The monarchs are sure to be around because the sun hasn't broken through yet to warm them for their flight. It is a drizzly late-summer morning, and we are walking through damp vine-entangled forest looking for them, when suddenly the woods open up on a gray endlessness of waves and sky.
We are standing on the tip of Point Pelee, Ont., and Lake Erie surrounds us on three sides. To our right, on the west side of the spit, the lake is wild and the wind is blowing hard -- it is the Pelee Passage, a sailor's nightmare of current, reefs, and shoals that has claimed many vessels and lives.
To our left, on the east, the water is like a mirror and the air is perfectly calm. Straight ahead, farther out on the unsteady strip of shifting sand, a crowd of birds huddles together shifting from foot to foot, consulting each other.
We are heading back along the beach searching the bare branches of the trees for monarch butterflies when two of them suddenly fly at us out of nowhere. Then another tumbles by, and in a moment several more.
My husband is saying: "Look. There goes another one," when a ray of sun breaks through the clouds for the first time that morning and the dry brown leaves on a tree in front of us suddenly stir -- not dried brown leaves at all, but roosting butterflies dull with their wings folded, perched on everything in sight. The sun strikes again and this time it stays, and with one movement the mon
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Pelee: Heading for their winter home in Mexico
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archs all open their wings to its warmth and suddenly the forest has become an orange blaze.
This is the annual fall migration through Ontario's Point Pelee National Park, a peninsula at the southernmost point of the Canadian mainland whose shape funnels thousands of monarch butterflies to a final land rest here before their great Lake Erie crossing.
The water is the butterflies' first major hurdle en route to their winter home in Mexico, and it's a big one, according to Dan Dufour, a park naturalist. "The Great Lakes aren't easy for the butterflies to cross," Dufour said, "and during their migration they tend to mass here, waiting for the sun and winds that will help them along."
The gathering of the butterflies here has been celebrated in Native American legends of the area since ancient times and continues undiminished. In the fall of 1996, visitors witnessed the departure of more than 300,000 monarchs in one exceptional morning.
Monarch viewing is best from late August until early October, generally peaking in September, when butterflies can fill the air like dandelion fluff in the spring. But weather conditions affect the migration greatly, Dufour advised, and the population in the park on any given morning can vary from under a hundred to thousands.
Though it is impossible to say exactly when the migration will peak, large numbers of butterflies tend to move with cold fronts. Cold temperatures, southerly winds and rain tend to keep the monarchs here.
To increase your chances of catching the butterflies en masse, call the park message line for daily weather reports and sighting updates, and plan to join park naturalists for their daily monarch count and guided hike to roosting sites.
350 species of birds
The peninsula's great variety of vegetation also attracts birds in their spring and fall migrations. The Atlantic and Mississippi flyways overlap here, and a warm wind can bring in a wave of thousands of birds.
More than 350 species of birds have been identified at Point Peleein the last century, with more than 100 species sighted in a single day, including the Purple Finch, Yellow Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Bluebird and other intensely colored birds that show like jewels when you catch sight of them against the forest.
Bird watchers from all over the world make a pilgrimage to the park in the spring, when waves of songbirds arrive heading northward to breed, with the males in full and vigorous song. But, according to Dufour, the autumn is even better for sighting rarer birds, including the Golden Eagle and Peregrine Falcon, often seen here in numbers.
"In autumn," said Dufour, "waves of night-flying migrants tend to arrive at the point in the hour before dawn, and will usually stay for the rest of day," while day-flying birds may proceed directly across the lake or wait on the point for better weather. The best days to see birds leaving the point are those with light south winds, high humidity and hazy or overcast skies.
"From August through November you can stand at the tip and actually see the migrants leaving for their journey south across the lake and beyond," Dufour said.
On the day I visited, birder Ed Khidirian from Chicago told me he had recently spotted a rare Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow in the park, while his greatest find ever at Point Pelee in the autumn was a rare and endangered Kirtland's Warbler.
My own favorite autumn migrants are common Blue Jays, which don't cross the lake, but fill the sky at the tip in October by the tens of thousands on their way around the water.
The park supports an unusual variety of habitats for the birds and other wildlife, including beach, marsh, swamp forest, cedar Savannah, and a jungle-like dryland hardwood forest hung with Virginia creeper and wild grape. All are available for exploration on foot or by canoe trails.
We took the marsh boardwalk through dense cattails taller than a man, where the spectacular silence is broken only by the wind, birds and distant roar of the lake.
The cattails give way suddenly onto clearings of water lilies, where iridescent dragonflies and red-winged blackbirds dart about. From an observation platform in the middle of the swamp we saw a Bald Eagle flying low over a maze of clear waterways through the dense marsh carpet, before disappearing in the distance into the willow-draped woods.
Getting there: Point Pelee National Park is located in southwest Ontario just outside of Leamington, a prosperous and pleasant small town dominated by the tomato harvest. A side benefit of traveling here during the fall migration is the view of the rich farmland that surrounds the town, bright red for miles with tomatoes.
Leamington is less than an hour from Detroit along Ontario's Highway 3 or scenic Route 18 along the lake, or about 4 1/2 hours on Highway 3 from Niagara Falls. The town can also be reached via the Pelee Island Ferry that sails across Lake Erie from the Jackson Street Pier in downtown Sandusky, Ohio. Daily departures to the Ontario mainland are available late June through August; limited weekend trips run from early May through June, and in September. Be sure to call ahead for a current schedule and hours (800) 661-2220.
Food and Lodging: The Point Pelee Bed and Breakfast (519-326-7169) is available in Leamington; other bed and breakfasts include the Kingswood Inn (519-733-3248) in nearby Kingsville. Motels in the area include the Comfort Inn in Leamington (519-326-9071) or Days Inn (519-326-8646) just out of town near the park. Be sure to make reservations in advance for weekends during the busy migration seasons. Excellent fresh Lake Erie pickerel and yellow perch is available with local wines and lakeside views at the Dockside Restaurant in Leamington, located at the pier where the ferry lets out. Ed's Bar and Grill on Erie Street features blues and local bands; linger for a while and talk with the locals about the Maple Leafs' prospects.
Point Pelee National Park: From downtown Leamington follow the yellow and brown beaver signs to the park. Monarchs can be viewed from late August through early October, with peak populations generally arriving in September; the roosting monarchs tend to concentrate at the Tip. Bird migrations tend to peak in May and September. For information on sightings and weather conditions affecting the migrations call (519) 322-2371 (a 24-hour recorded message line) or (519) 322-2365. Park hours during migration season are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.; the Visitors' Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the train from the Visitors' Center to the tip runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily from April through October. Access by private vehicle is permitted the rest of the year. Bicycles and canoes can be rented at the head of the Marsh Boardwalk nature trail. Visitors can swim in Lake Erie from many of the park's fine white sand beaches; group camping is also available -- reservations required.