photos
September 19th, 2014

Where can you find the largest colony of brack-crowned night herons in Ontario?


THE LESLIE STREET SPIT - A unique Urban Wilderness

Tommy Thompson Park, commonly known as the Leslie Street spit, is a wonderful place to enjoy the city's waterfront. A car-free roadway the full length of the spit makes this a great place to walk in any season. Allow about four hours to walk to the end of the spit and back, with some stops along the way. And don't forget your camera and binoculars. The spit offers terrific opportunities for bird watching, as well as stunning views of the Toronto skyline.

The first thing you should know about the spit is that it's completely man-made. Tonnes of concrete, earth fill and sand dredged from the harbour have gone into its construction. Started in the late 1950s, the spit now extends five kilometres (three miles) into Lake Ontario.

Nature has transformed this once barren place into a unique urban wilderness. Wildflowers flourish here in the warmer months, attracting dozens of butterflies. The sandy peninsulas, with their thickets of eastern cottonwood, resemble the Toronto Islands, from where the seeds of many plants have blown or drifted. Willows are more common near the beaches. The lowest areas, which are usually flooded in springtime, have an array of sedges and rushes.

Bird watchers heaven

The wetlands, meadows and forests of the Leslie Street spit are home to many birds and other animals. About 300 species of birds have been sighted, making it one of the best places in the province for bird watching.

In spring and fall, the spit attracts migrating songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. Hawks are seen here in fall, following the headland west. A good place to observe birds is Triangle Pond. A canvasback duck has been seen nesting on the pond - a first for Toronto's waterfront!

Winter is a good time for observing waterfowl in the park. On a winter day, it's not unusual to see 25 different species, including long-tail ducks, bufflehead, red-head ducks and scaup. If you're lucky, you might also see an owl. Several varieties, including the snowy, great horned and saw-whet owl, are known to spend the winter in the park.

The spit is also an important nesting area. Forty-five species are known to breed here. Nesting platforms for common terns have been constructed in one of the cells on the eastern side. These tern rafts simulate the birds' preferred nesting habitat - small sand and gravel islands.

In spring and early summer, the ground and shoreline areas on the western peninsulas are occupied by nesting ring-billed gulls, herring gulls, common terns and caspian terns. (The nesting areas are off-limits from April through mid-August.)

Dense thickets of cottonwoods and willow shelter black-crowned night herons and double-crested cormorants. It's easy to spot their crude stick nests high in the trees.

The spit has the largest known colony (1,200 pairs) of black-crowned night herons in Ontario. This colony is one reason the park has been designated by BirdLife International as an important bird area of global significance.

The best time to see these crow-sized birds is just before sunset when they fly out to the feeding grounds to fish. Although black-crowned herons are active mostly at night, they do also forage during the day, especially when they have hungry chicks to feed.

Refuge for wild life

The spit is also among the best butterfly watching locations in the city. About 40 species of butterfly have been seen here. In late summer and early fall the beautiful black and orange monarch butterfly stops to rest and feed, while waiting for favourable winds for its migration to Mexico.

In the summer, you'll often see red admirals, common sulphurs and cabbage whites. Less common are the silver-spotted skipper, hairstreaks and coppers, little sulphur, buckeye and pipe vine swallowtail.

Other animals have made the spit their permanent home. Woodchucks, muskrat, eastern cottontail, beavers and raccoons are among the residents. Some visitors have been fortunate enough to glimpse coyotes and red foxes.

A number of projects are in the works to make the spit more attractive for fish, such as northern pike and largemouth bass, as well as amphibians and reptiles. Landfilling has created snug chambers under the frost line where reptiles such as the eastern garter snake and northern brown snake can spend the winter. Ponds have been created where turtles, frogs and toads can nest and bask in the sun. Turtle species observed in the park include the midland painted and common snapping turtle.

Tommy Thompson Park is open to the public year-round on weekends and holidays, except Christmas day, Boxing day and New Year's day. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (April to October) and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (November to March). Admission and parking are free.

For more information:
The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority tells you all about the spit on www.trca.on.ca
The Toronto Ornithological Club conducts spring and fall bird watching outings. For information go to www.torontobirding.ca
Friends of the Spit will send you a kit, complete with bird checklist, illustrated plant book and poster, for taking out a one-year membership. An order form is on www.interlog.com/~fos

Aknowledgment: Photography and information provided by Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.


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