Not just for the birds

Birds and butterflies draw eagle-eyed observers from across Europe and North America to Point Pelee National Park, a nature and ecological gem in southwestern Ontario. The park, a little finger of land that juts out into Lake Erie, is the southernmost point of mainland Canada, sharing the same 42-degree north latitude with Rome and northern California.

One of the smallest of Canada’s national parks, Point Pelee is also one of the most popular, attracting half a million visitors each year. Yet despite its popularity amongst humans, it remains a major lure for birds and butterflies.

Every May, thousands of migrating birds use Point Pelee as a resting place from long flights across Lake Erie before heading north to their summer nesting places. In September, hundreds of thousands of Monarch butterflies stop for a rest before flying 3,000 kilometres south to their mountain hideaway in central Mexico.

300 species in the fall
Little wonder Point Pelee is one of the top destinations for birders in North America, as more than 300 species visit each spring and autumn. May, is an especially good time to visit as birds resting in the bare trees are ey to spot (a good day will produce at least a hundred sightings of various species). So be warned: At the height of birding season, hotels and motels book up early.

The butterflies also draw large crowds early each fall, although their migration is dependent on weather conditions and their arrival can prove unpredictable. If the weather’s chilly, the butterflies will hide in the trees until temperatures rise. But roosting Monarchs are difficult to spot. They nestle in trees, sheltered from the wind, and often resemble dead leaves. If the weather’s warm, the Monarchs often fly directly across Lake Erie without stopping. The park’s 24-hour information hotline – (519) 322-2371 – has daily Monarch reports during late August, September and early October.

But Point Pelee has more to offer than migrating birds and butterflies. Two-thirds of the park is marshland, and home to a large waterfowl population as well as numerous species of turtles, lizards, snakes and fish.

During the summer months, the park operates tours of the marsh in large freighter canoes capable of carrying 10 passengers – no motors, so everyone paddles. The hour-long trip – which runs every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and on holidays – is fascinating.

Commentary by canoe
Experienced naturalists give a lively and detailed commentary on the ecology of this peaceful, lush water wonderland as the canoe glides through the narrow waterways almost enveloped in tall marsh grasses, past beaver dams and beautiful blooming water flowers.

Individual canoes are also available for rent. You may prefer to view the marsh by walking along the 1.4 kilometre boardwalk which winds its way through the marsh’s most scenic areas, an ideal way to see the abundant wildlife at your own pace.

The entrance to the park is 10 km south of Leamington, with a large Visitor Centre an additional 8 km along a forested roadway. Vehicles are not permitted beyond the Visitor Centre which houses information booths, slide shows, exhibits, and a nature book store. From the Centre, you can catch a free ride on the tramcar that carries people to the park’s tip, a sandy point extending into Lake Erie and a favorite place for spotting the birds and butterflies.

Point Pelee isn’t just for summer visitors. In the winter months, its forest trails are a major draw for cross-country skiers, and skaters can dash about on the frozen marsh.