Fish Point at dawn. Photo by Paul Jones

Fish Point at dawn. | Photo by Paul Jones

The Dawn Walk

Every morning during the summer and fall migration seasons, Sumiko Onishi and her PIBO team go on what they call the Dawn Walk. Dawn on Pelee comes early, and the walk takes them on a 90-minute circuit – the same route every day – during which they write down every bird they see or hear. They count not only species, but the number of individuals within each species, to arrive at a daily tally of the birds along their route, whether residents or migrants crossing the island on their way to their summer breeding or winter feeding grounds. The walk takes them around Fish Point, at the southernmost end of the island, through three different ecosystems, each with its own distinct bird population. The Carolinian forest at the centre of the Point is where forest birds rest and feed: warblers, orioles, tanagers. The wetland on the point’s east side shelters wading birds such as soras and rails, as well as Swamp sparrows, Red-winged blackbirds, and both Carolina and Northern waterthrushes. And the shoreline yields flocks of shorebirds, from tiny dunlins and sanderlings to Red-breasted mergansers, Northern shovellers, Canada geese, and even American white pelicans.

Carolinian forest at Fish Point. | Photo by Paul Jones

Fish Point shoreline. | Photo by Suzanne Friemann

“The walk really gives us the best snapshot of the overall activity in our count area,” says Graeme Gibson the Younger, a founder of PIBO in 2004 and its chief field manager until his retirement. Although PIBO tracks bird populations throughout the island, in the spring the Dawn Walk tells them what birds have arrived overnight, exhausted and starving after their long push over Lake Erie. In the fall, they learn which birds are gathering strength and building fat reserves in preparation for their migration southwards to Mexico, Central, and South America.

Every morning brings new surprises. In the spring of 2018, the island was visited by a large flock of Eastern bluebirds. The year before, it was Red-breasted nuthatches: in 2019, the banding station captured 108 nuthatches, compared with only one the previous year. Twenty years of Dawn Walks have provided a detailed picture of migration patterns; looking at the cumulative data, gathered daily, is like building a pattern of climate by keeping daily track of the weather.

 “It’s the consistency of the reporting that’s important,” says Sumiko. “Doing the same walk with the same route over such a long period of time gives us a good look at population trends.”

Red-breasted nuthatch | Photo by Paul Jones