Great Egret

Great Egret

Friday, 22 January 2016

Pelee Island: Part II

The previous post gave a bit of an introduction to Pelee Island, with an emphasis on the southern most part of this southern most inhabited part of Canada. Just to add a bit to where I left off, Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve is home to another very rare shrub. It is Dwarf Hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia).
Dwarf Hackberry
 A species that is actually not all that common in southwestern Ontario, but is always a highlight when you find it, is Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), found in the wet woods of Fish Point.
Cardinal Flower
Still at the south end of the island, but farther east is the famed Mill Point area. It is named because at the time of settlement, it was covered with trees, mostly Red Cedar and oaks, and a saw mill was there. Since Pelee Island is largely underlain by limestone, and sometimes is very close to the surface, it isn't always able to be farmed. This area was often used as pasture for livestock, although some of the more optimistic farmers in the past attempted to farm small parts of it.....quite unsuccessfully, I might add. Even years after it was abandoned, it was slow to recover into any type of forest, as the rocky soil and drought-like conditions during the growing season made it a very tough environment to live in. In places there is bare rock exposed right at the surface, and these conditions fit what some ecologists would call an 'alvar' or 'glade'. Thankfully much of this area has been acquired by Ontario Nature (formerly Federation of Ontario Naturalists), Essex Region Conservation Authority and Nature Conservancy of Canada. Collectively this natural area is referred to as Stone Road Alvar. As an example of how tough it was for plants to survive on such a landscape, I remember when we were doing some inventory work in the late 1980s, we came across a hardy oak that was about 120 years old, but measured only about 30 cm in diameter. During the driest part of a dry year, the alvar can look almost dead even in the middle of summer. However there is usually some colour.

 Along the savanna edges, one can find plants that are also found on prairies or savannas, such as Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens).
Purple Milkweed

And Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense).

On extremely rare occasion, such as a few months after a particularly hot fire, followed by a good amount of rainfall, the alvar can look quite lush. This next image is an example. There had been an extremely hot fire in the late summer one year, and I remember getting calls at my office from quite outraged people complaining that the alvar had been severely damaged......burned to a crisp. After listening to their concerns and discussing the role of fire, I suggested that they wait until the next growing season to see if their initial assessment was accurate. As it turned out, over the winter and early spring there was a bit more precipitation than normal, and by late June it was looking as lush and fresh as I have ever seen it. It was fresh and colourful looking in every direction!
Nodding Wild Onion, Gray-headed Coneflower and Whorled Milkweed following a fire
 Species At Risk such as Climbing Prairie Rose (Rosa setigera) thrive on the alvar and woodland edges.
Climbing Prairie Rose
 One of my favourites is the delicate little Miami Mist (Phacelia purshii)
Miami Mist
 Gray-headed Coneflower can be abundant.
Sign along the trail of Stone Road Alvar with Gray-headed Coneflower dominating the scene
A real rarity on the alvar, and the first time it had been discovered in Canada, is the diminutive Oval Ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes ovalis). It has since been found elsewhere on Pelee Island as well as on Walpole Island at the north end of Lake St. Clair. It is quite small, as is shown at the left of this next image, especially when compared to its larger relative the Great Plain's Ladies'-tresses on the right.

Yellow-breasted Chat, if it is likely to nest anywhere in Ontario, will nest in the vicinity of Stone Road Alvar with some regularity.
At the north end of Stone Road Alvar is a more wooded section, with some lush ground vegetation. Highlights here include Rue Anemone (Anemonella thalictroides), in both a white and pinkish colour form, as well as the White Dog-toothed Violet a.k.a White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum), among others.

As mentioned, much of Pelee Island is underlain by limestone bedrock, and nowhere is that more apparent than along some of the shorelines. At times the shoreline and adjacent lake can look quite placid.
At other times, the western basin of Lake Erie can get whipped up fairly quickly, and the view of the shoreline is considerably more foreboding.
 At one point along the shoreline near Stone Road Alvar, one can see definite linear grooves in the bedrock. These are the result of glacial action, as the ice of the glaciers pushed rock (presumably granitic rock) which is harder than the softer, sedimentary limestone to gouge out these shallow grooves. Glacial grooves are evident on other Erie Islands as well, and indicate what direction the glacial ice was moving in.
 This next image shows Mill Point at a more peaceful time. The occasion is about 11 p.m. during the rising of a full moon. There was some wave action, but the 8 second exposure resulted in quite a peaceful look.
At the north end of Pelee Island, there are other interesting things to take in. At the northwest corner is Sheridan Point. It is about the highest point of the island, albeit still only 4-5 metres above average lake level. It is the location of Vin Villa. Due to the islands climate, it is a great location for growing grapes, and wineries here date back to 1866. The first winery operation occurred at this location, but after a period of time, declined in importance. The structure remained intact but was eventually burned until only a shell of its former self remained.
Vin Villa ruins

In recent years, grape growing has gained popularity once more, and is a main economic commodity produced on the island. Pelee Island wines are well known amongst vintners and connoisseurs.  This particular property was purchased in recent years by the son of a former Pelee Island resident, and who is now in the process of restoring this historic site.

