Wild for the city

THE BIRDS OF HIGH PARK
Having grown up and worked for many years in small-town Ontario, I could tolerate the thought of settling in Toronto only if I was able to retain some access to nature’s wilder side. Fortunately, my husband and I found a place close to High Park, the 160-hectare urban oasis for wildlife and humans alike in the heart of Toronto. In fact, while househunting, I saw my first Eurasian wigeon there – one of approximately 285 bird species that have been spotted in the park.Even as it accommodates more than a million human visitors annually, High Park serves as a magnet for wildlife. About half its area has been retained in or restored to a relatively natural state, with about one-third of that being rare black oak savannah. In the 13 years that we have lived near High Park, manicured lawns and hard concrete shorelines have slowly but steadily given way to forest, savannah and marsh, thanks to the efforts of the City of Toronto and the High Park Volunteer Stewardship Program.

To the untrained eye, the park may seem messier since the ecological restoration efforts began in the late 1990s. But birders have noted a marked increase in marsh birds and woodpeckers, owing, respectively, to the naturalization of the Grenadier Pond shoreline and the presence of much more standing deadwood. Shortly after the northern edge of the pond was restored, for example, I saw my first soras and Virginia rails probing the mud only a few feet from a busy path. On a recent visit, I noticed for the first time signs of beavers.

The park is a summer haunt for blue-grey gnatcatchers, orchard orioles, warbling vireos, wood ducks and blackcrowned night-herons, but it’s during spring and fall migrations that birds and birders come out in full force. One spring, the charred vegetation created through prescribed burns of the savannah provided an unusual backdrop for a fallout of over a dozen scarlet tanagers. We regularly find bluewinged warbler, indigo bunting and wood thrush during spring migration. In May 1997, we even spotted a rare prothonotary warbler among a large influx of warblers.

High Park is well known for its annual fall hawk watch, drawing a faithful crowd of observers who meet on “Hawk Hill” between September and November to mark the passage of thousands of raptors. While these birds of prey rarely stop in the park, the nearby vegetation has been known to reveal a Bohemian waxwing or red-headed woodpecker. Hawk Hill itself has benefitted from restoration, and native plant species such as wild lupine, big bluestem and Indian grass have taken hold. I fondly remember a couple of sunny afternoons when the hawk watchers themselves were recruited to assist with planting efforts.

Winter is a slower time for birds in the park, but the week leading up to Toronto’s annual Christmas Bird Count has provided opportunities to ferret out such cold-weather oddities as white-eyed vireo and black-throated grey warbler. High Park, and adjacent Sunnyside Beach, typically yield one of the highest bird counts in the city.

High Park makes the big city livable not only for me, but for a variety of wildlife, including red fox, woodchuck and, on occasion, coyote. Here, one can stand next to a busy restaurant and see a wedding party looking for a perfect photo backdrop, a group of volunteers tending restoration plots, a feeding flock of migrating warblers and a kettle of several thousand hawks drifting overhead – all on the same fall day.

A short description of High Park’s birding sites is available on the Toronto Ornithological Club’s website, <a href=”http://www.torontobirding.ca/hotspots/descriptions.php” target=”_blank”>www.torontobirding.ca/hotspots/descriptions.php</a>, which also provides links to more detailed information. A new guide to the park’s rare plants is available from the website of the High Park Community Advisory Council Volunteer Stewardship Program, <a href=”http://www.highpark.org/vsp.htm” target=”_blank”>www.highpark.org/vsp.htm</a>.
Anne Bell

COYOTES AMONG US
When news spread this past February of a coyote that had leapt a fence from an east Toronto ravine into a backyard and then grabbed and killed a chihuahua while the horrified owner watched, it revived the perennial – and emotional – debate about how to handle predatory wildlife near residential communities. Not in my backyard, say many fearful urban and suburban residents; not in my backyard either, say rural residents, whose yards tend to be filled with farm animals, and whose solution is usually to trap and kill predators such as coyotes when they threaten livestock. Naturally, farmers do not take kindly to the suggestion that urban coyotes be moved to the country.That solution is not a viable or legal one anyway, say wildlife experts. Coyotes can range hundreds of kilometres and could return to familiar territory. They also would not do well in a habitat already occupied by a coyote population exploiting the available food. “It’s a Band-Aid solution to remove specific animals,” says Scott Smithers, a Kemptville-based biologist with the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), adding that the only fate awaiting a coyote removed from its adopted habitat and social unit is a “slow demise.” Far better, say Smithers and other experts, for residents of urban and suburban areas to learn about coyote behaviour and adjust their own accordingly.

