Attention buoys and gills…

In my continuing quest to discover nature in and around the city, I am constantly surprised by what I find.  Let me bring you back to October of last year…

I had recently become a member of the Toronto Field Naturalists and received their first newsletter. It contained, among other delicious tidbits of local nature matters, a list of outings or walks,  put on by the TFN. One in particular caught my eye: Salmon Run on Highland Creek.
SALMON.
That’s right, these guys:

Surely these wild Coho salmon, pictured braving thrashing currents, jagged rocks, and opportunistic grizzlies, can’t be the same ones they’re talking about in the TFN newsletter.
I mean, Highland Creek is in Scarborough, which doesn’t exactly say “wilderness” to me.
More like “gunshot wound”. But I digress.

About 70 people showed up! ©K.McLellan2011

I suited up for a chilly and damp mid-October day and set off by public transit to the far reaches of Scarberia. A subway ride, two buses, and an hour and half later, I met up with the TFN group just as they were leaving the meeting point.
It was a huge turnout, this event apparently having been quite popular the previous fall. We headed down the paved walking/cycling trail along the creek as the leaders explained what was going on.

Highland Creek empties into Lake Ontario at the southern end. ©K.McLellan2011

This glacial ravine was carved out during the last Ice Age. ©K.McLellan2011

The coho salmon was introduced to Ontario in the late 1800’s, and were stocked in large amounts in the 1960’s to establish a permanent population. It is a very popular sport fish; it spends its time in the deep cold waters of Lake Ontario, only returning to creeks and streams to spawn in the fall. It is illegal to fish in spawning tributaries during the season.

We moved downstream along the creek, and I could see the salmon had their work cut out for them. This was no leisurely swim in gentle waters.

©K.McLellan2011

Many didn’t make the trip. We counted several dead salmon as we walked.

"GO ON WITHOUT ME!!!" One fish, seen above the rock, went to the big river in the sky, while another, just left of the rock, lives another day. ©K.McLellan2011

We walked about 1.5 hours before heading back. I spotted about 5 or 6 live salmon in total. I admit I had expected to see them leaping out of the water like desperate maniacs in huge numbers. I found out later that 1) it was nearing the end of the run, and 2) since it hadn’t rained much in the previous weeks, water levels were low, forcing the salmon to wait it out in deeper pools along the way.

Just a flash of the dorsal area and he's gone ©K.McLellan2011

An overcast day combined with fish that blend into the creek bottom...can you spot the two salmon? ©K.McLellan2011

Okay, maybe not quite as dramatic without the grizzlies. ©K.McLellan2011

Although it wasn’t nearly as exciting as I’d hoped, it was still quite a novelty to see a salmon run so close to Toronto. Maybe I’ll have better luck next year by going a few weeks earlier, and hoping for rain.

But the TFN walk was more than just salmon. I learned quite a few interesting things on this outing from various members:

  • I now know what rosehips look like, and can spot a wild rose-bush.
  • The lovely wetland plant known as Horsetail (Equisetum) is a living fossil, meaning it’s the only living genus of the entire class Equisetopsida, which has been around over 100 million years.

    Horsetail ©K.McLellan

  • Yellow birch twigs taste of wintergreen when chewed. Don’t ask.
  • There are deer in Scarborough. We saw one flee as we approached, and later on I also spotted some deer tracks. This blows my mind.

    Deer tracks along Highland Creek ©K.McLellan2011

I am really floored at how much there was to discover in a part of the Greater Toronto Area that I’d written off as completely developed, totally urbanized and slightly dangerous. It is quite comforting to know that there is more nature than meets the eye here in Toronto.
That being said, I didn’t notice if the fleeing deer was carrying a gun.

Howling for Blood

That’s right, I’m back!! After a long, unintended hiatus I have returned with a backlog of nerdery just waiting to be hatched and released. Little nature humour, there.

Anyway…

My lovely partner and I had a date the other night. Upon my super-excited, non-whiny request, we saw this movie:

Here’s a little synopsis: A bunch of guys working on the Alaskan pipeline are stranded in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of pissed-off, man-eating wolves in constant pursuit. That’s about it, really.

