Point Pelee National Park of Canada

The Arrival of Migrants

The autumn migration of birds at Point Pelee is probably the most impressive in Canada.

Generally, migration takes place on a broad front and many migrants can be found over much of the countryside. In very few places will they become concentrated as at Pelee. It is usually at such places that we become aware of the very large numbers of birds taking part in migration.

Although the autumn migration is seemingly a more leisurely one than that of spring, these migrants generally, but not always, arrive at Pelee in intermittent waves. Observations at dawn (especially at the Tip) will disclose whether a wave of birds has arrived during the night.

High-flying nocturnal (night-time) migrants do not use landscapes as guides for navigation and undoubtedly a great number of these birds fly right over Pelee without seeing it or being attracted to it.

As a general rule, an hour or so before dawn, flying nocturnal migrants descent to a low altitude where they use landscape features as guides. It is during this predawn period that we observe the greatest bird movement, when arrivals are searching for suitable habitat for feeding and resting.

The diurnal (day-time) migrants arrive at Pelee in a different manner. They apparently come south until they reach Lake Erie, and then turn westward or eastward and follow the curvature of the shoreline to arrive at Pelee. There is good reason to believe that the majority of these birds are coming from the east.

By using Point Pelee as a stop-over station or a migration route the diurnal migrants gain certain important advantages. The use of Pelee, shortens slightly the flight across Lake Erie and defers for a time the necessity of flying over open water.

When the diurnal migrants arrive at Point Pelee they proceed down the and continue directly across the lake, or they may stay on the Point for varying lengths of time, depending on weather and other local conditions. From August through November, you can stand at the terminal area of Point Pelee National Park and actually see the diurnal migrants leaving the Point for their southward journey across Lake Erie and beyond. Experience has shown the best day for birds leaving the Tip (especially during August) are those with light south winds, high humidity, and generally hazy or overcast conditions. When winds are northerly or westerly, with associated clear skies, flights off the tip are more restricted, generally occurring from sunrise to about 9:00 a.m.; for the remainder of the day the birds are more concerned with feeding and resting. These early morning flights off the tip are, partially, the "tail end" of the previous night's migration.

Not all diurnal migrants fly south off the tip of Point Pelee. Although we see many broad-winged hawks, blue jays and bobolinks, for example, the vast majority nonetheless fly westward across the base of Point Pelee or further inland, to go around, rather than across, Lake Erie.

Blue jays, in particular, rarely cross the lake due to their vulnerability over water. The tens of thousands of jays, filling the skies at the tip in October, nearly all head northwest along the shoreline seeking a safer route. This dead-end phenomenon provides a puzzle to the unprepared observer!