By most estimates, coyote numbers are growing, but not necessarily for long. “It’s a boom and bust effect,” says Smithers, noting that in eastern Ontario, the coyote appears to have reached peak population levels over the past six or seven years and may soon head into a cyclical decline, partly in keeping with a similar decline in deer populations. Farther south, around the Greater Toronto Area, for instance, coyote numbers have also been climbing after having dropped dramatically several years ago due to sarcoptic mange.

“We’re definitely getting more calls about coyotes,” says Nathalie Karvonen, executive director of the Toronto Wildlife Centre (TWC). People are reporting sick, injured or orphaned animals but also calling because they are afraid, in some cases mistaking coyotes for wolves.

Coyotes are curious and highly adaptable, which is why they have thrived in mixed-forest and farmland areas surrounding urban communities, on a highly omnivorous diet. “They’ll eat anything from apples to rabbits to deer,” says Smithers. Coyotes may even be indirectly attracted by bird feeders, due to a greater presence of rodents around them. But coyotes are shy of humans and try to avoid contact, Smithers notes. “If you see coyotes around [eastern Ontario], they are generally running the other way, because they associate humans with danger.” Instances of coyote attacks on humans are extremely rare, and those that have occurred have been linked to situations where the animals were being fed and were becoming abnormally accustomed to human contact.

That, says John Almond, area supervisor of MNR’s Aurora office, is what happened with the coyote that killed the dog in Toronto. “It’s known that this animal [had] been fed by someone in the neighbourhood,” he says, and that would account for its unusual boldness. In addition to attacking pets, it had been found sleeping on porches and did not respond to attempts to scare it away with loud noises. City officials finally captured it in late March, and after a public protest against euthanizing the coyote they’d named “Neville,” after the park in which it was roaming, agreed to send the animal to a wildlife sanctuary.
TWC maintains that a hungry coyote will do what it needs to get food. “Wildlife will take more chances … or modify the times of the day at which they seek food in order to not starve during this challenging time of the year,” said the TWC website. “Chain-link fences are very easy for coyotes and some other wild animals to climb and do not pose much of a barrier for them if they are hungry and there is food on the other side.”

To keep the peace between coyotes and humans, maintaining distance is the best solution. For people who live in proximity to green spaces where coyotes roam, wildlife experts advise the following:
? Don’t leave garbage or pet food in the yard or put garbage out the night before pickup.
? Don’t feed or try to “tame” a coyote (in Toronto, a by-law specifically prohibits the feeding of coyotes).
? Don’t compost meat products, and use composters with secure lids.
? Don’t leave small children or pets unattended or let cats roam freely outdoors.
? Erect solid wooden backyard fencing at least six to eight feet high.
? Install motion-sensitive lighting around your house.
Coyotes have survived numerous attempts at eradication over the centuries in North America, but fear of and hatred for the animals continue to motivate aggressive campaigns against them. An Ottawa Citizen story in 2008 highlighted the city’s “war on coyotes” after trappers culled dozens of the animals from a suburban development south of the city. “There was no war won,” says Smithers. “In 2009, the coyote population is still healthy.”

Its numbers may boom and bust, but the coyote shows no signs of disappearing. For sheer endurance, the clever animal deserves understanding and respect.

More information on living with coyotes and other wildlife is available from these websites:
Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
www.ontariospca.ca/4-wildlife-livewith-7.shtml
Toronto Animal Services
www.toronto.ca/animal_services/coyote.htm
Toronto Wildlife Centre
www.torontowildlifecentre.com/pages/news/beachescoyote.html
Moira Farr

ADOPT A TREE
Corporations and small businesses can reduce their environmental footprint by replacing paved or landscaped areas with native vegetation, providing a habitat for wildlife and helping to offset carbon emissions. Although companies located in densely developed urban areas often lack the space in which to carry out any but the smallest naturalization projects, they can support efforts to maintain native habitats elsewhere. One innovative way to do this is through an adopt-a-tree program such as Trees In Trust.Trees In Trust raises funds that go directly to Ontario Nature and support our work in saving the province’s woodlands. In exchange for a donation, a mapped piece of woodland in an Ontario Nature reserve is dedicated to an individual or business. The donor does not own the land or trees; rather, Ontario Nature holds them in the donor’s name in perpetuity. The funds go toward the purchase, protection and stewardship of additional woodlands.Woodlands on three of Ontario Nature’s reserves are currently “up for adoption,” including the Cawthra Mulock Nature Reserve in York Region, the Altberg Wildlife Sanctuary Nature Reserve in the City of Kawartha Lakes and the Kinghurst Forest Nature Reserve in Grey County. All three reserves are open to visitors, have marked trails and contain great examples of native Ontario woodlands. (To learn more about Ontario Nature’s nature reserve system, visit www.ontarionature.org.)