I have to admit, it was very entertaining, as well as horrifically gory,  and extremely intense.  Just my kind of flick.
However…I had a serious problem with this movie’s intention to further villainize wolves.

The Gray Wolf (Canis lupus), also known as the timber wolf, is common enough in Ontario. Their range covers 90% of the province, leaving out only the southern developed area. The other species of wolf present in Ontario is the smaller Eastern Wolf (Canis lupus lycaon), whose range is much more limited. It is found mostly in Algonquin Park and the surrounding area.

Gray wolves

Eastern wolves tend to have a reddish fur, and are smaller and leaner

While the Gray wolf has maintained healthy numbers across the province, Eastern wolves are listed as Special Concern on the Species At Risk list in Ontario. That means that Eastern wolves are protected in Algonquin Park and the surrounding area by a hunting ban, while it’s open season on Gray wolves year round. Shooting a Gray wolf on your own property requires no special permit. A hunting license allows you to bag as many wolves as you want; you only have to report your kills if you sell the pelt commercially. Wow.

the wolves in the movie were made larger and scarier than real wolves

Which brings me back to the movie. The main character was a guy who was hired specifically to shoot the “man-eating wolves” that apparently hunted the workers on the regular. Zuh???

Well well well. Let’s do some research, shall we?? I’m sure you recall my terrifying bear attack post.

After much research, my findings are quite shocking. In North American in the last 100 years, there have been approximately 9 fatal wolf attacks.

That’s right. NINE. IN A HUNDRED YEARS.

Let me break it down for you:
5 out of 9 were in the U.S (and 2 of those were wolves kept as pets that ate someone’s kid.)
Out of the 4 Canadian attacks, two were in 1922 in Manitoba and Ontario, respectively.

The other two fatal Canadian attacks were Patricia Wyman in Haliburton in 1996, and Kenton Joel Carnegie in Saskatchewan in 2005. And the latter one is still up in the air as to whether it was actually wolves, or a black bear (click on the link for more info, I found the whole thing quite fascinating)

But looking at the only fatal wolf attack in Ontario since 1922, Patricia Wyman’s death was an unusual circumstance. She had been employed at the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Preserve only a few days, when she entered the 15 acre wolf enclosure by herself. She was surrounded by the pack and killed, though not eaten. It appeared to be a case of defending territory against an unfamiliar intruder rather than man-eating wolves out for blood.

I can only conclude that as long you don’t have a wolf on a chain in your backyard within reach of your toddler, go inside a man-made wolf enclosure, or live in the bush in the early 1920s, the odds of being “hunted” by a pack of wolves is pretty damn low. Even this Alaskan newspaper thinks so.

Wolves didn’t even register on my fear index while camping in Algonquin; in fact, I had hoped to hear some howling, but didn’t.
Besides, who had time to think about wolves with all those man-eating bears around??

Duck and Cover

This has been an unusually warm and sunny October so far, and I decided to take full advantage of it by heading to High Park with my camera. My goal was to  spot some snapping turtles, their young having somewhat recently hatched.
Upon arriving at the park, however, I soon found myself snapping things other than turtles. Autumn is a busy time of year for many animals, and there were no shortage of subjects.

The squirrels seemed eager to pose, between burying acorns.

The Eastern Grey Squirrel, and its melanistic counterpart, the Black Squirrel, were found all over the park, scurrying through bushes, up trees and across the grasslands. They bury surplus food to tide them over through the winter, when food is scarce. These two approached me, and finding I had no handouts, quickly vanished. I headed to the pond in search of my elusive snappers, but along the way some charming subjects lured me away.

Female Wood Duck

A pair of female wood ducks

The ladies were quite beautiful, with white rings around the eyes, and a band of bold blue/violet across their wings. Wood ducks are typically found in small groups, away from other types of ducks. In fact there were about 5 in this group, 2 of them sitting on a very low tree branch which hung over the water. The real stunner, as per usual, was the male.

A male wood duck

He is so brilliantly coloured, with such precise markings, that he almost looks like a carved wooden decoy. He continuously made low peeping noises, while the females had a louder, intermittent quack that lifted upward at the end.

