Improvements at peninsula help view, birds habitat

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ERIE – Birds come and go at Gull Point, using the eastern tip of Presque Isle State Park as a stopover on their travels.


Invasive plant species move in and native plants disappear.


Storms occur, eroding sand from some spots and depositing it in others.


“It’s always changing,” said Harry Leslie, park operations manager.


Lately, a lot of the changes to the Gull Point Natural Area have been man-made. Park officials, in partnership with government and private agencies, are fighting the invaders by spraying herbicide, improving the view for humans by moving the observation platform and making the habitat more inviting to native and endangered birds by cutting the cover for predators.


When the natural area reopens to the public on Saturday, visitors will see the start of improvements that officials expect to be done before it is closed again in the spring.


“We’re just trying to replace what naturally was on this small tip to provide better habitat for migratory shorebirds,” Leslie said.


Gull Point includes a little less than 300 acres that jut out into Lake Erie. The 55 acres on the easternmost portion make up the Gull Point Natural Area, which is closed to the public from April 1 to Nov. 30. During that time, people are only allowed to walk on a trail that leads to the observation tower.


Leslie described the point as the peninsula’s “newest land form,” a spot that’s both dynamic and fragile. Continuing to grow as sand erodes from the peninsula’s north side and is deposited to the east and south, Gull Point is home to many of the park’s threatened and endangered plant species.


Gull Point also is “one of the few areas along the south shore of Lake Erie where shorebirds can feed and rest during migration,” Jerry McWilliams said.


McWilliams, a Presque Isle Audubon Society member and area coordinator for International Shorebird Survey, has worked with officials to improve Gull Point.


Gulls, herons, egrets, larks, pipits and short-eared owls can all be seen on the point.


Migrating birds stop there when northbound from April to mid-June and when southbound from early July through late November, McWilliams said.


Visitors at this time could come across snow buntings, ducks, loons and grebes, he said.


Officials hope to someday see piping plovers there again. A lone piping plover was spotted on Gull Point in August but none of the endangered shorebirds have nested on the peninsula, their only breeding habitat in the state for more than 50 years.


Leslie said the planned changes could attract plovers to the natural area, rather than to park beaches where people swim.


Presque Isle received more than $60,000 in grant money to restore piping plover habitat on Gull Point.


Park interns and staff have sprayed herbicide on invasive species like narrow-leaf cattail and phragmite plants. Mowing of dead vegetation followed.


Leslie said the hope is that invasives were eliminated, allowing native plants to re-emerge.


Mowing also has reduced brush and cottonwoods to create the kind of open space preferred by shorebirds, McWilliams said.


“Shorebirds like to be able to see well in all directions, so they can detect approaching predators more readily,” he said. “ The endangered piping plover may benefit from the clearing of the area as well, perhaps creating more feeding areas. If plovers should attempt to nest, the open space would provide a clear view of any approaching danger. This open space would also benefit nesting common terns for the same reasons.”


McWilliams said two pairs of common terns were found nesting at Gull Point this past season, the first in Pennsylvania since the mid-1960s.


Leslie said starting the work near the end of the migration period was determined to be not too much of a disturbance to the birds. Waiting until December to begin would have lessened the time available to make the changes by spring, he said.


Now that Gull Point Natural Area is open to the public, visitors can walk anywhere, Leslie said. But once April 1 arrives, people will only be allowed on the trail to the platform.


A new trail, which will be lined on both sides with rope, is being created, he said.


The 12-foot-tall wood platform has already been moved. Leslie said this was the third time the deck was relocated since being built in the early 1990s.


Its last spot, which had become surrounded by brush and trees, was closer to the water before sand shifted.


“Over the course of several years the distance of the platform from the shoreline became too far to view shorebirds, gulls and terns,” McWilliams said. “Birders either entered the restricted area or stopped walking out to Gull Point altogether. Therefore the observation platform was become nothing more than just a wooden structure that was not being used. Now, I am hoping that birders will be more inclined to make the hike out to the point and will contribute much needed data for ongoing shorebird studies.”


He and Leslie said the deck’s new spot is not only better for viewing birds, but also, thanks in part to the mowing, offers a spectacular panoramic view that includes Lake Erie, the peninsula and parts of Erie.


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