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The Nature of PEI

by Gary Schneider

Peregrine falcon at East Point (photo: Isobel Fitzpatrick)It took me a while to discover the beauty of East Point, the northeast tip of Prince Edward Island that juts into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The province has so many exquisite vistas and lighthouses, and East Point always seemed like a long drive. But as my passion for birding grew, and I followed the reports of other birders, I regularly noticed interesting sightings from the area. I was hooked from my first visit, and now make it a regular stop no matter what the season.

Due to its location, East Point it is a perfect jumping off station for northerly migrating birds in the spring, while in autumn it is the first landfall for many birds migrating to the south. Fish seem to be plentiful offshore, attracting a wide variety of seabirds. In autumn, hundreds of gannets fly back and forth around the point. With a wingspan of almost six feet, these majestic seabirds alone are worth the trip. On a sunny day, a brilliant white light seems to emanate from the birds. When prey is spotted, they fold up their wings and dive into the water in pursuit.

You can watch birds from the parking lot, or the welcoming deck that runs along the tourist centre. But the prime location is the attached viewing platform that only not provides a great vantage point but also offers some protection from the wind. On a sunny summer day, that might not mean a lot, but when I’m participating in the East Point Christmas Bird Count with howling winds, it is a godsend. Shout-out to the Friends of Elmira group for guiding that installation.

At this time of year you often see unusual seabirds such as red-throated loons, razorbills, black guillemots, black-legged kittiwakes and parasitic jaegers. Ducks abound, including three species of scoters, common eiders, and one of my favourites, harlequin ducks.

During spring and fall migration you’ll see flocks of shorebirds feeding in the seaweed piled up along the beach, including greater and lesser yellowlegs, and many species of sandpipers and plovers. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a rare purple sandpiper braving the freezing water as winter sets in.

Raptors are quite common in the area. You can see dozens of sharp-shinned hawks migrating through the area in spring and fall. I’ve watched merlins, one of our smaller falcons, chase down migrating blue jays that are weary from their long flight over the water. Bald eagles are seen on every visit while northern goshawks, red-tailed hawks, and kestrels (our smallest falcon) often visit the area.

On a recent visit, a peregrine falcon was sitting on a tree to the east of the point. Peregrines are not common in the province, but this is one of the best places to see one. I once watched one hunting a common tern. Both are incredible fliers, but in different ways. Peregrines love to gain height and rapidly dive down onto their prey. Terns are much more aerobatic. It was a fascinating display, with the tern refusing to let the falcon gain a height advantage until the predator tired and gave up the hunt.

Many birds nest in the area as well. Double-crested and great cormorants build on the steep cliffs. Bank swallows burrow into the eroding tip of the point, though their numbers seem to be in decline.

The physical beauty of East Point and the surrounding area is second to none, and for both serious and occasional birders it is well worth the trip. You won’t be disappointed.

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