Further down, I spotted a mixed group of waterfowl. These birds were less picky about whose company they keep.

Male and Female Mallards and a Mute Swan

A Mute Swan

The Mute Swan is so named because it’s so much less vocal than other swans, such as the Trumpeter Swan. True to its name, it didn’t make a peep other than to hiss at the ducks that came too close.

This log was a popular spot, as many came and went, the others quacking and squawking each time a new duck joined them. After awhile, another bird crashed the party.

A Double-breasted Cormorant takes over the far end of the log

The double-breasted cormorant bumped a few ducks off the end of the log and stretched its wings for several minutes to dry them off, as the feathers of this bird are not waterproof. In the late sixties, cormorants and other birds, such as the Peregrine Falcons had their numbers drastically reduced by the use of DDT.
DDT caused the eggshells to thin to the point of breaking before the incubation period could end. Thankfully, cormorant populations are now increasing.

I slipped into the dense tall reeds, and climbed over some dead logs near the water’s edge to examine a tree that had  been felled by a beaver. I suddenly realized I was not alone.

Great Blue Heron

This Great Blue Heron was surprisingly tolerant of my presence. My previous attempts at photographing herons in Algonquin Park led to frustrating silent canoe chases that always ended with the birds flying 30 meters away, over and over again. Clearly this city park-dwelling heron is more accustomed to the sight and smell of humans. I watched him intently scan the shallow water around him, looking for an unlucky fish or frog to spear.

searching for a snack

Eventually, he became weary of my constant changing of positions, and camera clicking that he decided to leave.

The blue is more brilliant in flight

After the blue heron departed, I finally did spot one snapping turtle. It was swimming about 25 feet from shore, only the sharp tip of its head and a slice of the shell could be seen, but it was unmistakably my beloved snapper!! It was not very large, and returned to the bottom after only a minute, but I’m glad I got to see at least one.

I need a longer lens.

I’ve learned to take what nature gives you. And when she offers you the beauty of mallards, wood ducks, swans and herons…well…snapping turtles are kind of ugly anyway.

A Partridge in a Pine Tree

A few weeks ago, I accompanied my sister Ashley to our hometown of North Bay, Ontario, for a weekend of ribs, beer, and as it turned out, a little hunting. We stayed with our cousin and her husband and their two little girls. The weather was outstanding; warm and sunny, the trees in full autumn display. Of course, the thing to do was to head out on the 4 wheelers and shoot some partridge.

Ruffed Grouse - copyright MadTinman 2008

What we call partridge in the North is actually the Ruffed Grouse, a different bird altogether. Grey partridge, which were introduced from Europe, are common in the open fields of southern Ontario, while ruffed grouse are found in the dense bush and woodlands. They are tricky to spot; their feathers make efficient camouflage, and they are frequently perched in low tree bows. But my cousin’s husband, or “cousin-in-law” as he shall hereby be known, managed to snag the daily limit, five.  And, nice guy that he is, sent me home with two. By the way, if anyone is curious, I cooked the “partridge” breasts for my partner for his birthday. I did them in the oven, wrapped in bacon, with a little rosemary.

bringin' home the bacon...er, bird.

Hunting is a topic that can draw a lot of heat, especially amongst those who have never experienced it, or grew up around it. Living in Toronto, hunting isn’t exactly part of your day-to-day life. Unless you count hunting for a Starbucks. The connection between man and food, in some cases, has disappeared. Most people do not think of what they are eating while they are eating it, or where it came from. When you, or your family, personally hunt an animal for food, your connection to the natural world is actually strengthened. I feel better about eating moose, felled at the hands of my uncles, than I do about eating some poor, anonymous slaughterhouse cow. While I certainly agree with, and actively support, protecting our wildlife, I can also see a positive side to hunting. At least, as a food source.
At any rate, our pals the ruffed grouse seem to have it figured out. Studies have shown that controlling predators and disease do not increase their numbers. Conversely, hunting by humans also barely makes a dent. The natural balance has worked for them.

