Great Egret

Great Egret

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Pelee Island: a spectacular southern natural area

Pelee Island is the southernmost occupied part of Canada. It is south of the 42nd parallel, which is the northern boundary of California. In fact there are at least 11 of the US states that are entirely north of this latitude.

Considering that Pelee Island is within 5-6 hours drive of millions of Canadians, it is surprising how many people have never been there. Perhaps that includes you. One of the problems is that you can't just drive to it on a whim. It takes planning and reservations on a ferry.

My first recollection of Pelee Island occurred in the late 1950s, when I went to the island by ferry with my grandparents, who were making a day trip on business. Little did I know at the time how much I would have to do with Pelee Island later on. I have never figured out exactly how many times I have been there, but it is safe to say that during my 36 year career with OMNR, I probably visited Pelee Island over 200 times. Some years it would have been just 3-4 times, whereas in other years it would have been more than a dozen. Some were day trips, some were for 3-4 days. Some were supposed to be day trips, but in more recent years when the weather looked like it could go south, one had to be prepared to wait an extra day....or sometimes two.

One of the main ferries for years was the Pelee Islander. It doesn't handle a large number of vehicles, but it is low and can go through some pretty impressive wave action. I recall on one occasion coming back in a November gale, having to hang on to the underside of my seat for a good part of the way back to keep from getting tossed out of my seat!

Pelee Islander

The current main ferry is the Jimaan, which is Ojibwe for Little Canoe. (This is a smaller version of the Chi-cheemaun, which is Ojibwe for Big Canoe, and goes from Tobermory to Manitoulin Island.) It is fairly high and the wind can make it very challenging for some of the ship's captains to swing it around in the harbour as it needs to, to get moored correctly.

 On windy days, especially when it is brisk from the east, it is particularly challenging. This next image shows some moderate wave action on the east side. It didn't seem to be all that strong, but apparently the ship's captain did, and so I was stuck on the island for another day and a half. I was prepared, fortunately, and spent some useful additional time.

There were many reasons to go to the island over the years: leading nature tours, doing inventory work at one or more of the island's provincial nature reserves, participating on the Christmas Bird Counts, doing site inspections at properties for which there were development applications, assisting with biological research, etc. etc. We often said that Pelee Island, at ~4000 hectares and easily the smallest municipality in our entire district, had by far, the most complicated issues in the entire district when it came to natural heritage and species at risk. In fact the current provincial Endangered Species Act, 2007 came about in part because of the immense number of complicated issues pertaining to species at risk on Pelee Island, and I was involved with virtually all of them.

Life was never boring!

One of the most interesting parts of the island is Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve (FPPNR). From the air, it looks like a miniature Point Pelee, and is shaped by similar forces of wind and water.

The unvegetated sand spit, at the time I took this photo, was a little more than one kilometer in length.

Here is what it looks like from the end of the vegetation, looking south. It is a prime location for numerous gulls, terns, cormorant and shorebirds. The little sliver of land at the water's edge on the far right is Middle Island, the southernmost land mass in Canada. I will describe it a little bit in the next post.
The vegetated part of FPPNR is wonderfully lush especially in spring. There is a trail running through part of this nature reserve, and at times, there is an attractive and welcoming trail entrance sign.

The first display of spring wildflowers in late April are carpets of Dutchman's Breeches, out before the leaves on the trees are very far along.
Next is White Trillium.

A little later a rare plant is on full display....well rare almost anywhere else in Canada, but tremendously abundant in some parts of Pelee Island. It is the Appendaged Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum appendiculatum).

There are numerous other plants here, but most are far less conspicuous. The endangered Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus occurs, and it is believed that the small population here and the ones at Point Pelee NP are the only two naturally occurring populations in the province.
Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) another endangered species, also occurs at FPPNR. It is well represented in some out-of-the-way locations here, and is the only place on the island where it presently occurs.
Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is often seen on residential properties on the mainland, as it is a beautiful, decorative small tree. It is considered native to Canada, but only because of an historic record for it on Pelee Island.

During one of our inventory projects, we came across an Eastern Box Turtle. It isn't conclusive, but it is entirely possible that it is native here, the only place in Canada.
Just like Point Pelee, Pelee Island is well situated for bird migration. When I first started going to the island on a regular basis back in the early 1980s, one hardly ever saw another birder at all during May. However that has changed, with the need for birders to expand beyond PPNP in what PPNP used to refer to as 'Operation Spread Out'. It doesn't hurt that there are some highly talented birders who are resident on the island, at least part of the time, and have even started up the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, doing regular surveys as well as banding during migration, and nest monitoring of species at risk and others during the breeding season. Their main banding station is at FPPNR.

