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Park Overview
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 various rails.

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 for days.

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.