A Great Lakes Adventure: Bird Banding in Toronto's "Accidental Wilderness"
Over a five-year span, bird number 2210-5811 turned up in the mist nets of the Tommy Thompson Park bird research station 21 times. He was a well-traveled yellow warbler, wintering in South America and summering on this three-mile-long spit of land that juts into Lake Ontario and offers stunning views of the Toronto skyline. And, each spring, he would build a nest in the exact same dogwood bush. Lucky for the warbler, that bush grew within the protective border of this remarkable 1200-arce urban wilderness area.
The bird’s predictable migration pattern underscores the need for places like Tommy Thompson Park, Karen McDonald, a project manager of restoration and environmental monitoring for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), recently told a group of visiting journalists. What was once a landfill, she said, is now an important stopover for neotropical migrants and a significant nesting area for ring-billed gulls and night herons, among others.
The group of journalists hailed from all over the U.S. and Canada and had arrived in Toronto to participate in a nine-day expedition. The trip was organized by the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources, a non-profit founded by Frank Allen, former environment editor at the Wall Street Journal, who felt reporters stuck in the newsroom couldn’t adequately unravel the complexities of the environment beat. As an IJNR project assistant, I was on the trip to make sure everything ran smoothly. As a freelance writer, I waded right into dozens of amazing story ideas.
Tommy Thompson Park was once the Leslie Street Spit, named for the road that led dump truck after dump truck to deposit their loads onto the shore of Lake Ontario after the Toronto Harbour Commission (now the Port Authority) decided to build a peninsula for future port construction in the 1950’s. While silt and sand and concrete rubble piled up on the spit, no port-related buildings ever materialized. And decade after decade, the city struggled with what to do with its creation.
Nature, however, had no such hold up.
By the time the TRCA was asked to turn the spit into a park in 1973, cattails, dogwood bushes and birch trees had begun to colonize the lpeninsula. It had become an “accidental wilderness.”
Birds were especially receptive to the new landscape. Ralph Toninger, a senior project manager with the TRCA, remembers several years ago when park crews put the finishing touches on an island designed to attract nesting water birds in one of the containment basins. “We finished building the island on a Thursday,” Toninger says, “and by the next Monday had 100 pairs of [common] terns on the island.”