My family has a long history of hunting, typically for moose. And as it’s now Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, almost all the men in my family are heading up to our camp near Temagami.  In fact, I can barely remember a Thanksgiving that wasn’t almost completely devoid of males. It was so engrained in my childhood, that this picture almost seems normal:

this is normal, right??

This is two-year old me, sitting on a dead deer that is being propped up by my uncle and grampa. I don’t remember having this photo taken, but I do remember this maroon snowsuit.  I love my family.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to my kitchen to hunt down a snack.

Falling in love with Fall

I just spent a perfect weekend in my hometown, North Bay, Ontario.
Not only did I eat my weight in food, down 2 or 10 beer, and spend time with my lovely family, I also got to fully experience the fall colours.
Living in Toronto, one doesn’t really get the full effect. There are trees, of course, however they seem to be very spread out. One bright red tree can be gorgeous, but it can’t compete with a whole forest full of yellow, orange and red beauties.

The trees that line my aunt and uncle's property

My sister and I headed up to our aunt’s farm with our cousin, her husband and their two little girls. We decided to head out into the trails in the bush on the 4-wheelers so we could get to the sugar maples. This area of the woods is important in the spring, as my uncle produces a very delicious maple syrup every year.
On the way, we stopped several times to take pictures and stroll around. I found an old bear skull, probably left by a neighbour who’d shot a few problem bears in the past.

Most of the teeth were still intact. Scary.

It's possible that I've become a little too obsessed with bears lately.

But I digress. The foliage was the main event. The sugar maples were the crowning glory. It was magnificent. But instead of typing thousands of words, here’s some pictures:

The really amazing thing is, the pigments that produce the yellow and orange colours are actually always present in the leaves. During the growing seasons of spring and summer, the leaves are dominated by chlorophyll, which gives them the green colour. Carotenoids, which are yellow or orange, are always present, but in lower numbers. As the sunlight dwindles towards the end of summer and into fall, the chlorophyll begins to decrease, and the carotenoids are revealed in full force. Carotenoids are also present in carrots, corn, canaries, daffodils, egg yolks and bananas, among others.

The most explosive and awe-inspiring colour, in my opinion, is fiery red:

The pigments responsible for this colour, anthocyanins, are not present all year round. They begin to develop during the late summer in the sap of the leaf cells. When the days of autumn are bright and cool, and the nights are chilly but not freezing, the brightest colourations usually develop. Anthocyanins are also found in cranberries, red apples, blueberries, cherries, strawberries and plums.

At any rate, nothing compares to the beauty of this time of year in the north. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely a summer person. When it’s 35 degrees outside and everyone else is melting and complaining, I’m finally getting comfortable. Fall usually only serves to remind me that winter is coming, and that makes me feel very tired just thinking about it.
Fall in Toronto is generally overlooked as a brief transition stage between summer and winter. Patios are beginning to close up, or put out heaters. Legs go back into hiding. It begins to become difficult to know how to dress, so vast is the difference in temperature from morning to night.
But fall is also a deliciously cozy time of year. The air is fresh and clear, tinged occasionally with that smokey wood stove smell. Sweaters that have been hibernating all summer are being woken up. And the trees are ablaze with colour. I’m beginning to see the appeal. I could maybe fall in love with fall.

Just don’t tell summer I said that.

Alces Alces, we all scream for…

One of the must-sees on my list when planning for our Algonquin Park camping trip was moose. I hadn’t seen one since I was a kid. In fact, I remember one of  the last times I saw one. I was about 11 years old, and my family was heading up to our camp* on Boyce Lake, near Temagami, Ontario. We were in the boat, going up Wicksteed Lake when we spotted something swimming in the water up ahead. We slowed down to get a better look, and it was this:

A young bull moose with just a hint of impending antlers was crossing the lake!! I managed to snap this somewhat blurry photo with what I’m sure was a disposable camera. The actual print is in my treasured Box of Important Crap. We could hear his laboured breathing, see him flick his ears and cast nervous glances toward the floating thing full of gawking bipeds. It was amazing to be so close to such a huge wild animal.

