Dear Readers, every year when I go to Toronto I make the journey to the Royal Botanic Gardens outside Burlington, about an hour’s train ride from the city. There, I meet my friend M who drives up from Youngstown in New York State. For a few hours we wander the trails and my friend shares her knowledge of North American nature with me. Sometimes we think about meeting somewhere else, but this is such a magical trail and there is always something new to see. This year, for example, we saw a great blue heron (Ardea herodias), a much larger version of the grey heron that’s common in Europe – this magnificent bird can be 54 inches tall (‘Almost as tall as me!’ as my friend said). It has a wingspan of up to six and a half feet, and when it takes off it seems prehistoric, as if it’s been rising from marshland from before the advent of humans and will probably continue to do so long after we’re gone.
The orange hue on the beak and the legs, the plumes on the animal’s back and the black crest show that this bird is coming into full breeding fettle. It is always moving to see such a large, impressive creature at such close quarters, but this was not the last surprise that the walk was reveal.
There were all the usual delights too, of course. The trout lilies and trilliums were just starting to reveal themselves. I love the delicacy of woodland flowers and the way that they disappear as soon as the canopy of leaves shades them out.
What I hadn’t noticed in previous years were the banks of lesser celandine, a European native. It looks very pretty in the dappled sunlight, and was being visited by a variety of small bees, but is being treated with herbicide by the Botanic Garden staff as it’s seen as being invasive, and shading out the native plants. It will be interesting to see how different things are when we visit next year – apparently they have attempted pulling the plant up, but it spreads by means of tiny bulbils and is so very difficult to get rid of.
Some birds had started breeding early – several pairs of Canada geese had goslings already. They are fiercely protective of their youngsters, especially as they are not only vulnerable to other birds, but also to large fish (of which there are many in the lake).
We leaned on a rail by the boardwalk to watch some geese feeding, and noticed a most unusual creature hoovering up the sunflower seeds.
I had never seen a muskrat out of the water before. The fur was so dense that the undercoat was perfectly dry. No wonder the Hudson’s Bay Company valued their pelts so much (along with those of beaver, fox, ermine, sable…..). S/he kept a healthy distance from the geese, who are much inclined to peck at this time of year. I explained to one young woman that this was a muskrat, not a ‘rat – rat’ and that, as we know from David Attenborough, they sometimes share lodges with beavers. It was originally thought that the muskrats were just freeloaders, but the Attenborough film showed the muskrats helping to repair the lodge, so it seems that they do their bit to help with the chores. I am also rather taken with the muskrat’s tawny eyes, which look rather lion-like to me.
‘What good’s a squirrel?’ he asked. The response ‘And what good are you, human’ never quite made it past my lips, but it does occur to me that this anthropocentric view of the world is responsible for a good proportion of the mess that we’re currently in. It’s not all about us.
Anyhow, further along the trail we were accosted by a very fine American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), rather smaller and shyer than the usual grey ones (and not the same as the European red squirrel). I love the hopeful, watchful expression as s/he tried to work out if I’m a friend or a stamper.
We were also very lucky with birds this time. There were of course the usual red-winged blackbirds, calling from every tree – confusingly these are not thrushes like the European blackbird, but Icterids, a New World group.
But how about this little beauty? I wasn’t sure what species I was looking at, but it turns out that it’s the perfectly named yellow warbler. They can be found throughout North and South America, and there are no less than 33 subspecies. Their Latin name means ‘moth-eater’, and they are voracious predators of all kinds of flying insects. As they buzzed through the leaves they were like small streaks of lemon feathers.
But what about this bird? I do believe that I might have had a brief spotting of a Baltimore oriole, though my friend and I both thought that the bird looked a little small for that. If it was an oriole, it was my first ever sighting. Let me know what you think, North American friends!
But my biggest surprise came at Aldershot station. I was sitting in the station waiting room when I looked up idly at the transmission tower opposite as a huge bird came in to land.
Yes, a pair of ospreys have made a nest overlooking the railway station. My friend M and I saw an osprey fly over last year, but I had no idea that such large birds of prey would happily make their homes so close to human habitation.
This bird used to live in the UK in some numbers, but was persecuted until it became extinct in the country in 1916. It recolonised in 1954, and there are now between 250 and 300 breeding pairs, mostly in Scotland. Worldwide, there are 460,00 ospreys, a third of them living in Canada during the summer and over-wintering in South America. This bird is found on every continent except Antarctica, and their presence is said to be a mark of the water quality – ospreys, being at the top of the food chain, are very susceptible to the impact of pollutants such as DDT and PCB’s.
I have never seen ospreys in the UK, a country which seems to delight in shooting anything that looks like a bird of prey, but what a joy it was to see them so unexpectedly in Canada, and what a wonderful end to a day full of friendship and nature. Roll on next year!