It is getting more popular amongst Ontario birders and others. An active Heritage Centre on the island has a sightings board which is helpful for birders scouring the island for birds to add to their checklists. And one well-known Ontario birder spent several spring migrations on the island monitoring reverse migration for his M. Sc. Good planning, Ken!

With the increased number of birders exploring the island, and having immediate access to posting sites like Ontbirds, it attracts even more birders. This is all good for the local economy, as it gives island residents a reason to protect and enhance the wonderful natural areas rather than exploiting them.

Spring birding can be fabulous, which is one of the reasons I led some nature tours to the island in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Songbirds and in particular warblers are well represented.
Blackburnian Warbler
 Prothonotary Warblers have recently been confirmed nesting at FPPNR. Yellow-breasted Chat nests on the island, and is likely the current stronghold for them in Ontario.
Prothonotary Warbler (female)
 Northern Mockingbirds are regularly seen.
The tip of FPPNR is also a great location to see Monarch butterflies during their September migration!

Note the triangular wetland which is part of FPPNR, and is separated from Lake Erie by a narrow barrier beach. This wetland is known as Fox Pond.
Here is what it looks like from the small observation platform along the trail. In the wetland forest across the pond was a large heronry in the 1970s, made up mostly of Black-crowned Night-Herons. One count put it at about 900 birds! I recall standing along the trail near where this photo was taken, back in the spring of 1976 or 1977, looking across at all the herons and listening to their various squawks. At one point, looking through the 'scope, I noticed a Cattle Egret sitting on a nest, one of the few confirmed nesting records for this species at the time.

Turtles used to be very common in Fox Pond, including Blanding's Turtle.

The wetland has deteriorated to some extent, as the lake breached the barrier beach a few years ago during a period of high water.  It is still, however,  home to some rare plants, including this Leafy Blue Flag (Iris brevicaulis). It used to occur on the Ontario mainland in Essex, but I believe the only extant records in Canada are currently on the Erie Islands, including FPPNR.
 Another southern specialty, and sometimes found even in wet prairies of the mid-west, is this Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), a Threatened species.
 A small number of Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) a Special Concern species, is also found.
There has been an increase in the number of shoreline development applications, which has been detrimental to the shoreline habitat and that which occurs immediately in from the shoreline. This next panoramic image shows the armour stone along the shoreline, necessary to protect the island from crashing waves and fluctuating water levels. Normally the shoreline has vegetation associated with the armour stone, and sometimes the area immediately inland is lush and rich. But with shoreline property in high demand, there is a constant clash between protecting the natural features and allowing some development. This image shows a recently built 'cottage' in what was not that long ago a functioning swamp forest......
....which brings back an amusing, but somewhat painful memory of another development not too far from this one. It was at one of the few functioning swamp forests on the island. Much to my chagrin, development was approved for a couple of cottages to be put in, and effectively destroying the swamp forest. One of my colleagues and I went over to talk with the new cottage owners once they got it built and the property landscaped to advise him of species at risk in the immediate area. It wasn't a small property. As we were departing, the cottage owner asked me in all seriousness "How can we make this lot look more natural?" Sheesh....He was actually serious. I really don't recall exactly what I said as I was still a little dumbfounded by the irony of it.

More of the Pelee Island story in a future blog post......


  1. What a gem. Thanks so much for the glimpse, it is a beautiful island a sacred island with an amazing habitat. I'm so glad it is an effort to reach - probably it's saving grace.
    love and blessings, Paula.

    1. Hi are so right that its relative isolation is a significant factor in its underdevelopment. That is changing incrementally, however, and heading in the wrong direction. However there are more and more efforts happening to ensure the best of the best is being protected.

  2. Fond memories...:)

    1. I thought you might remember some of these places :-)! I intend to mention/show you in one of the pics in a future post.

  3. Nice post Allen, I was speaking with a co-worker about making our annual trip in May just yesterday. Walking the trails of Fish Point toward the tip in the pitch black/early dawn is something every naturalist should experience!

    1. Hi Patrick....yes indeed. Those very early mornings on a quiet, foggy morning can give quite the tropical/exotic feel to it!