Dear Readers, you might think that the Royal Botanical Gardens, situated an hour’s train ride out of Toronto, would be a manicured, formal place, full of flowerbeds and statues and fountains. It does have these things, but it is also the starting point for a variety of trails which pass through woodland and wetlands, and which support an extraordinary array of wildlife and plants. For the past two years I have met up with my American naturalist friend Michelle, who drives from Youngstown in the USA so that we can go and explore together. Although we meet so seldom, I feel that we are kindred spirits – both of us are obsessed with gardening for wildlife, and with learning as much as we can about our local ecosystems. However, Michelle has a much bigger job than me, as the biodiversity of the eastern side of North America is much more complicated than that of the UK. To take just one example, there are 59 species of butterfly in the UK, compared to 110 species in the Toronto area alone.
As soon as we set off along the trail, we had the feeling that we were being watched. The eastern chipmunks appear within a few minutes of us starting our walk and look up at us with enormous eyes just in case we happen to have a sack of bird food with us. We don’t (at least until somebody takes pity on us later on and gives us some of theirs), but there was enough food already left on the fences along the trail to keep a whole army of chipmunks happy.
The name ‘chipmunk’ is thought to derive from an Ojibwe word meaning ‘he who descends the trees headlong’. These little rodents are fiercely competitive at this time of year – they need to gather as much food as they possibly can to enable them to survive the winter, and are not averse to stealing another chipmunk’s ‘stash’. Hence, when the chipmunks weren’t approaching us, they were chasing one another through the undergrowth.
And the chipmunks are not the only creatures who are stocking up on food. Other eyes are on us, too.
The birds also appreciate the way that humans often have pockets full of provisions – here, a chickadee eats some sunflower seeds from Michelle’s hand, while another one waits in the branches. These birds remind me so much of the great tits in my own garden, with their varied calls and opportunistic ways. As small birds both species will have their work cut out to survive the winter, and so they will need as many of these fat-rich seeds as they can get their beaks on.
The flowers here are very different from those that would be found in a UK wood . Here, for example, are some arrow-leaved asters. At least, I hope they’re arrow-leaved asters (aster experts, feel free to put me straight!) Ontario has a fantastic range of asters, which interbreed quite happily and cause a real headache for anyone trying to work out what species they’re looking at.
Ontario is also blessed with a dozen or more species of goldenrod, which have a variety of flower types and preferred habitats. All of them seem to be beloved by pollinators.
As we passed through the woodland, and onto the boardwalk that goes through the marshes, we are lucky enough to bump into a man with a camera and a woman carrying a half-kilo of peanuts and seeds. This couple walk the trail every day, and by coincidence we’d met them during our previous visit, and had followed them on their rounds.
This was a new creature for me, a member of the sub-family that includes voles and lemmings, and hence not a true rat at all. Muskrats are thought to have a very important part to play in the preservation of wetlands – they eat some species, such as cattail and yellow water lily, in preference to others. Their populations are thought to cycle naturally – when very abundant, the muskrats will eat a lot of vegetation, which helps to keep the wetlands open. Their main natural predator is the alligator, but they are food to every kind of carnivorous animal, from pike to osprey to coyote. And humans have hunted them too, for their fur and as food. For several North American native peoples, however, muskrat played a vital part in the creation of the world, by bringing up the mud used to create the planet from the bottom of the primordial sea when all the other animals had failed.
After a few minutes, we realised that there were two muskrats, probably youngsters born this year. They are known to share the lodges of beavers, behaviour that was filmed during David Attenborough’s ‘The Life of Mammals’ series a few years ago. It’s not clear who benefits most from this arrangement, but maybe the shared body heat and the extra eyes to watch for trouble make it a most satisfactory cohabitation.
‘Is that a gull?’ I asked Michelle.
‘It’s pretty big’, she said.
We watched for a few more minutes as it soared and banked.
‘It’s a Bald Eagle’, said Michelle. ‘Very rare around here’.
And so we stood as it banked in long slow arcs above the trees, and disappeared into the blue. What a surprise.
The birds below are rather commoner.
