Finding Wilderness in Toronto

I marvel how much I learn from birds. I do not exaggerate when I say that they have taught me how to see, how to pay attention to detail, and how to appreciate the unexpected finds even when the sought after bird is nowhere to be found. In a sense, birding has forced me to slow down, and to embrace the unplanned – even if that means driving two hours to see Townsend’s Solitaire that turns out to be obscured by such intense fog that all we can see is a silhouette. What made the day memorable wasn’t finding our target bird as much as stumbling upon an unexpected flock of Evening Grosbeaks, bursting with color against the grey winter sky.

What I didn’t expect was that birding would teach me to love Toronto in a new way, and to discover its hidden (and not so hidden) patches of wilderness in the middle of urban commotion. I recently discovered the Tommy Thompson Park – often also called the Leslie Street Spit – a five-kilometer-long peninsula that juts out into Lake Ontario. The park is a brilliant surprise: a man-made park was originally designed in the 1950s as a breakwater for harbor expansion; since the 50s, it has also functioned as a dumping zone for surplus from development sites in Toronto and dredged material from the lake. The park has grown into Toronto’s best-kept secret, and most exciting stretch of wilderness, with over 300 avian species and a thriving bird research and banding station.

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Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto. Photo from here.

All sorts of birds nest in the park, including 6 percent of the world’s breeding population of ring-billed gulls. That translates to roughly 30,000 pairs. In winter and early spring, you can see the awe-inspiring Hitchcockian-looking cormorant nests on the bare trees. And in May, the park warbles with Spring migrants passing through on their way to breed in the north.

This Spring, I signed up to volunteer at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station (TTPBRS) on Saturday mornings, and have learned to look forward to the 4am wake-up call. There’s nothing like setting up mist nets while watching the sun rise over Toronto, slowly illuminating every detail of a city you thought you knew so well. The real treat, of course, has been the opportunity to examine up-close birds I’ve seen from a distance and read about in field guides. The biggest surprise, for me, has been discovering that there really is no such thing as a boring bird. Even the Warbling Vireo – which I always considered drab, grey, monochrome, and nondescript on the best of days – has turned out to have a delicate white line above the eye, as if the bird meticulously applied makeup for a theatre performance.

The female birds have been a true revelation. I’d always considered them a drab disappointment compared to their male counterparts. But then, I saw a female American Redstart up-close and couldn’t believe how much the bird’s khaki and delicately pale yellow resembled the color-scheme worn by the classiest JCrew models. The female Black-Throated Blue had an understated elegance, including a seductive white spot on her back and a silky yellow line above the eye, offset by the remnants of a brilliant white eye-ring.

And the best part? All of this avian greatness and wilderness feels like you’re worlds away from a traffic-filled, noisy metropolis, and yet it’s only 10-minute drive from downtown.

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