There’s a saying amongst birdwatchers that “birding is not a destination, it’s a journey”. However, for birds, birders and travelers in general who seek an inspiring vacation in an equally inspiring destination, you may be surprised to discover that the journey to Ontario’s Southwest provides enticing, exciting and energizing options that include not only one of the greatest bird migration areas in all of North America, but also family fun, adventure, artisanal foods, cheeses, craft beers, wines, chocolates, ultra-friendly locals, and more. While the region encompasses five Ontario counties along Lake Erie as well as Sarnia Lambton, Middlesex, London and Oxford, our journey honed in on the very southwest corner of the province where, particularly in the Spring and Fall, hundreds of thousands of visitors descend upon this very special area.
Although many are energetic travelers, the majority are migratory birds that are seeking the trinity of vacation pleasures: relaxation, safety and food. And with the ideal of ‘location, location, location’ as their guide, both people and birds look to three migratory airports on Lake Erie: Point Pelee National Park, Rondeau Provincial Park and Long Point Provincial Park. According to Tom Hince, a former Park Naturalist at Point Pelee, bird host and producer on the Discovery Channel and one of North America’s top birding experts, “it’s all about the songbirds…and the warblers are the gems”. In early to mid-May, there are typically 36 species of Warblers in the three parks including the rare, stunning-yellow Prothonotary Warbler, of which there are only 20 mating pairs in all of Canada.
The Spring Birding Festival is concentrated at Point Pelee, which was conceived to be a park by nature lovers and ornithologists such as William Saunders and Jack Miner. Today there are beautiful trails throughout the Park for strolling, wandering and observing as well as bicycling and in warmer-months, swimming, canoeing and kayaking.
The train departs from the Guest Centre which is a gathering place for visitors and serves as an educational resource with maps and displays as well as reports of recent bird and wildlife sightings.
It also includes the ‘Book of Lies’, an inside joke amongst birders for the list of rare bird sightings that should be accurate and truthful, but sometimes are suspected of drifting toward wishful exaggeration! But in the Leamington area, there are more than birds!
This is one of Ontario’s notable wine regions. We chose to visit Mastronardi Estate Winery where we sampled the Syrah, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and then it was on to Aleksander Estate Winery to taste the Cabernet Franc and the Shiraz. In both wineries we bought tasty souvenirs to bring home.
Our hotel was the Best Western Plus Leamington Hotel, which is just minutes from the entrance to the National Park. We enjoyed an outside balcony room where we could relax and gaze at the nearby wetland to hear the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds and see Eastern Cottontails hopping about the property next door.
Birds, and therefore birders, are early risers so the Best Western offers breakfast starting at 5:00 am at peak birding times. But for those who prefer a more grounded lifestyle there is a recreational centre in the middle of the hotel with table tennis, billiards and water slides. And in the vicinity of the hotel there are lots of stores and restaurants.
We had a delicious lunch at Paula’s Fish Place (“Fresh Fish Served with a Smile”), and on one of the evenings we had a very tasty dinner at Jose’s Bar and Grill. Pelee Wings Nature Store and Kayak Shop is somewhat of a mecca for birders, photographers and souvenir seekers. Mike Malone and his staff are very knowledgeable about binoculars, field scopes, lenses, tripods, field clothing and all the amenities to make a visit to the region as memorable as possible.