POINT PELEE NATIONAL PARK, Canada — The smallest national park in Canada is the one that's big with bird watchers.
And we're talking serious bird watching, folks.
If you ever wondered about the popularity of the sport, a weekend trip to the woods and marshes of Point Pelee should dispel all doubts.
Over here, two dozen nuns decked out in gray-and-white habits and sturdy hiking boots step down from a tram, binoculars swinging from straps around their necks. Over there, a couple in his-and-her khaki camping outfits present a lesson in flora and fauna to their three nattily attired youngsters.
And everywhere, cameras with bazooka-size telephoto lenses scan the trees and cattails at the faintest chirp.
At times it's hard to imagine there are more birds than watchers on this 6.25-square-mile wedge of Ontario that juts south into Lake Erie.
About 100,000 birders packed Point Pelee this spring to catch sight of migrating birds that visit before heading for their summer homes to the north and east. Thousands of watchers are expected again in September for the southbound bird pageant. And the park's lush summer greenery will burst into a brilliant backdrop of red, yellow and crimson from mid-September through October.
"We get as many as 200,000 birders from Labor Day through the first of April," said Jim Barlow, park superintendent. "So, you see, we are really a year-round operation."
The peninsula is a magnet for such a variety of migrating birds because it offers them diverse "accommodations." The point serves as one of the narrowest crossings of the Great Lakes, the Central and Atlantic flyways overlap here and the wedge is a bird's-eye landmark.
Over the years, about 330 species of birds have been observed in the park and vicinity. Those expected to make September appearances include: great blue herons, black and wood ducks, teals, hawks, American kestrel, killdeers, chimney swifts, ruby-throated hummingbirds, tree swallows and blue jays.
An added attraction will be migrating monarch butterflies. Thousands congregate on the peninsula each fall, clinging to branches like colorful autumn leaves, before making their 2,000-mile trip from northern Ontario to an area just north of Mexico City for the winter.
"These past few years we haven't had the great numbers of monarchs that we used to," Barlow said, "because the weather evidently is better for them to pass right on through. You might find them clinging to a few branches here and there, but not covering whole bushes and trees like in years past.
Cold Wind From the South
"But you never know. If we get a cold wind out of the south from across the lake, they may get pretty jammed up here on the peninsula, waiting for warmer weather to continue south like they used to."
Peak birding season brings a 7 a.m. scramble for parking in the south end of the park. The visitor center and West Beach parking lots are often filled by 8 a.m. Park personnel keep count of the vehicles and only let new ones enter after others have left. Officials also promote nearby bird habitats--including Wheatley and Rondeau provincial parks--as optional places to bird. All are within a few miles of Pelee.
A day along the hiking trails and boardwalks shows the ecological contrasts of Point Pelee as the peninsula, the southernmost point of mainland Canada, slowly "moves" west.
The west side is a savanna, a grassland broken up with occasional shrubs and trees. Waves lap against the pebbly West Beach, only three feet wide thanks to the Great Lakes' high water level and deposits from the currents.
The eroding east side is a cattail marsh alive with quacking mallards and the occasional kerplunk of a frog returning to the water. High water and Dutch elm disease are taking a toll on the forest; cattails among the large, bare trees show how fast the marshland is expanding. Just clomp out on the boardwalk through the marsh for a better view of the waterfowl and the hundreds of muskrat lodges. The wetlands are teeming with so many turtles that turtle-crossing signs are posted along park roads.
No private vehicles are allowed south of the visitor center through September during the birding season. A free transit service leaves the center (open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Sept. 1; tentatively open noon to 4 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends after Sept. 1) every 20 minutes, taking visitors to the peninsula's tip where hawks, warblers, thrushes and flycatchers usually are plentiful in the mornings.
The central part of the park is a dry-land woods with 40-foot cedars and maples, some strangled with vines that also run riot over the forest floor. Scan the trees for the great horned owl and the Carolina wren, two year-round residents. The less adventurous should stick to the paved roads and boardwalks: The rustling of leaves may prove to be a snake passing by.
Ninth National Park