By Peter Johansen | July/August 2019
We’ve arrived at Massassauga Park Hotel in Prince Edward County, but despite the historic property’s high-class clientele and facilities—badminton courts to ballroom—no one flies out to greet us.
I say “flies” with purpose. The hotel, you see, is a mammoth birdhouse, one of more than 100 at Birdhouse City on the outskirts of Picton, the county’s principal town. Perched on a broad swath of gently sloping lawn adjacent to Macaulay Mountain, one of the area’s prime conservation areas, the birdhouses are meant to amaze humans while sheltering some of the county’s many birds, especially purple martins.
The hotel is big: more than four feet long, boasting 3,000 miniature shingles on the roof and 80 rooms. It’s a loving model of a long-gone resort that once attracted guests in the paddle-wheeler era of the late 1800s to this pastoral Lake Ontario island south of Belleville.
The county still attracts tourists, but today they come for its three dozen wineries, and the restaurants and agritourism they’ve spawned; a diverse community of artists whose workshops and galleries cater to walk-in trade; and nature’s riches, including the world’s largest fresh water sand dunes, gently rolling back roads beloved by cyclists and motorists alike, and birds.
Prince Edward County is a birders’ paradise. Many migrating species stop en route to somewhere else. Others settle for the season. More than 300 species have been spotted so far. It’s little wonder Birdhouse City is here.
The houses are varied. Some depict local businesses, such as a funeral home or McDonald’s restaurant; local institutions, such as churches and the county hospital; and local landmarks, such as Salmon Point Lighthouse. There are foreign influences, too: a Greek theatre, a pagoda, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. You’ll see birdhouses shaped like vehicles (a seaplane, a steam locomotive) and animals (a team of horses). Even the Brownies are represented, with a house reminiscent of a tiered wedding cake, circled by the Brownie pledge.
Birdhouse City was sparked by former conservation officer Doug Harnes, a spare-time wood carver. The Massassauga Hotel was his first birdhouse, erected in 1978. But the project grew as local businesses, community groups and schools contributed. It’s now under the aegis of the Quinte Conservation Authority. Alas, time has taken its toll; many structures need a spruce-up. But their originality remains evident.
From the birdhouses, hearty hikers can trek 20 kilometres of trails up the escarpment of Macaulay Mountain, where maples and sumac don autumn colours. But we chose a short, flat stroll along Whattam’s Memorial Walkway, where plaques on trees and benches commemorate the deceased. The chirps of nearby (but unseen) birds and a coursing creek provided a lovely soundtrack for the serene kilometre-long stroll.
Undeterred by our lack of bird sightings, we drove along narrow, rutted roads to Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory, on the southeastern tip of the county, and were rewarded with birds galore. That wasn’t a surprise. The observatory is a Globally Important Birding Area (yes, that’s a thing), harbouring the biggest concentration of birds on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario.
The observatory records the rush of migrating raptors and waterfowl each spring and fall, but according to station manager Matthew Iles, its key work is with songbirds, especially warblers. “They live in the boreal forest in summer and in South America in winter, and they’re difficult to study in either location. So, we provide some of the most valuable data,” he said, while caressing a newly-banded American redstart. Its plumage, highlighted with vibrant yellow and orange, was stunning, and we’ll long remember how it swiftly soared away after Matthew set it gently on his open palm.
As we wandered the observatory’s trails through a diverse woodland, the constant chirps of unseen birds gave meaning to the term “songbird,” though our lack of knowledge meant we couldn’t identify them. When at last we reached a gravel road, we finally spied numerous species in open fields bordering Prince Edward Bay, including waterfowl near a lighthouse that punctuates the end of land. We were still too ill-informed to identify any—except for an American redstart. We wondered if it was the one that flew from Matthew Iles’ hand.
IF YOU GO
Birdhouse City is at 224 County Road 8 (Union Street), about 1 kilometre southeast of the intersection of Highway 33 and Bridge Street in Picton. Its parking lot ($5 daily) is shared with Macaulay Mountain Conservation Area. Information: www.quinteconservation.ca.
Autumn migration (Aug. 15 to Oct. 31) is an especially good time to visit the bird observatory at 6059 Long Point Road, Midland. From Birdhouse City, continue southeast along County Road (CR) 8, left onto CR 17, left onto CR 16, and right onto CR 13. That’s about 33 kilometres from Picton. The observatory is free, but donations are welcome. Information: www.peptbo.ca.
We stayed at Picton’s comfortable, reasonably priced Harbour Inn. Restaurants cater to all price points; we chose Hartleys Tavern, 19 Elizabeth St., which despite its name serves delicious upscale fare. For more choices and general information: www.visitpec.ca.