Toronto’s Birdliest Park
With talk of climate change, species extinctions, faltering honey bees, and deforestation, it has never been more important to make the basics of ecology feel relevant and real for children. Making it fun wouldn’t hurt, either.
So, where do you take your junior naturalists when they crave a bit of field work? It’s easy to make the gloomy assumption that all the really interesting places—the nature preserves full of exotic and endangered species—are well outside of Toronto, if not Ontario.
Amazingly enough, that isn’t quite the case. While it’s true we’re quite short on steaming jungles, scorching deserts, and lion–haunted savannas, Toronto is actually quite a good place for watching birds. We even have our own Important Bird Area.
You can find a very angry bird like this Northern cardinal here.
Photo by TTPBRS
All right, you can stop snickering. We are not talking about a gathering place for celebrity birds. An Important Bird Area (IBA from now on) is a spot on land or water that is important to the continued survival of our beaked brethren. There are around 600 such sites of varying sizes strewn across Canada, and we’ve got one right here in the city.
Well, sticking out into the lake, actually.
Between the Toronto Islands and Ashbridges Bay lies the Leslie Street Spit, over 500 hectares of man-made peninsula jutting into Lake Ontario out of the Portlands area. While it is still under construction in a sense, with trucks coming in five days a week to dump more ‘fill’ material at the end of the point, the area is still open to the public on weekends and holidays, and is one of the largest urban wilderness areas within the city of Toronto. Officially, about half of it is owned by the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, and is named Tommy Thompson Park, after Metropolitan Toronto’s first Parks Commissioner.
The peninsula. Photo by Friends of the spit
On May 9th this year the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) held its 15th annual Bird Festival there. According to Natalie Racette, project assistant for the TRCA’s Restoration Projects group and Bird Festival coordinator, running some sort of public education event was part of the TRCA’s proposal that won the spit IBA status.
Now, banish from your mind all images of parades, floats, costumes, music, and food on sticks. The closest the Bird Festival came was the hotdog stand outside the gate, and the vibrant plush birds placed in low trees and bushes in the ‘outdoor classroom’ farther inside the park.
This isn’t to say there wasn’t a festive atmosphere in Tommy Thompson; there were several booths with ecological information displays and promotional material for organizations like Ontario Nature and FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program, which is concerned with preventing bird strikes on buildings), and three volunteers with semi-tame birds of prey on their arms who answered hawk questions and posed for pictures. As the fuzzy birds attested, there are always a few children’s activities at the festival, and sometimes a workshop or two. But this year the bulk of it consisted of guided hikes, suitable, in most cases, for all ages capable of quietly walking for an hour or two.
Our first walk of the day was a basic introduction to birding, led by a TRCA employee named Jenn. For about two hours, we ambled between the park’s small, scrubby trees spotting king birds, red-winged black birds, long-tailed ducks, song sparrows, joyful looking yellow warblers and the odd orange flash of an oriole.
Photo by Friends of the spit
The spit isn’t very wide where it joins the mainland, so someone walking along the one paved road that runs down its centre can look out and see water on both sides in some places: the open lake to the east, and the nestled boats of the Outer Harbour Marina to the west. Farther on, the spit widens, and develops a few large ponds in its midst. It also branches, forming little fringe peninsulas. Because the spit doesn’t stick straight out into the lake, but curves west like a palm frond, you can always get good views of the city from this side. Our little bird walk didn’t go all that far—nowhere near the peninsula’s end with its lonely lighthouse standing guard over a beach of rubble. Instead, we proceeded towards the ponds at a gentle ambling pace, stopping for a rest at another small collection of tables and displays, where a vendor offered ‘bird-friendly’ coffee and the porta potty was in a fairly civilized condition.
According to a festival volunteer with a display about Tommy Thompson’s history, the park’s foundation wasn’t just lake mud and bits and pieces of old buildings, but truly polluted material, mysteriously ‘sealed’ to prevent the leaking of toxins into the environment. While the dredging and dumping that created the spit began back in 1959, the powers that be weren’t always clear about what the finished project would be used for. Initially, an expansion of the Toronto Harbour was intended, but after this became unnecessary, a recreation-oriented aquatic park was considered. By then, nature had taken a hand in the proceedings, turning a pile of poisoned construction refuse into a green, growing refuge for Toronto’s wildlife (as well as migrating visitors). The place was declared an Important Bird Area in 2000.
And you can run into some pretty important birds there.
Young volunteer Courtney holding a HY male Sharp shinned hawk
Photo by TTPBRS
Bald eagles have been seen passing through Tommy Thompson, along with with red-throated loons, cuckoos, ospreys, sandpipers, tanagers, owls, and many many others (see lists of the flora and fauna). At least 55 of the bird species seen on the spit breed there regularly.
After winding its way past the first of the park’s ponds (Cell One, in the TRCA’s romantic lingo), the walk turned off along one of the mini peninsulas to that fabled ornithologist’s temple, the Tommy Thompson Bird Research Station, where bird banding demonstrations were in progress. Bird banding and other migration-related studies are carried out during the spring and fall, and visitors to the park are permitted to drop in (unobtrusively) to observe. According to the park’s website, just over 300 different species of birds have been seen on the spit, and an average of 4,000 individuals are banded each autumn.
