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By David Bree, Park Naturalist,
Presqu'ile Provincial Park
Presqu'ile is a tombolo. This simple, if somewhat cryptic statement,
really explains why Presqu'ile is special. Because it is a tombolo, it
provides both the habitats and geographic structure that supports and
concentrates a diverse wildlife population. This is good, not only for
the wildlife, but also for those that like to come and see wildlife. But
perhaps we should step back a bit and explain what a tombolo is.
A tombolo is a term that simply means an island or islands attached to
the mainland by a sand or gravel bar. Presqu'ile is a four kilometre
sand bar attaching two limestone islands to the mainland at the town of
Brighton. Rather simple really, but tombolos are not common away from
marine environments and Presqu'ile is the best example of a tombolo on
the Great Lakes. This fact alone makes Presqu'ile special in the field
of geomorphology, but few people flock to see geomorphological features.
It is what that feature does that really holds our interest. First,
that feature produces a number of different habitats, some quite unique,
that support a wide range of flora and fauna. Being a sand bar, it of
course has a beach, good for swimmers, but also good for shorebirds
(more about shorebirds later) and the park manages the beach to provide
habitat for both these user groups.
Behind the beach are sand dunes and low wet areas between the dunes
called pannes. Both these habitats are scarce in Ontario and the pannes
in particular are quite unusual. In fact the panne is a globally rare
habitat that supports a unique community of plants. Many of these rare
plants are grasses and sedges and as such are not very showy, but there
are a few plants there that do produce colourful flowers. Every year in
late summer and fall these burst into bloom. The pinks of the Obedient
Plant and Gerardias, the whites of the Grass-of-Parnassus and Ladies'
Tresses Orchids, and the deep blues of the Closed and Fringed Gentians
mix in with the yellows from goldenrods to produce a mosaic of colour,
pattern and texture to rival any spring woodlot flower display.
With currents and winds predominantly from the west, the tombolo also
provides shelter for a large marsh on its lee or eastern side. Shoreline
marshes are becoming a scarce habitat on the lower Great Lakes.
Presqu'ile's marsh is the largest protected marsh on the north shore of
Lake Ontario. It provides habitat for a large number of nesting marsh
birds, such as Marsh Wren, Swamp Sparrow, Least and American Bittern and
Other habitats found on the tombolo are conifer forest on the sand bar
and mixed forest and open fields on the limestone islands. These all
harbour a wonderful selection of plants and animals especially adapted
to live in those environments. A special habitat is the off-shore
islands. Presqu'ile is comprised of four offshore limestone islands. Two
are incorporated into the tombolo but two stand alone off the
south-west corner. These have become an important nesting area for a
number of waterbird species. Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets,
Black-crowned Night Herons, Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Caspian
Terns, Common Terns and Double-crested Cormorants all nest on the
islands. At its peak, with chicks in the nest, there are a quarter
million birds on these two islands! While access to these islands is
restricted during the nesting season, the birds on the island can be
viewed and heard from Owen Point.
The second important feature of the tombolo is its shape. A sand bar
connecting an island to the mainland is in effect, a peninsula, a long
narrow finger of land that sticks out into Lake Ontario. Lake Ontario is
a very large body of water, and when it comes to migration, many birds
and insects would rather not cross water they can't see across. A finger
of land sticking out into this lake becomes a magnet for migrants
hoping for an easier crossing. Coming north, Presqu'ile is the first bit
of land they see and if it has been a rough crossing they head for this
spot to land and rest. Heading south many migrants follow the Lake
Ontario shoreline looking for a way across. When they reach Presqu'ile
they follow it out into the lake, either hoping for a bridge or just to
get as far out as possible before heading across. Often migrants will
wait at Presqu'ile for a favourable wind to help them across, sometimes
This feature is what makes Presqu'ile a favourite with bird watchers.
Presqu'ile's shape makes it a migration trap that concentrates birds on
migration, but it is a trap with good habitats that can hold migrating
birds in the park for a few days. There are the forest habitats for
warblers and other passerines, the marsh for marsh birds, and the beach
area for shorebirds. It is the latter, which includes sandpipers and
plovers, which Presqu'ile may be best known for. Forty-one species of
shorebirds have been recorded at Presqu'ile with about 25 of these being
seen annually. The south end of the beach is managed for shorebirds in
mind. Vegetation is removed to keep sightlines open (so they can see
predators), the algae is allowed to accumulate to provide a food source
(they eat invertebrates in the algae) and the Owen Point Trail has been
constructed to allow birdwatchers access to the beach at various
locations with minimal disturbance to the birds.
Of course not all birds are "trapped" on migration. Waterfowl (ducks,
geese and swans) are unconcerned with flying over water but use the
Presqu'ile marsh as a staging area during their migration north. In
March up to 10,000 birds of 25 species can be seen in Presqu'ile Bay,
feeding and waiting for the ice further north to open up before
continuing on their migration. Presqu'ile's Waterfowl Festival, run over
the two weekends in mid-March, focuses on this marvelous event.
While birds are the migrant most people think of, insects also migrate.
Best known of these is the Monarch butterfly which can often be seen at
Presqu'ile in large numbers in late summer and fall, waiting to cross
the lake on their journey to Mexico. In addition to Monarchs, other
species of butterflies, as well as dragonflies migrate. Increased
numbers of these insects can also be seen at the park in the fall.
Little is known about insect migration and there is much more to
discover about this interesting phenomenon.
Presqu'ile is a tombolo: a tombolo that supports eight distinct
habitats; a tombolo that concentrates migrating birds and insects
because of its shape and location; a tombolo that supports a diverse
population of plants and animals; a tombolo that is a great place to
visit to observe nature or just to hang out. Tombolo says it all.