Trees In Trust works similarly to carbon-offset programs offered by airlines. Clément Guénard, a sustainable building analyst in Ottawa, suggests that a business may support an adopt-a-tree program as a way to offset the carbon emissions of a building. He notes that similar approaches have previously been awarded credits toward Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification.

To donate or learn more, visit the Trees In Trust website at www.treesintrust.com.
Mark Carabetta

BLUEPRINT FOR A GREENWAY
While the movement to integrate natural habitat with urban planning is still in its infancy, efforts to establish green space along the perimeter of a city is not. Indeed, Ontario Nature was at the forefront of the drive to create the 728,400- hectare Greenbelt that now surrounds much of the Greater Toronto Area, a protected area made up of watersheds, working farms and sensitive habitats.For Ontario Nature, establishing the Greenbelt was an important first step toward a bigger picture: a protected landscape stretching across southern and eastern Ontario that permits wildlife and ecosystems to flourish and provides checks to unbridled sprawl and development. In 2004, Ontario Nature unveiled its Greenway Initiative – called the Greenway for Ontario at the time – a vision for land-use protection in southern Ontario structured around an interconnected system of natural, core areas linked together via corridors of wildlife habitat. Only through such a network of green spaces can we ensure the preservation of ecological integrity and sustainable agriculture, a buffer against climate change and the consequent benefits to human health. To that end, Ontario Nature created a conceptual map showing where core areas, such as parks and nature reserves, and corridors already exist and where they could readily be created or expanded. Corridors could facilitate the movement of species and lessen the impact of habitat fragmentation due to urban sprawl and rural strip development.

“In such a heavily populated and developed region as southern Ontario,” says Anne Bell, Ontario Nature’s senior director of conservation and education, “the opportunity to set aside large-scale protected areas is long past. If we’re going to conserve biodiversity, we need to find common ground with farmers and community groups so that we can work together to build and sustain an effective network of natural cores and corridors. That’s the purpose of the Greenway.”

The success of the Greenway Initiative, unlike that of the Greenbelt, depends on voluntary initiatives developed by local groups representing a diversity of land users, rather than on a prescriptive provincial policy. The Greenway Initiative can be implemented through land purchases or land agreements to protect core regions, private land stewardship in identified corridors, and land-use policies that safeguard fragile habitat. While the Greenway Initiative has worked with some municipalities to assist them in incorporating stronger protective measures in their official plans, the principal goal is to develop collaborative, community-led land-use practices to create a network of natural areas.

Two pilot projects are currently underway in Grey and Bruce counties and eastern Ontario thanks to the generous support of the George Cedric Metcalf Foundation. The projects aim to establish a voluntary system of natural heritage protection on farms and private lands. In the Frontenac Arch region, Ontario Nature is supporting local efforts to develop ways for communities and municipalities to define and protect that region’s ecosystems and highlight the environmental, economic and social benefits derived from a healthy environment.

In Grey and Bruce counties, where more than 80 percent of the natural area is privately owned, project participants represent three farm organizations – the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, the National Farmers Union and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture – and more than 30 other groups, including conservation authorities, stewardship councils, municipalities and conservation organizations.

Farmers and other landowners quickly found a cause in common with Ontario Nature’s conservation ethic. “A few years ago, I was asked to come to a Greenway meeting,” says Simon de Boer, president of the Grey-Bruce chapter of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario. “At first, I didn’t realize why I was there, but it didn’t take me long to realize, as a farmer and Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario member, [that] we shared concerns regarding stewardship, land use, development and the use of our resources.”

The brainstorming, meetings and workshops are starting to pay off. In the Grey and Bruce counties’ project, participants drafted maps to identify key cores and corridors in the region and are consulting with planners about the review of the Grey County Official Plan. They have also drawn up a set of conservation priorities and noted the need to broaden the scope of the Greenway project for the area.

“The staff of Ontario Nature has done their utmost to understand farm issues: fluctuating markets, weather, trade issues and ownership rights,” says de Boer. “As a farmer, I have also learned the importance of wetlands, cold- and warmwater streams and, of course, greenways. I’m looking forward to working with Ontario Nature to build a better Ontario.”

For more information on the Greenway Initiative, contact Amber Cowie, Greenway conservation coordinator for Ontario Nature, at 416-444-8419, ext. 273, or amberc@ontarionature.org.
Amber Cowie

1 Comment

  1. August 20, 2012    

    Hi Ed:

    What is of interest to me, is that your name, Ed Keenan, shows up on the internet and so does mine, and we both happen to be deeply centered on nature and write about it.

    As an introduction, please allow me to send you a copy of my recently published book.

    Warmest regards,
    Ed Keenan

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