We had to skip the bird banding, and instead hung around Cell One, where the next walk was due to begin. This was Colonial Waterbirds, led by Lisa, a U of T student studying Tommy Thompson’s double-crested cormorants. The term ‘colonial’ refers to some species’ habit of nesting in groups–called colonies (although it makes me expect them to march about in little British Army redcoat uniforms). Tommy Thompson has seven types of colonials: cormorants, night herons, egrets, two types of tern, and two types of gull. You know those loud, waddling white and gray birds that hang around dumpsters and the backs of fast-food places? They’re ring-billed gulls, and most of Toronto’s population breeds in Tommy Thompson. They number in the tens of thousands.
Adult Ring-billed gull
Photo by TTPBRS
The first colony on Lisa’s visiting list was that of the elegant, gull-like common terns. Due to danger from land predators, a floating nesting box had been set up for them in the middle of one of the spit’s little lagoons. Just to prove that this contraption was necessary, a mink choose this moment to scurry about off in the distance. Mink do swim, but apparently not well enough to venture out as far as the nesting box.
After the terns, Lisa took us off to see the main event, one of the park’s mini peninsulas with some of the tallest trees I’ve seen in Tommy Thompson.
Many of these trees, however, were utterly dead and bare. This was because they were also full of cormorants.
According to Lisa, due to their reputation as eaters of commercial fish (false, in her opinion), and due to the very real fact that their guano kills trees, cormorants are often shot on sight in the U.S. (there have been cormorant culls in Canada, as well). They are now recovering—some might say exploding—in Tommy Thompson, where the population is now well into the thousands. While the TRCA generally views this as a good thing, they do use noise and disruption to limit the number of trees chosen for nest sites. Nesting on the ground is encouraged.
Despite their lethal leavings, the cormorants didn’t seem to be bad neighbours; they shared their peninsula with the grand great egrets (think ‘great blue heron’ but pure white) and the much smaller, slightly sinister black-crowned night herons.
Waterbird colonies are one of the main reasons that Tommy Thompson is designated as an Important Bird Area.
Our last walk of the festival was the Warbler Walk, led by another TRCA staffer called Ralph. This was the shortest walk in both time and distance, since we merely wandered off the main road near the gate, and into the slightly swampy ‘warbler woods’, also called the ‘wet woods’ for fairly obvious reasons. This is an important spot in Tommy Thompson for bird watchers, since it’s popular with the many migrating warblers who come through the park every spring and fall.
So, what’s a warbler? A very small (about chickadee size), often quite colourful songbird who flits about in the trees catching bugs and NOT SITTING STILL FOR A PHOTOGRAPH.
Along with warblers, we also failed to get good pictures of a blue-grey gnatcatcher and a couple more orioles. We did, however, learn Ralph’s all-purpose bird-luring sound (it’s a sort of short, repeated hiss that sounds like ‘fs fs fs’). The jury’s out on whether it actually attracts birds, however.
The very last thing on our Bird Festival itinerary was a talk with Natalie Racette, the festival coordinator. From her we learned that the festival runs entirely on volunteers, and changes each year depending on their numbers and knowledge. Last year Racette had 50 volunteers (drawn from the TRCA staff, its volunteer program, and the general public) to play with. This year she had 12. Festival attendance is variable, but when the weather’s good (as it was this year) it probably brings in at least 1,000 people.
Given its somewhat fluid nature, it was hard for Racette to say if the festival had really changed in any concrete way since her first involvement many years ago.
Brett Tryon and volunteer Zak Smith
Photo by TTPBRS
“What I’ve noticed the most is that people come more regularly.” She told me finally. “You know, ‘Oh, I came here last year, and we had such a great time…'”
So they come again. I think people come in a little bit more educated, too. A lot of people have some really pointed questions like ‘Oh, I saw this type of bird, can you tell me what it is?’ More people are interested in the bird banding station specifically. Racette was particularly keen for people to know about this latter feature of the park.
“The bird banding station is such a small station but it’s so important, and I’m grateful that people get to learn that it’s there, and that you can come visit it, and you can learn about the birds in your own backyard.”
Despite this proximity and relative accessibility (the park is about a fifteen minute stroll from the busy Queen streetcar line), Tommy Thompson still isn’t as well-known as Racette would like.
“I meet people all the time who say ‘I’ve lived in the Beaches for twenty years and I didn’t even know this park existed’. So, you know, it’s great to be able to reach out to people who already live in Toronto, and get them to learn about their neighbourhood and the importance of the park.”
Important Bird Area, folks! Step right up and come inside!
Tommy Thompson Park is open to the public only on weekends and holidays (except for Christmas, Boxing Day, and New Year’s Day). The gates are open from 9 am to 4:30 pm from November to March, and 9 am to 6 pm from April to November.
Besides the Bird Festival in the spring, there is also a Butterfly Festival in August, and free guided walks every Saturday at 10 am from July to October. Check the park’s website for information on specific upcoming walks.
The park also hosts two Urban Wilderness Bike Tours (focused on learning about the park’s creation and maintenance) and Family Nature Walks (intended for parents and small children) in July and August. These are pay-what-you-can events requiring registration.
For information about the park’s school-related programs, check their Education Programs list.