos because it is fun for us to share our love for this hobby, but it means all that much more when there are people out there who are enjoying our content and videos. So thank you!

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch

Further along, we had the chance to re-shoot a Blue-winged Warbler seen on Day 1. Us and a large group of people taking in the scene of this male singing his heart out and moving about branch to branch. Further along the trail, we branched off on a seasonal footpath to where it opens up to a swamp-like environment.

Here we spotted a Veery and experienced some confusion around a type of Sparrow. In debating the type of Sparrow, another birder ID’d it as a ‘Marsh Sparrow’, but after we did some checking on our field guide app, it turned out to be a Swamp Sparrow, which was our first lifer of the trip.

Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow

Back on the Woodland trail, we missed a shot of a Great-crested Flycatcher. Sitting pretty, he was blocked by some branches and was spooked after we passed by and he flew off. Add it to the list of birds where there is a great opportunity for a photo and they take off before you can even get a chance. Still great to see him!

We finally spotted a Prothonotary Warbler at Point Pelee!

We did it! Early in the day, we returned to the spots where the Prothonotary Warbler was spotted and we saw him! There was a large crowd there with us, watching him interact with his environment. It was a great display that lasted quite a while, we were thrilled to finally see him and get some photos.

Prothonotary Warbler during spring migration

Prothonotary Warbler at Point Pelee
Prothonotary Warbler

Equally as exciting was the sighting of a Golden-winged Warbler, our third lifer for the trip. He was high in the trees and never did come down for us to get a great look, but we were able to identify the field markings by using our lenses as our binoculars – which we forgot to bring.

This will undoubtedly be a memorable Point Pelee trip. We saw a total of 70 bird species, which is our second highest count in the five years we have been coming for the Festival of Birds. This count does not include the Philadelphia Vireo or a Marsh Sparrow, but rather a Swamp Sparrow.

The Bird Nerds

Some other species that were seen but not discussed include;

  • Tufted Titmouse – we didn’t realize this was a noteworthy species for this area
  • Wood Duck
  • Red-headed Woodpecker
  • Least Flycatcher
  • Overbird
  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Blue-headed Vireo
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • American Redstart
Rainbow Point Pelee
Rainbow at our campsite

To learn more about us, you can visit that section of our website.  We hope you have enjoyed our videos and blog covering our bird photography adventures at Point Pelee. Please subscribe to our YouTube Channel for more vlogs of our upcoming 2018 birding adventures.

If you are interested in how we process the images we shoot, have a look this bird photography Photoshop tutorial video. This covers the basics of sharpening your photos to show the details of your subject. You can expect many more videos like this in the future!

Happy birding!

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