Shorebirds on the Southern Shore – Discovery at Charwell Point

(by Paul Jones)

(Charwell Point - Photo: Paul Jones)

Background

Shorebirds are an attractive avian family that includes various types of plovers and sandpipers. They are a symbol of windswept beaches; and engage in spectacular journeys between their northern breeding grounds and southern wintering areas. Unfortunately, their populations are falling. Habitat destruction is one reason for the decline, with some species now officially classified as endangered.1

Discovery

In the past, knowledge of spring shorebird migration through Prince Edward County was limited, with a lack of information on the places where they congregate and feed hampering efforts to protect their numbers.2 This is no longer the case. The April/May COVID closure of Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area prompted birders to seek other migration hotspots. One such place was Charwell Point on the County’s isolated southern shore. 

On 13 visits to the remote location in late May and early June 2020, observers recorded over 500 individual shorebirds of 14 different species – unprecedented numbers that identified the area as an important rest site for these special birds. Two factors attract shorebirds to the point. First, its long beaches and expansive gravel flats are their preferred habitat, and these formations are rare elsewhere in the County. Second, Charwell Point is one of the first visible landfalls on the southern shore, presenting a welcome sight to exhausted birds crossing Lake Ontario.

Special Birds

Observers arrived at the point early in the morning and typically stayed one or two hours. Shorebirds were often already present on the beach; or would fly in off the lake and circle the area several times before landing. Inclement weather, either during the visit or the night before, correlated with increased numbers of sightings. Sometimes birds would remain at the point for several days. Other times their stays could be measured in hours or even minutes.

Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, and Semipalmated Sandpiper were the most frequently encountered species. On May 29 a Whimbrel was present. These charismatic, long-billed shorebirds make 10,000 kilometre annual journeys between their arctic nesting grounds and southern winter homes, including nonstop overwater flights of 4,000 kilometres from southern Canada to South America.3

(Ruddy Turnstone - Photo: Paul Jones)

The highlight of the season was an endangered Piping Plover seen and photographed on May 25, 2020. The bird was marked with a unique set of colour-coded leg bands that Andrea Gress (the Ontario Piping Plover Program Coordinator at Birds Canada) was able to read. The bands indicated that the plover, named X,L:O,L(#), was born in the summer of 2019 at Wasaga Beach, Ontario and spent last winter in Florida.4

The Piping Plover was not the only colour-marked shorebird observed this spring at Charwell Point. A Ruddy Turnstone bearing a tiny green plastic flag with the code 8UN was photographed on June 4, 2020. This information was relayed to bandedbirds.org,5 who replied that the bird had first been tagged in New Jersey in May of 2012; and had been re-sighted in the state in May of 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018. The sighting was the first time the individual, named 1332-27918 FELG8UN RUTU, had been seen outside of the U.S. It also prompted a story in the Picton Gazette.6 Both the Piping Plover and Ruddy Turnstone re-sightings at Charwell help trace their migration routes; and contribute to conservation efforts.

(Piping Plover - photo: Paul Jones)

(Whimbrel - Photo: Paul Jones)

Conservation

Charwell Point falls within Prince Edward County’s South Shore Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, part of a larger program to conserve and monitor sites that provide essential habitat for Canada’s bird populations.In addition to the bird life, Charwell is also host to a wide array of other interesting and rare plant and animal species.The spring 2020 discovery of the location as a rest and refueling stop for migrating shorebirds further underlines the importance of its IBA status; and indicates additional study and conservation efforts are warranted. The point is currently subject to at times heavy ATV traffic, activity that disturbs resting birds and damages habitat.

Location and Access

Charwell Point is on Prince Edward County’s southern shore (43°51'39.9"N 77°05'28.6"W). Point Petre is five kilometres to its west, Point Traverse 20 kilometres to the east. As the most prominent feature jutting into Lake Ontario on the otherwise gently curving shoreline, Charwell is fairly easy to pick out on a map. However, as one of the remotest locations in the County, access to the area requires a bit of work.

The most straightforward route is via Charwell Point Road, which runs south off Army Reserve Road one kilometre west of its junction with Dainard Road. To reach the point, travel 1.6 kilometres down Charwell Point Road to a sharp right turn to the west. Continue west 650 metres from the turn and look for a small but noticeable track that leads south past a line of trees on the left and marshland to the right. Follow the sometimes-flooded track 250 metres to Lake Ontario and walk west along the beach one kilometre to the tip of Charwell Point itself. Gull Pond, a fascinating wetland at the base of the point, is also worth a visit. High rubber boots are a necessity in the spring, and advisable at all other times of year.

Note - Charwell Point Road is very bumpy and should only be attempted in a vehicle with high ground clearance, and by a driver tolerant of paint scratches (thick brush encroaches heavily at the road edge). Rather than driving, most visitors park at the junction of Army Reserve and Charwell Point Road and walk south to the shore. A hybrid approach is to drive the more manageable first 750 metres, park at the gravel pullout on the right, and continue the rest of the way on foot.

Caution - Charwell Point is a remote and often lonely location. Water levels in the lake and surrounding wetlands can vary greatly. The shoreline itself is subject to dramatic storm-related alteration, with shifting beaches and downed trees affecting access. In the spring of 2020, hours were spent clearing the track to and along the shore. If you plan to visit, inform people of your itinerary, and travel with at least one other person.

Appendix One

List of Shorebirds sighted at Charwell Point, Prince Edward County, Spring 2020

May 11 - 1 Greater Yellowlegs
May 24 - 1 Semipalmated Plover, 3 Least Sandpiper
May 25 - 1 Black-bellied Plover, 1 Piping Plover, 1 Least Sandpiper, 2 Semipalmated Sandpiper
May 28 - 1 Ruddy Turnstone
May 29 - 1 Whimbrel, 60 Ruddy Turnstone, 42 unidentified Shorebird sp.
June 1 - 48 Ruddy Turnstone, 1 Sanderling, 3 Semipalmated Sandpiper
June 2 - 1 Ruddy Turnstone, 34 Sanderling, 4 Dunlin, 156 Semipalmated Sandpiper
June 3 - 1 Dunlin, 9 Semipalmated Sandpiper
June 4 - 23 Ruddy Turnstone, 9 Semipalmated Sandpiper
June 6 - 35 Sanderling, 25 unidentified Shorebird sp.
June 7 - 3 Semipalmated Sandpiper
June 8 - 3 Semipalmated Sandpiper

In addition to these passage migrants, locally nesting Killdeer, Wilson’s Snipe, American Woodcock, and Spotted Sandpiper were regularly observed at Charwell Point.

1. Garry Donaldson and Colleen Hyslop (2000) Canadian Shorebird Conservation Plan http://nabci.net/wp-content/uploads/Canadian-shorebird-conservation-plan.pdf

2. Terry Sprague, personal communication, July 28, 2020

3. All About Birds – Whimbrel - Overview https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Whimbrel/overview

4.  Andrea Gress, Personal Communication, May 26, 2020

6. Staff, (June 8, 2020) The Picton Gazette, Well traveled sandpiper lands at County’s south shore http://www.pictongazette.ca/2020/06/08/well-traveled-sandpiper-lands-at-countys-south-shore/

7. Prince Edward County South Shore Important Bird and Biodiversity Area https://www.ibacanada.ca/site.jsp?siteID=ON003

8. McKay-Kuja, S.M. et al (2018) 2018 Prince Edward County Field Naturalists BioBlitz at the Charwell Point Area of the Point Petre Provincial Wildlife Area, Prince Edward County, Ontario https://peptbo.ca/photos/custom/PDFs/2018CHARWELLBIOBLITZReport.pdf