Point Pelee, a 20-square- kilometre finger of land that juts out into Lake Erie, is Canada's second smallest national park.
Photo: Tobi Asmoucha
STANDING AT THE SOUTHERNMOST TIP of mainland Canada, I feel like Moses about to part the Red Sea. Not that I’m
religious, but there’s an otherworldly power to the roiling waters that collide here at Point Pelee National Park. This is land’s end,
the prime jumping-off place for anything winged that heads south for winter. Lake Erie beckons, like a siren. It wants you
to keep going, to ignore the obvious “Danger — no swimming” signs, to take that leap of faith.
Canada’s second smallest national park — only St. Lawrence Islands is smaller — is a 20-square-kilometre finger of land
jutting out into Lake Erie, some 53 kilometres north, as the monarch flies, of Sandusky, Ohio. It is the terminus of a flat and
fertile swath of southwestern Ontario known chiefly for its superior tomatoes and for being surrounded by Americans.
The park is also distinguished by five unique ecosystems. There are plants and animals here that cannot be observed anywhere
else in the wild in Canada, including the prickly pear cactus and the Lake Erie water snake, which are only in the park and on
nearby Pelee Island. The temperate Carolinian zone that defines the region represents less than a quarter of one percent of the
total landmass of Canada, yet is home to more species than anywhere else in the country, including more than 50 species
at risk, more than 70 species of trees, 20 species of reptiles and thousands of species of spiders and insects.
|Since migrating species naturally follow the curve of shoreline, and
Point Pelee is where the shoreline runs out, this is just about the best
place in the world to spot migrating peregrine falcons, mountain
bluebirds, green darner dragonflies, or, in the fall, a million monarchs.
Southwestern Ontario is in the flight path of plagues and
invaders that spread north as the world warms. Lyme diseasebearing
ticks were first found at Long Point, Ont., about 200 kilometres
east of Pont Pelee, in the early 1990s and West Nile
virus-infected birds dropped dead from the sky in the same part
of the province a decade later. Today, fishermen fear that Asian
carp, having breached electronic barriers near Chicago, will
soon wreak havoc on native species in these waters. Since migrating
species naturally follow the curve of the shoreline, and Point
Pelee is where the shoreline runs out, this is also just about the
best place in the world to spot migrating peregrine falcons,
mountain bluebirds, green darner dragonflies, or, in the fall, a
|Click map to enlarge|
Thirty-five years ago, the monarch migration was a complete
mystery. We knew that the unmistakable black-and-orange king
of the lepidopters, measuring up to 10 centimetres across, lived
anywhere milkweed grows south of Hudson Bay in North America
and travelled somewhere south to escape the killing frost. On
January 2, 1975, American Kenneth Brugger made the greatest
butterfly discovery of all time — hundreds of millions of monarchs
roosting 3,000 metres above sea level in a remote oyamel fir forest
160 kilometres west of Mexico City. It would be another year
before the grandfather of monarch research, the late Fred Urquhart,
a zoologist at the University of Toronto, travelled to Mexico to observe a branch so weighted with butterflies that it broke and fell
to the forest floor. Urquhart stooped to examine a casualty and recognized
his own work. He had found one among millions that
had been tagged in Minnesota, proving that these butterflies were
indeed the eastern North American population of monarchs that
he had spent a lifetime studying. (The western population, separated
by the great divide of the Rockies, follows a different
migratory path to northern California.) Mystery solved. Almost.
Monarchs have been around for 146 million years, breeding
four generations annually. The spring and early-summer
generations live as adults for 40 days; they eat, mate and die in
the usual insect way. But something compels the late-summer/
early-fall generation to emerge from their chrysalises and fly
south, more than 3,200 kilometres, where survivors live up to six times longer than other generations, sheltering in Mexican
fir trees over the winter months before beginning the return
flight. They mate and die along the route and a subsequent
generation completes the final leg back north. No one knows for
sure why monarchs migrate and what triggers the migratory
instinct. The enigma endures. And now I am about to witness
them in all their clustering glory before they make that momentous
push south. One problem: there isn’t a single butterfly to
be seen here at Monarch Central.
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This is a dream for teachers to connect with and teach. I was thrilled to see Ethan's picture displayed
What an engrossing story about Point Pelee and the amazing monarch butterfly!