I believe I’ve mentioned that Sara planned a surprise getaway for the two of us in honor of my 40th birthday last month. She even promised to go birding with me, a pretty rare event these days. Well, we just got away and the surprise destination was Presque Isle, Pennsylvania. Cool! For those of you not in the know, Presque Isle is a sublime little spitcurl extending into Lake Erie. This “almost island” is renowned for more than simply the only sandy beaches in all of the Keystone State; Presque Isle is often touted as one of the best birding spots in all of the United States. Visiting the area, one can easily imagine how massively-massed migrants might become on this natural jump-off point, with birds queuing up in anticipation of that perfect headwind to power them over water and into the Boreal. Too bad that’s not what I encountered!
What a great lake!
Alas, we arrived about a week too early to feel the full force of spring migration on Presque Isle. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have a grand time. Our plan was to get a late start, as we were staying at TimberMist, a fine bed & breakfast that doesn’t ignore either part of that simple equation for success. Only after enjoying our host’s inspired 100-mile Breakfast and watching White-crowned Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks cavort on the grounds did we embark for the park. That’s when we witnessed the many faces of Erie, PA. Erie has it all: tony suburbs, depressed inner-city, lively bayfront attractions, and an industrial sector that has seen better days. What Erie apparently lacks is sufficient signage to get visitors to one of its most tourworthy treasures. This is my way of saying we had a heck of a time getting into Presque Isle State Park. By the time we arrived, the more motivated migrants had surely jumped off.
A trail with a sidewalk… convenient
The wind was blowing and the late morning still a bit chilly so we explored the interior of the peninsula via the aptly-named Sidewalk Trail. This was when we discovered just what kind of birds we’d be seeing. First came an Ovenbird, a good sign any day of the year. Next, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, followed closely by some frenetic Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Uh-oh. The first Yellow-rumped Warbler might not have meant anything, since these guys are so common through most months but the Palm Warblers cinched it. We were in the midst of migration’s first wave. Apart from any overly ambitious avians, these species represented the bulk of what we were likely to observe.
That’s pretty much how the day went. We added both Yellow and Black-and-white to the day list but mostly contended with the same handful of species. Plenty of other expected birds made the scene, from Northern Flickers to Gray Catbirds to Red-winged Blackbirds.
Surprise species were few. We encountered a couple of Ring-necked Ducks amidst the constant Canada Geese. Along the lakeshore, I spotted two brown Bank Swallows coming ashore as well as my first Caspian Tern of the year. Sure, we dipped on possible Prothonotary Warbler and Red-headed Woodpecker but who doesn’t love watching Osprey flush with fish or Killdeer dabbling in the grass? Bonus non-bird sightings included various spring butterflies and both Red and Fox Squirrels.
The most special bird of the day was a consequence of meeting a friendly local along the trail. She was scouting for the upcoming Festival of the Birds at Presque Isle scheduled May 8 – 10, 2009 but thankfully shared helpful advice with two clueless visitors. Her best tip was a Great Horned Owl nest right off the main road. Nobody with knowledge of this nest would be likely to locate the adults or their chicks lurking less than 50 feet from traffic but birders in the know made plenty of trips to the spot, judging by the muddy tire tracks. Owls in the wild are definitely among the top perqs of birding!
Presque Isle State Park deserves its sterling reputation. Even though the birding during my brief visit was typical early spring, I could see how insane this spot must get. Plus, Presque Isle is truly beautiful, offering a taste of the sea to a landlocked populace. I look forward to my next, more timely visit!