Dear Readers, there is something about the woodland and wetland area at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, just outside Toronto, that reminds me of a Disney film. No sooner did my friend M and I reach the entrance on Wednesday when birds, chipmunks and squirrels appeared from all directions. It’s been a cold, wet week here, and today was the first day with any sunshine, and hence any people. No wonder we were mobbed by hungry critters.
M had brought a bag of birdfood for chickadees and nuthatches with her, and the birds certainly recognised it. At one point, she was even visited by a female downy woodpecker. There’s something about the slight scratch of those tiny feet on my fingers that moves me: how trusting these creatures are, and how brave.
And of course the chipmunks don’t want to miss out: it’s astonishing how much food they can get into their cheekpouches. They remind me of Hammy, my pet hamster, who was capable of stuffing an entire small carrot into her mouth.
M showed me the mayapple, which I’d never seen before. The green ‘apples’ which you can see in the photo below are the flower buds, with the ‘apples’ being produced later in the year. The green pods are poisonous, but apparently they can be eaten in small quantities when they go yellow. Native Americans use the fruit as an emetic, and as a worming agent.
I was fascinated by the range of woodland plants: the diversity seemed much greater than in a similar UK wood. The trout lilies were in full flower: they are named for their speckled leaves, not for their delicate yellow flowers. They don’t flower for their first 4-7 years of life, and spread very slowly: a single colony of trout lilies can be 300 years old. They rely upon ants to spread their seeds (normally they reproduce via their corms), and each seed has a special structure called a eliasome (a new word for my collection). The eliasome is a fleshy overlay full of fat and protein which the ants take home to feed their larvae. As trout lilies like their seeds to be buried very deeply, this works well: the ants eat the eliasome and discard the seed, which may eventually germinate.
I don’t think that I have ever seen a flower so white. This is another very slow-growing plant, which might take ten years to become big enough to flower (there seems to be a strong relationship between the surface area of the leaves, and the flowering time). Like the trout lily, the trillium is normally spread by ants, but can also be distributed by white-tailed deer, as the seeds survive the deer’s digestive system and can be deposited, in a handy pile of fertilizer, some distance from the original colony.
As the name suggests, trillium is a plant of threes: three petals, leaves in a set of three, three stigma, six stamen in two whorls of three. It is the Provincial Flower of Ontario, and so I was especially pleased to see a plant that is so specific to the area. I loved the deep venation on the leaves and the petals, and the way the blooms glowed in the semi-darkness of the under storey. In a few weeks they will be gone for another year, but what a way to herald the spring.
The Canada Geese has already got on with breeding, and there were several territorial scuffles in the tea-coloured water. These geese seem to be largely unloved, but I rather like them for their feisty nature and opportunistic intelligence. You would not want to get on the wrong side of one, but hey, we had enough grain for everyone, so we passed unhindered.
And then we saw a Carolina Wood Duck in a tree. Although many of us have seen the documentaries where ducklings leap from the hole in the tree trunk where the mother duck has made her nest, it’s still a bit of a shock to see one perching precariously on a branch.
Everywhere we went, it seemed that birds were courting. There were the usual red-winged blackbirds.
There were some very fine brown-headed cowbirds, the first that I’ve seen: the females lay their eggs in the nests of other species of birds (much like the European cuckoo), However, unlike the cuckoo, who mainly parasitises warblers, the brown-headed cowbird has been recorded laying its eggs in the nests of over 220 species, including hummingbirds and raptors. As the female can lay up to 36 eggs in a season I imagine that the failure to thrive of some nestlings is not the end of the world: the house finch, for example, feeds its young a vegetarian diet, which is not suitable for a cowbird, and I cannot imagine that a hummingbird would make an effective foster parent either. However, many of the cowbirds do survive, a testament to maternal instinct.
Incidentally the brown-headed cowbird is another icterid, like the red-winged blackbird and the grackle, as mentioned in my last piece about Collingwood.
And so, as my visit to Canada draws to a close, I wanted to leave you with one of the finest birds of the region, the cardinal. I love that blast of red among the fresh new leaves of spring.
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