Sunday, April 29, 2012

A look at Vagrant Traps along the Great Lakes

I really like rare birds, especially finding them. So it's no surprise that I'm also hooked on the locations that repeatedly turn them up.

I've gone through some of the known vagrant traps along the Great Lakes (biased towards Ontario) and pulled out some specific examples to discuss:

          Birder concentration/ human influence:          

Duluth, MN:

red lines - a long "run" for birds until they hit Duluth (large catch-area)

Sample: Glaucous-winged Gull, Snowy Plover, Vermillion Flycatcher, Black-headed Grosbeak, Burrowing Owl, Fork-tailed Flycatcher

The skinny: Duluth is a heavily populated and birded area right at the end of Lake Superior. With a long run of shoreline to catch (or trap) birds, it has turned up an impressive list. Populated areas also attract a variety of birds due to man-made influcenecs like landfills (Glaucous-winged Gull), parks to concentrate bird migrants/vagrants and even things like sewage lagoons.

Chicago Waterfront, IL:

Red X - development helps concentrate birds at remaining habitat on waterfront. 

Sample: Ross's Gull, "Olympic" Gull, Grace's Warbler, Large-billed Tern, Black-tailed Gull, Brewer's Sparrow, Reddish Egret, Rock Wren, Vermillion Fly, Groove-billed Ani

The Skinny: similar to Duluth, the Chicago waterfront boasts an impressive list of mega's. Many rarities are found because they're attracted to humans (Gulls) or have been super-concentrated in the few remaining natural areas along the lakeshore, and are easier to find (Grace's Warb). It also doesn't help that the number of birders in the area is also very high.


Point Pelee

Red: points funnel birds to a concentration point (tip) and attract birds flying in off the water

Sample: Black Swift, Mottled Duck, Neotropic Cormorant, Lesser Nighthawk, Gray Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, Cassin's Finch

The Skinny: Point Pelee is world famous for its birds, and is a mecca for rarities. Thousands of observers go over this location with a fine toothed comb and have turned up an impressive list (mainly in spring). Being located at the very bottom of the Great Lakes, the "catch area" for this location is much larger than the map suggests.

Whitefish Point:

Sample: Inca Dove, Short-tailed Hawk, Virginia's Warbler, Lucy's Warbler, Least Tern, Brewer's Sparrow, McCown's Longspur

The Skinny: Whitefish is another point with a huge catch area. Prevailing SW winds blow directly down to the tip of the point, which has probably helped turn up some of these real CMF's. It also has a huge run to catch vagrant waterbirds passing the point (or coming ashore).


Manitou Island, MI:

Sample: Say's Phoebe, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Snowy Egret, Smith's Longspur, Black Vulture

The Skinny: Islands are a haven for birds who find themselves out over water, and don't want to be there. I can only assume that Islands are great for rarities, because rarities are likely very lost to begin with and maybe end up out over water more frequently than our local birds. Manitou has a huge draw area from the waters of Superior, and probably also benefits from being at the end of a major peninsula. Part of the problem with Islands, is they're much harder for birders to get to - which is the case here.

Pelee Island

(Green lines for Pelee Island). 

Sample: Western Wood-Pewee, Wood Stork, Garganey, Crested Caracara, Burrowing Owl, White Ibis

The Skinny: being surrounded by water is one thing, but Pelee Island also benefits from having small (natural) points on 4 corners. Point Pelee and Pelee Island seem to share a unique relationship as being a bit of a "bridge" for passerines to cross during their nocturnal migration. This is often visible on nexrad radar, and being right smack in the middle of the bridge could have added to this impressive list of birds.

          Natural Habitat          

Presqu'ile PP

far left

Sample: Lesser Sand-Plover, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Sandwitch Tern, American Oystercatcher, Snowy Plover, Wilson's Plover

The skinny: part of the "wild card" aspect to vagrant hotspots is habitat. On the above map, Presqu'ile doesn't really stand out compared to the plethora of points and bays of Prince Edward County. Yet there is a story here that maps don't show - habitat! Presqu'ile is blessed with great habitat for waterbirds, shorebirds and has lush woods for landbirds. Prince Edward County is a Red Cedar/Juniper savannah wasteland sort of habitat (the circle), with hard rocky shorelines and limited beaches. Presqu'ile has enough of a geographic impact on the lake to allow it's spectacular habitats attract a very impressive list of birds .

(At the same time, the "question mark" on the map is Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory, which still gets an impressive list of rarities in its own right).

Thunder Cape:

Sample: Brewer's Sparrow, Violet-Green Swallow, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Virginia's Warbler, Sprague's Pipit, Yellow-billed Loon

The skinny: This one is obviously a point, but I think also has the right habitat... I've heard that high elevation areas attract birds (heard this in Bermuda), and Sleeping Giant itself is pretty big. Then there is a nice low level area right at the tip for them to settle down into.


