Tag Archives: Toronto

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.
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.


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.


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.