At one point, four turkey vultures were circling above us, riding the thermals on this unseasonably hot day. One way to tell them from other raptors is that they seem to tilt and correct themselves in flight, rather than holding their wings rigidly as the bald eagle had done. Turkey vultures are exclusively carrion eaters, and do not eat dogs, small children or prize chickens, in spite of their rather dark reputations. They are unusual among birds in having a well-developed sense of smell – they may quarter the ground searching for traces of the chemical ethyl mercaptan, which is produced by decaying bodies. This means that the birds can find food hidden under trees, where it is undetectable by sight. Unfortunately for the turkey vultures, other predatory birds watch what they are doing, and will follow them down when they find food, often displacing them from the corpse. However, if the dead animal is a large one, the turkey vulture (who has a surprisingly delicate bill for such a large creature) needs the larger birds to get through the hide. So, the turkey vultures wait around patiently, and mop up once the coast is clear. This is an example of mutual dependence, much like that between ravens and wolves in the northern forests – the ravens have been seen leading wolves to a corpse that is too difficult for them to open by themselves.
As we walk on along the boardwalk, the creek opens out, and we begin to see more water birds. At a distance, the one below looks very familiar, but as I get closer I realise that this is not the grey heron that I see at home, but an altogether more formidable bird, a great blue heron (Ardia herodias).
This bird has a height of 54 inches, and a wingspan of over six feet. It is the largest North American heron, and even at this distance it was impressive, striding purposefully through the water. Great blue herons are migratory, leaving Ontario for Mexico and South America during the long cold winters, although the toughest birds may stay, provided the water doesn’t freeze over completely. This bird is easily big enough to feed on anything from ducklings to turtles, fish to frogs and even, dare I say it, the occasional juvenile muskrat.
We walk on along the path. The creek broadens out further, and then comes to a halt beside a road, with a lake opposite, and some lorries extracting gravel on the hillside beyond. On our side of the tarmac there are thick beds of reeds, and along the edge is an array of asters and goldenrod and evening primrose, as pretty as anything that could be dreamed up by a garden designer.
What is not so pretty is a small brown snake, dead in the middle of the road with its head crushed. Was it sunning itself when a car went hurtling past? There is something about the precision of the injury that perturbs me, as if someone deliberately killed this animal while it was doing nothing except minding its own business. But then I look up as something else flies low over the trees beside the path, arching away over the reed beds. A large brown and white bird that looks strangely familiar. It isn’t until it passes that I realise that we’ve seen an osprey, a much commoner bird in North America than it is in the UK, and surprisingly widespread – I saw one in San Diego a few years ago. On the way back we check out any dead trees to see if the bird is perching, but we are only lucky enough to get this one glimpse. Still, to see a bald eagle and an osprey in one day is extraordinary luck, and neither Michelle nor I are complaining.
I see an old friend, too.
After seeing monarchs in Collingwood last week, I’ve continued to see them. Once, I saw one flying anxiously over the Distillery District in downtown Toronto. What a difference it might have made if the half-barrel containers full of impatiens and geraniums had contained something with a bit more nectar. But here along the creek there are lots of wild plants to feed on, and the monarchs are taking full advantage.
And then, as we come to the end of the boardwalk I see a bird that even I can identify.
The red-winged blackbird is said to be the commonest bird in North America, with an estimated 250 million breeding pairs. This has sometimes led to a difficult relationship with human beings: in 2009, it was estimated that over 950,000 birds were poisoned as ‘agricultural pests’ in the south-eastern USA, even though these birds also eat a large number of insects which are injurious to crops. As usual, the poisoning did not just affect the target species: the rusty blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) has declined by almost 99% since the 1960’s, and it is thought that these birds may have been caught up in the biocide, although habitat destruction has undoubtedly also played a part.
And so, it’s time for lunch, and we head back to the main cafe in the Royal Botanical Gardens. But as we go in, we pass these strange characters.
I’m not sure exactly what these plants are, but to me they are full of character, like shaggy green gods waking up after a long sleep. Whether they have been designed to look like this, or have grown this way I have no idea, but they seem the very embodiment of a kind of vegetable intelligence, a different way of being in the world that we, with our mammalian senses, can barely begin to comprehend. If walking in nature teaches me anything, it’s how little I know, and how abundantly much there still is to learn.
Photo credit for rusty blackbird pic: “Euphagus-carolinus-001”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Euphagus-carolinus-001.jpg#/media/File:Euphagus-carolinus-001.jpg