The morning we set off into the park, I was practically bursting with excitement over the possibility of seeing a moose. We paddled non-stop for 3 hours from the access point to the North Arm of Lake Opeongo, and I relentlessly scanned the shoreline the entire time. Nothing.
We portaged 2.1km to the second lake, which took about 40 minutes. Nothing. Perhaps I was expecting too much, but since Algonquin Park is considered one of the best places in the world to see moose, I half expected to have them jump out at me from all directions.

It wasn’t until the second day that I finally saw one. We were portaging from Shiner Lake to Otterslide Lake, where we would set up camp. I was about 10 minutes ahead of my partner down the trail, as he was slowed down by the massive canoe he had on his head. I was trudging down a small hill at a fairly good clip, considering I was carrying a 60lb backpack, 2 paddles and a fishing rod case. My bear bell was jingling, having been annoyingly placed right beside my ear. I was huffing and puffing, and sweating and swearing, when I heard a crashing noise in the bush to my right. I stopped immediately, and spotted a large, dark brown shape about 40 feet away. My first thought was: Oh my god, it’s a bear. This stupid bell doesn’t work!! So I started talking in a loud but calm voice, so I wouldn’t startle it. HELLO BEAR. WE’RE COOL, I’M JUST PASSING THROUGH. PLEASE DON’T EAT ME, etc. At the sound of my voice, the shape lifted his head, and I saw it was actually a massive bull moose!! He had huge, perfect, late summer antlers. After having a look at me, he turned back to the plants he had been munching on. Suddenly my pack felt lighter. I was no longer tired. I stood there for about 5 minutes and just watched him, in awe.
Oh, I also took some pictures:

Sigh. The bush was so dense that I could barely make him out. But he’s in there. He’s the brown blob in the centre. And you can just see his antlers if you tilt your head and squint. Seriously though, I wish I could have gotten a better picture. It was an amazing moment. I continued on my way to the end of the trail, and 5 minutes later my partner arrived. Unfortunately, he hadn’t seen the moose. You don’t see much with a canoe on your head.

Moose are plentiful in Algonquin. In 2003, Moose survey observers determined that there were 3490, plus or minus 628. Which is a very strange number. The area with one of the highest moose concentrations in the park is Hailstorm Creek, the mouth of which  runs into the North Arm of Lake Opeongo. I had successfully lobbied my partner to camp at the site closest to the mouth on our last night in the park for this very reason. After an early supper, we set off in the canoe to paddle up the creek and hopefully see more moose. We had to portage over a beaver dam, then paddle for almost an hour through a winding wetland before reaching the actual creek. It was a beautiful evening, the water like glass and the sky ablaze. We saw an otter, who puffed and snorted at us…

Great blue herons who flew away as we approached, only to land 30 feet upstream and have to repeat the whole process over and over…

A beaver who smacked his tail in warning…

A mink who swam furiously around the canoe….

…but not a single moose. We barely had time to explore the actual creek, because we only had about an hour of daylight left to get back to camp. So we reluctantly turned around. The moose I’d seen while portaging ended up being the only one I saw during the entire trip. But I felt extremely lucky to have seen that one.

*Just an aside here: I used the term “camp” in the first paragraph. In Northern Ontario, a cottage is called a camp. The main difference being lack of electricity, access roads, and sometimes indoor plumbing. Cottages, typically found in “cottage country” like Muskoka Region or the Kawarthas, usually have satellite tv,  jet skis, and cost more than your house.

Bear With Me…

So I just finished reading this: 

Scary bedtime reading, for sure. But not as scary as having a bear rip your tent open in the middle of the night as though the tent were a wrapper and you the sweet, sweet candy inside.  To be fair, this has never actually happened to me. It has, however, happened to many other people. Just read this list of fatal bear attacks in North America. Never mind all the ones that only resulted in horrifying injury.

While camping in the interior in Algonquin Provincial Park, I had bears on the brain. When it got dark, the adrenaline started pumping. Every single snapping twig or falling leaf made me jump. Lying in the tent in total darkness, my heart all a-flutter, I anxiously awaited dawn. Do you know how hard it is to sleep when your heart is beating out of your chest?? Just ask my partner, I only woke him up every 20 minutes saying “I heard something!!!”.

