Saturday, September 21, 2019

Birding PEI

As we walked across Prince Edward Island on the Confederation Trail, which is PEI's contribution to the Great Trail, we observed 45 bird species over 12 days, bringing the total number of species for our cross Canada walk to 131. In total 368 bird species have been reported in this province, and there are lots of fantastic birding opportunities around the island, many reachable from the trail.


Overall, there are 23 Provincial Parks, one National Park, and 17 Important Bird Areas on PEI, which encompass forest, meadow, coastal, marsh, and beach habitats, among others. Although we didn't have a chance to visit as much of the island as we'd hoped due to the aftermath of Dorian, we can attest to the fact that Prince Edward Island is a great place to go birding!


When we first arrived via the Wood Islands ferry we watched as elegant and streamlined Northern Gannets soared above the ocean before plunging down below its surface to catch fish. The red sandy beaches were filled with gulls, including Herring, Ring-billed, Bonaparte, and Greater Black-backed Gulls. A colony of Doube-crested Cormorants greeted us on the pier as the ferry docked. However, what impressed us most was when we disembarked and walked around to the Wood Islands lighthouse and saw twelve Great Blue Herons fishing in the cove!


From the ferry terminal we walked east along the Confederation Trail to Murray River. It was a cold and rainy afternoon when we arrived in the small village, but nonetheless we enjoyed watching a Belted Kingfisher at work out on the water, and we were woken up in the morning by the sounds of a Bald Eagle stealing fish from a highly disgruntled flock of Bonaparte's gulls on the river outside our tent.


The obstacle course post-tropical cyclone Dorian left behind required us to climb under, over, or around 109 downed trees in our first 12 km of trail. As a result, we chose to walk north on Highway 4 to Montague, where another branch of the Confederation trail picks up. On the way we stopped at the Harvey Moore Wildlife Center, which is a 46.5 hectare property that was set aside as a staging area for migrating waterfowl. Today the ponds at the sanctuary provide nesting habitat for Canada Geese, Mallards, Northern Pintails, and Black Ducks. Songbirds, grouse, herons, owls, and various raptors can also be seen there. This was a great place to visit for a short hike around the pond, and it definitely offered some exciting birding.

The charming town of Montague is situated on the Montague River, and we thoroughly enjoyed watching a flock of Bonapartes Gulls feeding on the water, as well as five greater Yellowlegs foraging along the water's edge.

From Montague we walked west towards Charlottetown. Much of the Confederation Trail that we walked was a tree lined corridor that ran through agricultural landscapes. Across the island there was a mix of coniferous and deciduous trees providing shade for hikers and cyclists. Apple trees also lined the trail, shedding their green, red, and yellow fruit on the ground, and Rowan trees produced bright orange clusters of berries. A diversity of shrubs and wildflowers also lent colour to the landscape.


As we hiked this incredible corridor, we enjoyed seeing birds associated with more mature trees, such Hairy Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Blue Jays flying overhead and passing noisily through the canopy, and large groups of highly social Black-capped Chickadees.

We also enjoyed the busy, noisy bustle of mixed flocks of warblers passing through, which included Black-throated Green Warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, and Common Yellowthroats, as well as quite a few Dark-eyed Juncos and Black-capped Chickadees.

In the more open and shrubby areas we often heard the soft, high, breezy calls of Cedar Waxwings feasting on the assorted fall berries, watched Northern Flickers feeding on trailside ant colonies, and enjoyed the sight of large groups of friendly American Robins hanging out and foraging on the trail. American Goldfinches and Song Sparrows were constant companions along field edges.


Occasionally the trail also passed beside bogs, marshes, and rivers. We camped beside a beautiful marsh near Baldwin Road one night, and enjoyed seeing Wood and Black Ducks hiding in the vegetation, as well as a Swamp Sparrow. In the late afternoon three Bald Eagles flew by overhead, and a Northern Harrier swooped low over the marsh just as the sun was setting. This turned out to be a very popular spot for migratory warblers as well, which was very exciting.


Another great spot to bird that was right along the trail was the Mount Stewart Wildlife Management Area. This protected area is on the Hillsborough River, which was designated as a Canadian Heritage River for its cultural value. It is bordered by fresh and salt water marshes, and supports a wide variety of birds, including a nesting colony of Great Blue Herons on the Glennfinnan Island IBA, and a large population of Bald Eagles that is the focus of a festival held every June in Mount Stewart. During our short visit we spotted a flock of Bonapartes Gulls fishing as the tide rushed out, and several Greater Yellowlegs along the water's edge.

After Charlottetown we hiked down to the Confederation Bridge. Before we crossed out of Prince Edward Island we visited the Bedeque Bay Important Bird Area, in Borden-Carleton. This IBA was designated because it supports large numbers of Canada Geese during spring and fall, as well as large numbers of Brant during spring migration. Not only did we enjoy spectacular views of the bridge, but we saw at least 17 species of birds!


Among the highlights were a mixed group of waterfowl resting on the water treatment pond, which included Gadwalls, American Widgeons, Wood Ducks, Mallards, and Ring-necked Ducks.

On the red sandy shore we spotted a Semipalmated Plover and a large group of Sanderlings, each balancing on one leg out in the surf with their beaks tucked up under their wings. Whenever a ripple washed up on their legs they would squint an eye and comically hop sideways in objection.


In the marsh portion of the IBA we watched a Great Blue Heron fishing in the stream, and stopped to watch a Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow making it's way through the marsh grasses. Song Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, and Red-winged Blackbirds were also moving among the cattails, and a Merlin was perched high atop a snag.


Although we didn't have time to visit the western portion of the island, the Confederation Trail has two branches that reach up into that part of the province, and there are five Important Bird Areas there. Many species of seabirds and shorebirds can be viewed in these IBAs, and the trail apparently offers spectacular views of red sandy beaches, oceanscapes, and charming seaside villages.


One of the many enjoyable aspects of birding Prince Edward Island from the Confederation Trail was that there were many interpretive signs along the way. These signs not only inform trail users about the history and culture of the area, but they also describe the natural habitats you pass through, and indicate what kinds of wildlife you are likely to observe there. Many of these signs featured birds, so whether you are an expert birder or a novice, chances are you will learn something new.

In general, the Confederation Trail is a wide, flat, crushed stone dust track that is a pleasure to walk or bike, and is maintained to incredibly high standards. It also offers frequent amenities, making it possible to stop for lunch along the way on most days, and to stay in B&B's or Inns if your budget allows. The island supports a large number of local breweries, wineries, and cider producers, and local, homemade food is a big part of the culture there. It really is a pleasure to hike, bike, and bird the island!

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