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Luck, weather behind seeing massive monarch migration at Point Pelee


The amazing monarch migration is giving Point Pelee visitors a rare chance to see thousands of the endangered butterflies leave mainland Canada’s southernmost tip at once.

And people around the world may even be able to hear the migration online soon.

Point Pelee National Park acts like a funnel for the tiny butterflies that are on a 4,000-kilometre journey to Mexico even though they are generations removed from the ones that spent last winter there.

The monarch population had plummeted about 90 per cent over two decades. The population has been increasing since the alarming low point in 2013/14 and after a larger than expected number of monarchs overwintering in Mexico, people noticed more monarchs this summer.

“No matter where they live in southern Ontario, a lot of people are talking about seeing monarchs this year and that they don’t remember seeing them like this in a long time,” Point Pelee National Park promotion officer Sarah Rupert said Monday.

It was a really delicate sound a bit like rustling leaves or a crackling fire

The numbers of roosting monarchs can build up near the tip during days with southwest winds, rain or low temperatures. On Sunday night, an estimated 5,200 monarchs were waiting near the tip, the largest build up this year.

On Monday night there were 1,650 near the tip and although it was sunny Tuesday, a southwest wind may have stopped some from venturing across Lake Erie. More than 3,500 monarchs were seen Monday at Holiday Beach, another migration hotspot.

With rain in the forecast Wednesday, Thursday and Friday there’s a chance a large number of monarchs will be stalled at Point Pelee, which could create a really rare opportunity to see thousands take off as soon as the sun warms them up one morning. A lot of it is luck because it’s so weather dependent and impossible to predict, Rupert said.

“My biggest day was half a million and you just sat and watched butterflies streaming off the tip that morning,” Rupert said, recalling the trees coming alive with monarchs in 2000. “We figured 100 a second, so it was pretty spectacular.”

Another massive migration with about 250,000 monarchs happened the morning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 18 years ago Wednesday, Rupert said. “It was a really sharp flap back to reality when we got back to the visitor centre and heard what was happening.”

Numbers that high are unlikely now. People can see monarchs migrating through the park into October and look for the black and orange wings fluttering as a signal to other monarchs as they roost in trees near the tip.

It’s worth trying to see even a few hundred take flight at once, Rupert said. The park posts monarch counts at night on social media and the shuttle starts at 7 a.m. if the number is high. “If you’ve never seen it before, it’s still going to be exciting and beautiful to see.”

People around the world might be able to hear the fluttering of many monarchs after a British sound artist installs a box of microphones that will livestream the sounds of Point Pelee.

Rob Mackay, who teaches music and music technology at the University of Hull in England, is leading a project called Following the Flight of the Monarchs that involves installing audio streamboxes along the monarch migration route from Canada to Mexico. There’s already one in Mexico and he will add another at Point Pelee National Park this weekend.

For now ecologists can listen to the overall soundscape of birds and insects and monitor changes in biodiversity. But Mackay said with some luck, the right location and the addition of more sensitive microphones, it may be possible to eavesdrop on the fluttering of a multitude of monarchs.

He did in Mexico where millions of monarchs swarm and he was surrounded by thousands of them.

“It was beautiful. It was a really delicate sound a bit like rustling leaves or a crackling fire. It’s quite magical,” Mackay said Tuesday in a telephone interview from the U.K.

Anyone will be able to listen to the sounds from Point Pelee and from open microphones being added in Virginia, Texas and California at Locus Sonus Soundmap.

For decades, Monarch Watch has tracked the hectares of overwintering monarchs in Mexico from a high of more than 18 hectares in 1996/97 to a low of less than one hectare (0.67 ha) in 2013/14. Last winter, monarch colonies occupied about six hectares. The average space occupied by overwintering monarchs from 2004 to 2018 is down to almost 3.5 hectares.

Mackay will be giving his Following the Flight of the Monarchs presentation Friday at 6 p.m. at the visitor centre and hold an acoustic ecology workshop Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m.

The park is showing the movie Flight of the Butterflies Sept. 18 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sept. 20, Cornell University professor Anurag Agrawal will give a monarch presentation at 6 p.m.

The monarchs migrate from August until there’s a hard ground frost in October, Rupert said. Monarch counts are posted at PointPeleeNP Facebook page and on Twitter at night and the only way to try to see them is to show up early. “Last week we had 4,000 and they were all gone before eight in the morning.”

shill@postmedia.com

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