A shoreline important to birds and us

Prince Edward Important Bird Area
To begin with, crossing the bridge over the Bay of Quinte into Prince Edward County is like stepping through place and time to a gentler place.
The clock seems to have been set back half s century. The hills roll softly, Victorian houses proclaim serene self-assurance, Picton still has its very modest crystal palace, and always, in the near distance, is water.


There is an island feel to the county and, to all intents and purposes, it is an island. The Bay of Quinte zigzags across the entire northern end, separating the county from the buzz of Highway 401 and the urban clamour of cities such as Belleville, Kingston, and Trenton.


But at the southernmost side of the county, there’s a second transition, and it stretches 26 kilometres from Point Petre to Prince Edward Point. There, on a chilly day last week, turquoise, white-capped waves crashed against the cobblestone shoreline, and I nestled comfortably into aloneness.


The entire shoreline, all the way around Prince Edward Point to South Bay — and 40 square kilometres of adjoining land — has been declared an international Important Bird Area (IBA).


It’s a limestone plain, much like a huge alvar in places, with only the thinnest of topsoil. There are marshes and scrublands, small patches of ash and dogwood forest, and grasslands that are being aggressively reclaimed by red cedars. There are only a few buildings scattered through the area.


Designation as an IBA conveys no legal status. It’s simply an incentive for landowners to protect the area. Forty-five per cent of the land is publicly owned by the Canadian Wildlife Service, Parks Canada, the Department of National Defence, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and the local conservation authority. The remaining 55 per cent is owned privately.


It was declared an IBA because it is a major stopover for migrating birds. I’m told by birders that next month, experienced birders will be able to spot 100 different species in one day.


It’s one of three such gathering points on the lower Great Lakes, and the only one on Lake Ontario. The other two are at Point Pelee, and at Long Point, on Lake Erie.


To give an idea of the area’s importance, 180,000 Long-tailed Ducks have been counted on one day wintering offshore. That’s about 9 per cent of all such ducks in the world. Greater Scaup also winter on the Great Lakes and 39,000 have been counted offshore. That’s more than 5 per cent of the global population.


Since 1995, a bird-banding observatory has been operating at Prince Edward Point, where a total of 18,902 birds from 122 species have been banded during spring migrations.


But this is only the beginning of the story. Attention is now turning to disappearing grasslands in the area because, as a 1999 book on migratory birds points out, grassland birds face a bleaker future over habitat loss than any other group of birds in North America (Living on the Wind, by Scott Weidensaul, North Point Press, $41). Weidensaul describes the disappearance of continental grasslands as nearly apocalyptic.


Much of the IBA is abandoned pastureland that is being overrun with scrub and red cedar. Even so, King Rail, Loggerhead Shrike, Henslow’s Sparrow, (all of which are endangered) Least Bittern, (which is listed as vulnerable), and Black Tern have been heard calling. As yet, however, no breeding pairs have been located.


Nevertheless, the calls have inspired plans to map locations where grasslands could be restored, and that’s exciting because, with grasslands, bigger is indeed better. Small grasslands have disproportionately fewer nests, and there is less breeding success per nest.


As I returned over the bridge to the endless bustle beyond, I discovered within me a corner of what T. S. Eliot called “lucid stillness” that I know I shall revisit in days to come. I look on it as a gift from this southern shore.

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