Wolfe Island:

Sample: Yellow-nosed Albatross, Razorbill, Great Cormorant, Tufted Duck, Eurasian collared Dove, Northern Wheatear, Vermillion Flycatcher

The skinny: Wolfe Island is a large Island in Lake Ontario, known for concentrations of raptors and waterfowl. A short ferry ride from Kingston (free), which runs almost every hour of the day, makes getting here very easy. Once you're there, you can drive hundreds of km's of roads to dramatically increase the area you can search.

Caribou Island:

Clark's Nutcracker, Smith's Longspur, possible Barid's Sparrow & Black-headed Grosbeak

The skinny: only 3 birders have ever been here, yet some impressive records exist. It is fairly obvious that this location would be a mecca for rare birds. But there is a massive problem - it is very hard to get to. As noted above, it doesn't even appear on most maps! Once you're there, all searching is done on foot. Not that it's a terrible thing, but sometimes can really help keep you motivated with a change of scenery.

The winner: 

Long Point

Sample:   Black-capped Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, White Ibis, Wood Stork, Smew, Prairie Falcon, Snowy Plover, American Oystercatcher, Ross's Gull, Sandwich Tern, White-winged Tern, Thick-billed Murre, Common Ground-Dove, Boreal Owl, Black Swift, Western Wood-Pewee, Black-capped Vireo, Carolina Chickadee, Fieldfare, Varied Bunting, Great-tailed Grackle (2), Hooded Oriole (2), Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Cassin's Finch

A look in detail at each of the categories listed above:

Human influence: Is a big part of the history for Long Point - the "point" itself has been protected for a looong time, which is a good thing. At the same time, the mainland has enough human influence to also make it appealing to birders. Access to various locations has allowed a number of good birds to be found, not to mention deliberately man made areas (see: Smew at the fish hatchery).

Point:  No denying this point, sticking out close to 30km into the lake. It funnels birds, and rarities, to the end, such as their Black Swift.

Island: Now here's where you need to bear with me, but I feel that Long Point also draws on the "island effect". Check the black marks/arrows I added to the map. As far as mega-rare passerines are concerned (like the Black-capped Vireo or Varied Bunting), returning to the "mainland" from the tip or Breakwater isn't all that easy --- there is huge expanses of marsh that they probably do NOT want to cross. It really isolates them... It's the best of both worlds, since "point attraction" birds like a Swallow-tailed Kite, don't mind crossing over the marsh.

Natural Habitat: You can't deny Long Point has the right habitat. There is so much, that huge amounts go unchecked on a yearly basis. Just imagine what has been out there! But the entire construct, of the "island and point" effect, along with ample marsh, woodland, beach, shorebird habitat, etc etc make Long Point get an A+ here.

Accessibility:  Thankfully due to the banding operations and research, a number of CMF's have been found at places that are really hard for birders to visit (eg,/ the TIP... ) It is partially really unfortunate that it is like this, but what can you do ? I wrote this piece and awarded Long Point the "best vagrant spot" award.. Not the "best chance for you to get there and find vagrants" award!


  1. Sweet post Brandon! Lets try to get to Caribou island next May...

  2. Sweet post Brandon! Lets try to get to Caribou island next May...

  3. Im slightly surprised to see no reference to Tiscornia Park.

    Sample: Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Least Tern, Glaucous-Winged Gull, Ancient Murrelet, Northern Gannet, Magnificent Frigatebird(2), Black-headed Gull, Brown Pelican (2), California Gull (3), Arctic Tern, Pacific Loon, Little Blue Heron, Say's Phoebe, Lark Sparrow(4), Nelson's Sparrow, Smith's Longspur(6), etc.

    Situated on the far SW corner of Michigan's lower peninsula, on the shores of Lake Michigan, Tiscornia only recently(~last 6 years) began to receive solid birder coverage (90% of the above rarities have been recorded in that time.)

    The Skinny: Birder Coverage and a river mouth seem to be the winning combination here. A full time waterbird will be starting this fall, and one can only dream of what rarities will result from that!

    Tim Baerwald

    1. Hey Tim... I have been following your spectacular birds! But I didn't really know enough about the location to include it (I mainly just used locations that I either knew, or were useful for some points I thought up)... But I really didn't think too far into it... any idea you'd think about putting down your thoughts on why Tiscornia? Since you may know it as well as anyone?


  4. Brandon

    With some expansion, this would make a great article for Ontario Birds. To make it 'Ontario-centric' you could replace the American sites with Rondeau and Hamilton and expand on Prince Edward County (specifically their 'Long Point'). Not to mention Netitishi!

    A couple of clarifications on some Long Point records, the Wood Stork, first Smew, and both Great-tailed Grackles were all mainland records and likely not a result of the Point's influence. You could replace them with Chihuahuan Raven, a valid record in the opinion of several knowledgeable birders. There are also 3 Snowy Plover records.

    Good stuff!


    1. Hey Ron, Glad you think it is good enough for something like that! Although I make no promises as this was mainly just a fun write-up late one night... I actually wrote it pre-Fork-tailed Fly - so I would have to add that as well!