A residence in much better condition, and which dates back to 1894, is this one also on a portion of Sheridan Point. It was built from limestone extracted from a nearby quarry, typical of several early buildings on the island.
Pelee Island is also well known for pheasant hunting. It was established during the first part of the previous century, to provide economic benefits to the community. A pheasant farm occurs on the island, where the birds are raised. They are released a few weeks before the autumn hunt, where several hundred hunters would arrive looking to traipse across fields, fencerows and old fields along with their dogs, to flush out their quarry. There are a few hunting camps/lodges on the island, but many hunters would stay at the local B&Bs, hotels or even rent rooms from island residents for the hunt. It was a significant source of income for this island community.
 Some pheasants seem to be smarter than others.
A few pheasants evade the dogs and those that are gunning for them, so there is a naturally breeding population on the island.

Wild Turkeys were released on the island about 15 or so years ago. It is not absolutely certain whether they were there naturally before or not, but they are now! The population has done quite well with the abundance of food and the mild weather, so now there is an open season for them. This next photo was taken shortly after the hunting season ended, and they are still exceptionally wary.
At the northeast corner of the island is another sand spit, although not as distinct as the Fish Point one. This is Lighthouse Point, and is another provincial nature reserve class of provincial park. There is some sandy beach and an enclosed wetland marsh (depending on the lake levels) which is separated by a sandy barrier beach.

The wetland is a prime area for visiting naturalists to explore to look for the area's flora and fauna. Great Egrets nest on nearby uninhabited islands, and find it convenient to fly to Pelee Island for food, both during the nesting season as well as after they have left their heronries.
Great Egret
 Caspian Terns are regular visitors.
Caspian Tern

Snapping Turtle
The rarest bird species I have seen was a little more than a decade ago, when one of my colleagues who was doing some snake research on the island noted what she thought were Wood Storks. She wasn't a birder, per se, but knew they were something different, and so got the word out (thanks again, Deb!). Numerous birders made the trek to Pelee Island to add them to their Ontario list. Unfortunately I got to see them, but did not get photos.

Surprisingly, there are birds that don't normally like to fly over water that appear on the island quite regularly. Raptors which rely mostly on thermals, that is the rising air as a result of the sun warming up the land, seldom fly over water but prefer to take the longer route along the lake shore. Nonetheless, some do attempt the crossing as they 'hop, skip and jump', figuratively speaking, of course, across the chain of islands from Ohio to Ontario. Pelee Island is the largest of the chain, and is situated at about the half way point, so birds crossing this chain will often stop in.

Turkey Vultures are regularly seen in small numbers. This group is resting at the end of the day, on the tops of gravel piles in the local quarry, where they are fairly safe from predators.
They do clean up dead animals wherever they can find them....quite often along the road side. I posted this image awhile ago on another site, and one person commented "Great...take-out on the fly!" to which I responded "I think there are flies on the take-out in this case!"
Turkey Vulture feeding on road-killed raccoon
At the base of the Lighthouse Point Nature Reserve is savanna dominated by Blue Ash and Chinquapin Oak, which is a wonderful vegetation community to explore. Blue Ash is extremely limited in its Canadian range, and so to have it as a co-dominant is really special.

A lighthouse was erected in the early 1830s at the very north end of this nature reserve....hence the name.....due to the numerous ships passing through what is known as the Pelee Passage, a relatively shallow and narrow corridor between Pelee Island and Point Pelee through which ships plying the Great Lakes upstream of Lake Erie must pass. The western basin of Lake Erie is shallow, and can get roiled in a hurry. As a result, there have been hundreds of ships wrecked in the shallow waters especially around some of the Erie Islands. The lighthouse has helped many ship's captains from becoming victims of the lake's idiosyncrasies. This lighthouse was replaced by a more modern, automated lighthouse out in the lake, and so over the years all of the wooden parts of this structure disappeared. I took this photo at sunrise in the late 1980s.

History is a popular thing in the Pelee Island community, and a group of residents decided it was time to restore this lighthouse to a bit of its former glory. A committee was established to raise funds to "Re-light the Lighthouse" and after much effort, it was restored to appear much as it would have when it was functional, complete with a light that is still lit on special occasion to celebrate its history.

Stay tuned for Pelee Island: Part III which will deal with some of the herps (a.k.a. reptiles and amphibians), some of the research, and some of the challenges in dealing with many species at risk in a small community.


  1. I was thinking about the wood storks this past summer - 15 years later! My how time flies!

    1. Yes, that was quite the excitement for a few days, wasn't it. The island is a great spot for rarities to show up.

  2. Loving these posts - BH