But back to the book.  Stephen Herrero doesn’t mince words or spare any details when it comes to the actual injuries and fatalities. Unfortunately, the book was written in the early 80’s, and leaves out the most terrifying story of all.
*warning, this is disturbing*

A man in his early 30s and a woman in her late 40s were camping on Bates Island on Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Park on October 11th, 1991. This is a large island featuring many campsites, not more than a 2o minute paddle from the access point of the lake. According to investigators, the couple were setting up camp when a black bear attacked them and broke their necks. There was evidence that they had fought back (a broken paddle). The bear then dragged the couple into the woods and ate them. When police and park officials arrived a few days later, the bear was still guarding their partially-consumed bodies.

Just in case the story itself isn’t terrifying enough, let me break it down for you, so you understand why this story was running through my head on repeat during our trip:

  1. They were on an island campsite, which are usually bear-free. We mostly camped on islands.
  2. They were only a few kilometers from the dock at Algonquin Outfitters. We were way waaay into the interior of the park, where presumably there were more bears.
  3. According to the investigators, there was evidence that this bear had STALKED these people with the intent to eat them. They never saw it coming.
  4. They apparently kept a neat, clean campsite. We did everything right: no garbage or food out, no food in the tent, careful fish cleaning far away from the site, hung our pack at night. So did they.

Basically, you can do everything perfectly and use all the common sense and safety tactics in the world, but you can’t plan for a rogue bear. If a bear decides to see what humans taste like, well…you won’t see it coming either.

Speaking of common sense, here’s a little: black bear attacks are actually relatively rare. Relative, of course, to the number of black bears and the number of people entering the bears’ habitats. Prior to the aforementioned attack, the last one in Algonquin Park was in 1978 (3 teenaged boys). And the one before that? In the 1890s. The park receives over a million visitors annually. There are approximately 2,000 bears in Algonquin which is about one for every three to four square kilometres. I think the bears are showing remarkable restraint, honestly. The bear who killed that couple on Bates Island was describe by a park naturalist as “right off the scale of normal bear behavior”.  No kidding.

So with all this running through my mind, I prayed for daylight slept in a tiny, thin nylon tent virtually in the middle of nowhere for six nights.

And we never saw a single bear.

A Childhood Reunion

On a recent week-long portaging trip in Algonquin Provincial Park, I had the pleasure of meeting up with an old childhood friend, the caterpillar. As a child, I loved these little guys, and would actively seek them out in the woods around my house. I put them in boxes, pet the fuzzy ones, marveled at the big stripey smooth ones, and eventually let them go on their way. I hadn’t thought about these little critters in a long time. Then I found this guy:

I followed him obsessively for 10 minutes taking pictures...so for about 3 feet. ©Kristi2011

This was one of my favourites as a kid; the Spotted Tussock Moth Caterpillar. The moth itself is fairly unremarkable, but the caterpillar is exquisite!!  Also sometimes called the Yellow Woollybear (could it be any cuter, jeez?) Although their fuzziness is almost unbearable, their hairs can sometimes irritate the skin, though I don’t remember this ever happening to me.

This really made me think about the other caterpillars I used to encounter as a young nature nerd. Have you ever seen one of these?

© Copyright Sheryl Pollock 2011

This little beauty is the Monarch Caterpillar, the very same that turns into easily the most recognizable black and orange butterfly. This was a rare find as a kid. They are soft, smooth and their feet feel like tiny bits of velcro.

Not all caterpillars were as charming as these two. Anyone growing up in Northern Ontario in the early 90’s might remember these intruders:

Copyright Greg Hume

This is a Forest Tent Caterpillar, a species that experiences a boom every decade or so, to varying degrees of horror. A specific outbreak in the early 90’s in Ontario was particularly disgusting, deforesting vast areas and blanketing towns in squirmy, fuzzy grossness. I remember the sidewalks becoming a living, moving entity. Tree trunks were wrapped in metal to prevent the little buggers from climbing them. They would drop from the branches of the crab apple tree in my front yard onto my unsuspecting head. And, unfortunately, I remember the sound they made as I ran them over with my bike. Like a squishy popping noise. I couldn’t help it, really. They were everywhere.