Spring is prime time for birding on the Lake Erie shore. Lake Erie is one of the Great Lakes — bordered by southern Ontario (Canada), western New York, northwest Pennsylvania, northern Ohio and southeast Michigan. Located at the junction of two major flyways, this area plays host to over 370 bird species during the spring migration. Although a steady flow of winged migrants pass through the region beginning in early March, massive numbers of northbound warblers (small songbirds) descend at the height of the migration in mid-May. It’s truly a spectacular sight.
The good news is most of the prime viewing locations offer some level of wheelchair-access. Accessible choices are available on the Canadian and American shores, as well as on some Lake Erie islands. Additionally, many birding areas sponsor special events during this very colorful time of the year.
Located 31 miles (50 km) southeast of Windsor (Ontario), Point Pelee National Park is known as the warbler hot spot. The Point Pelee Visitor Center presents a good overview of the area, with interpretive exhibits, films, books and interactive displays. The Visitor Center has level access, barrier-free pathways and accessible restrooms. An access guide is available at the front desk, and an all-terrain wheelchair is available for loan.
Just outside the Visitor Center, you’ll find the free shuttle to The Tip, the southernmost point in mainland Canada. You can also drive down to The Tip, but parking is limited during peak birding times. The open-air shuttles, which are ramped and can carry up to six wheelchairs, are really the best transportation choice.
Down at The Tip you’ll find more interpretive exhibits, accessible restrooms and a half-mile, (805 m) hard-packed dirt trail that leads out to a sandspit on Lake Erie. During the spring migration, the trees along this trail are filled with songbirds. At the end of the trail, there is a wheelchair-height viewing scope on an accessible deck at the sandspit. The Tip is a great area to explore, as it allows visitors an up-close-and-personal (yet accessible) nature experience.
During the spring migration, the Friends of Point Pelee and Point Pelee National Park offer a number of special events with their annual Festival of Birds. Slated to run for the entire month of May, this migratory celebration features special workshops, speakers, hikes and even a birding breakfast. Shuttle hours are also extended during May (from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.) so birders have more time to enjoy The Tip.
Another option is to enjoy the migration from the middle of Lake Erie, on Kelleys Island. The Kelleys Island Ferry offers year-round service to the island from the Marblehead peninsula in northern Ohio. There is ramp access to the ferry, however, there is one step at the threshold to the passenger cabin. On the other hand, it’s only a 20-minute ride, and it’s really quite pleasant to enjoy the view from the open deck.
The best way to view the migration is from the campground on the north shore of the island. In fact, you can have a front row (yet very private) seat on the deck at one of the accessible yurts. These circular canvas structures have wood floors, electricity and even running water. Each yurt sleeps six people in the common main room, and includes a full kitchen and a bathroom with a roll-in shower. Access features include a ramped entry to a large deck, wide doorways, level thresholds and excellent pathway access. The yurts rent for US$ 90/night, with a seven-night minimum. It’s a great way to relax and enjoy the migration.
If you’d prefer a day hike, head over to the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area on the Ohio shore. Located 17 miles (27 km) west of Port Clinton, this 2,000-acre (8 km²) area is considered one of the top 10 birding spots in North America by Birder’s World and Wild Bird magazines.
Your first stop should be the Sportsman’s Migratory Bird Center, which is located near the entrance, just off Highway 2. The center features interpretive exhibits about the area, an information center and rangers on duty to field questions. Access is good throughout the center, with a ramped entrance, level thresholds and plenty of room to wheel around. Outside there is also a short paved path through the surrounding marshland.
The big attraction of the area during the spring migration is the appropriately named Bird Trail. This 0.6 mile (965 m) boardwalk winds through seven acres (0.03 km²) of forested beach ridge and marshland; and in the spring, it’s home to a large population of migrating warblers. The wide level boardwalk is shaded by trees and it features several viewing stations. Pack a picnic lunch and make a day out of it. It’s an excellent place to view the spring migration.
If You Go
Point Pelee National Park
519-322-2365, general information
519-326-6173, Friends of Point Pelee
519-322-2371, migration update
Kelleys Island Ferry
Kelleys Island Yurts
Magee Marsh Wildlife Area