A feeling of hushed anticipation descends on the butterfly exhibit at the Point Pelee visitors centre on a recent Saturday morning. Monarch No. PLC-726, nurtured in captivity, is beginning to emerge from its chrysalis before a rapt audience of Lepidoptera-loving staff and several lucky visitors. We watch in awe as its distinctive black and yellow wings unfold and circulatory fluid flows into their veins. The butterfly triples in size before our eyes.
"It's a boy!" announces Sarah Rupert, interpretive co-ordinator, remarking on subtle gender-specific markings. The metamorphosed monarch will hang out to dry for a day before being tagged and released in the park, where it will load up on nutrients and prepare for its epic journey to the Biosphere Reserve in Central Mexico.
Migration is a signature topic at Point Pelee National Park, the southernmost tip of mainland Canada, where unique geography has created a massive convention centre for travelling monarchs.
The funnel-shaped land mass, jutting out into Lake Erie from Southwestern Ontario, is also a critical stopping-off point and migratory corridor for a rich variety of songbirds and raptors, some of which make their way from as far north as the Arctic to as far south as Brazil. They return in the spring, when the songbirds in particular turn the park into a birdwatching bonanza of colour and song.
There's no way to tell how many monarchs will arrive this fall, as their numbers vary from year to year depending on weather and other factors.
But there could be hundreds of thousands, Ms. Rupert says. And when they take flight en masse, they will darken the sky.
Hawks are another big draw to the area in the fall, when as many as 15 species drop in on their way south – some in huge numbers – migrating mainly from Canada's northern woodlands. Unlike the delicate monarchs, who fearlessly fly across Lake Erie, most hawks will follow the coastline, skirting the lake to make use of the thermal air currents that give them lift over land.
"This is a concentration point; it's what we call a bottleneck," says Bob Petitt, president of the migration observatory at nearby Holiday Beach Conservation Area. "It's a big count area for diurnal [daytime]raptors.
"The broad-winged hawks are in great numbers," he adds. "We've had over 100,000 that we've counted here, and at a sister site across the [Detroit] River, they've had more than 500,000 broad-winged hawks in one day pass through. The numbers are phenomenal."
Mr. Petitt, a retired biology professor who knows his sharp-shinned hawks from his Cooper's from his Swainson's, is on the observation tower above a lotus-laden marsh, binoculars at the ready. He and a group of volunteers are gearing up for the migration count and Festival of Hawks that Holiday Beach hosts each fall.
These dedicated birders usually count between 600,000 and 750,000 migrating birds each year, from warblers to ducks. On average, about 75,000 of these are hawks. On the day we visited, the hawks had not arrived in significant numbers, but we were fortunate to see an elegant great blue heron ascend from the marsh. Later, we spotted one broad-winged hawk soaring overhead as if on an early reconnaissance mission.
Comprising only 15 square kilometres, the park is sometimes mistakenly referred to as Canada's smallest. (That distinction belongs to Georgian Bay Islands National Park, which is about 13.5 square kilometres.) This small park claims to have more kinds of living creatures than any other national park, even more remarkable considering its proximity to dense urban development. The United Nations has designated it as a Wetland of International Significance and an Important Bird Area.
"We are the most diverse of all the national parks," says Ms. Rupert, who has spent much of her life in the park and remembers identifying her first bird before she was three years old. "We have a diversity of species that you are not going to see elsewhere in our national park system. [And]we have such a diversity of habitats in this park that you do not see elsewhere."
Park management has made it a point to balance the health of the ecosystems with the public's desire to explore.
Fifteen kilometres of hiking and interpretive trails are maintained and there is a shuttle to within half a kilometre of the tip. The marsh can be viewed from an observation tower and is easily reached on foot by a boardwalk that winds through the cattails. The best bird-spotting can be had in the most remote corners of the marsh accessible by canoe and kayak, which are available for rental. Pristine beaches await eager swimmers at the widest parts of the park.
Here, the balance between man and nature seems to be an effective one. However, there is still one part of the park where nature is firmly in control. That is at the tip, where swimming – even wading – is prohibited because of the intersecting currents that can create dangerous whirlpools and life-threatening undertows.
This means that you can shed your shoes and stand proudly at the southern tip of mainland Canada. But unlike the migrating butterflies, you cannot use Point Pelee as a jumping-off place for a self-propelled trip south.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: For a taste of Lake Erie's northern shore in the late 19th century, book a room at the Mettawas End B&B in Kingsville, Ont. The 4,700-square-foot "cottage" was built in 1891 by Hiram Walker for his son Franklin. It is all that remains of a massive hotel and casino complex built by the whisky baron as a swank summer retreat for visitors. The hotel was never profitable and closed in 1904. In the cottage, you can no longer ring a bell for servants. But you can count on the proprietor, Roland, to take good care of you and to cook up some amazing breakfasts. The place is filled with period furnishings and many original fixtures. The rounded lead and stained-glass window in the study alone is worth a visit. Rooms from $110 a night, double occupancy. mettawas-end-bed-and-breakfast.com
Where to eat : Jack's Gastropub ( jacksdining.com; also in Kingsville) is housed in a fine 19th-century mansion, the grand porch of which has been transformed into a pleasing patio that is cooled by fans in the summer and heated late into the fall. Order one of the ultra-gourmet burgers and wash it down with locally brewed craft beer or wine from nearby Pelee Island. Finish it off with a particularly tasty key lime pie martini, complete with a graham cracker crust.
What to do: Check out the Festival of Hawks at the Holiday Beach Migration Observatory ( hbmo.org) on Sept. 17 and 18 and Sept. 24 and 25. Volunteers will offer guided observation from the hawk tower and give bird-banding demonstrations. Learn how to best use binoculars and how to adopt a hawk.
For more information on Point Pelee National Park, visit pc.gc.ca/pointpelee.