Top 5 Things to Do in High Park in Winter

By Guest Blogger Theresa Ogurian

Black Oak Savannah in winter. Photo by High Park Nature Centre.

Black Oak Savannah in winter. Photo by High Park Nature Centre.

Despite appearances this January, winter is the coldest season of the year. It is the time of the year when the temperature drops and snow falls. It is the time when some animals hibernate and some birds migrate to warmer climates. With the warm jackets and big boots needed in winter, some people may feel like hibernating or migrating too. But instead of staying indoors, or going on a vacation to a tropical town, why not embrace winter in the city and explore High Park in winter!

Going to a park may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of winter, but spending time in nature in a beautiful park can be rewarding in any season. To get you motivated, here are the top 5 things to do in High Park this winter.

Family Nature Walks – Attend a drop-in Family Nature Walk at the High Park Nature Centre. Upcoming winter topics include Trekking and Tracking, Amazing Animal Adaptions, Know Your Nature and more. It is always fascinating to learn something new about nature. You can find the full schedule of walks here: http://ow.ly/VPnw308lvPR.

Birding – Several species of birds are still very active in High Park, such as Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, and American Robins. There have even been sightings of Bald Eagles in the park this winter! Be sure to check out several habitats to see the greatest variety of birds, including the Black-Oak Savannahs and Grenadier Pond.

Tracking – Want to be a nature detective? A fun activity for the whole family is looking for animal tracks in the snow or mud! Common tracks found in High Park are from grey squirrels, raccoons, and dogs. If you are lucky you may even find coyote tracks! Once you’re on the trail, see how far the tracks take you and enjoy a day of curious exploration in the park.

Ice Skating – Another popular winter activity in High Park is skating on Grenadier Pond – but only if the flag is yellow! If you want to learn how to skate, you can also check out the outdoor rink near the tennis courts during public skating hours, or register to learn to skate with Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation. . You can learn more about their skating program here: http://ow.ly/KxyV308lz5L.

Hiking and Photography – High Park is a huge place! Did you know there’s a bird sanctuary? What about an outdoor amphitheatre? Have you seen the sculptures surrounding the Forest School? Strap on your boots (or snowshoes!) and take photos of the hidden gems in High Park. If you have a photo you would like featured in our #photooftheweek, send your best shot to naturecentre@highpark.org.

There are many things to do at High Park in winter that will get you outside, discovering this beautiful place. We challenge you to try at least one of these adventures this winter, so embrace the brisk air, learn about nature, and have fun!

Sources

High Park Nature Centre: https://www.highparknaturecentre.com/adult-workshops/

High Park Nature Centre: https://www.highparknaturecentre.com/2017/01/birds-keeping-warm-this-winter/

Toronto: http://www1.toronto.ca/parks/prd/facilities/complex/77/index.htm City of Toronto: http://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonly?vgnextoid=5e5c2271635af310VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD

Tiny but Mighty: The Red-Breasted Nuthatch

By Guest Blogger Laura De Vuono

Photo by Wolfgang Wander

Photo by Wolfgang Wander

      While wandering through the snow-covered wonderland that is High Park during Toronto’s long winter months, you might catch a flash of rusty red darting through the trees, perched on a branch, or zipping up and down a tree trunk. If you look closely, you may see the Red-Breasted Nuthatch, a diminutive songbird with a big personality.

        Red-Breasted Nuthatches are identified by their small size, black and white striped head, and copper-coloured breast plumage. As is the case with many bird species, the males are more brightly coloured than the females, whose breast feathers are a much paler hue than the vibrant rusty orange of the males.

        Although their diet consists largely of insects, these tiny birds are named for their unique way of getting nuts and seeds from their shells: by jamming them into a piece of bark and hammering at them with their long, pointed beaks. Another distinguishing trait is the Nuthatch’s ability to zig-zag down tree trunks headfirst with ease, and even cling to the underside of branches while foraging for food, due to their long hind toes and strong legs. This habit gives the Nuthatch the nickname of the “Upside-Down Bird”.

Photo by Yellowstone National Park

Photo by Yellowstone National Park

        Although the Red-Breasted Nuthatch is small in stature, it more than makes up for its size with its energetic nature and peculiar honking call that sounds almost like a tiny tin horn sounding through the trees. This, as well as their playful zipping and flitting up, down, under, and around tree limbs and trunks makes the Red-Breasted Nuthatch a joy to observe.

        If you find yourself in High Park, keep an eye and ear out for a flash of this stripy-headed, copper-chested noisemaker flitting through the branches—if you are lucky enough to see one, you are guaranteed to be enchanted by the tiny, feisty Red-Breasted Nuthatch.

Text Sources:

Animal Diversity Web: http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Sitta_canadensis/

Audubon: http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/red-breasted-nuthatch

Canadian Wildlife Federation: http://www.hww.ca/en/wildlife/birds/red-breasted-nuthatch.html?referrer=https://www.google.ca/

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-breasted_Nuthatch/id

Photo Sources:

Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Red-breasted-Nuthatch.jpg

Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Red-breasted_nuthatch_(24381518515).jpg 

 

 

Birds: Keeping Warm this Winter

By Guest Blogger Gar Concannon

HairyWoodpecker_AY andrew yee

It’s the time of year when we all need to bundle up with scarves, heavy coats, gloves, and hats in order to keep warm.  Our bodies aren’t well adapted to surviving freezing temperatures without the assistance of extra layers.  We shiver to generate heat, but without our extra layers it would only get us so far.  During these colder days and nights we think of how our flying feathered friends do it.  The ones who decide to stick around and brave the bitter Canadian winters.

High Park in winter is a fantastic place for observing birds.  The exposed trees with their lack of foliage makes sightings a common occurrence.  The milder mornings in January have brought about the audible sounds of early morning bird song.  One could be tricked into thinking that spring is on the way!

Over 140 bird species can be found between December and February in the GTA, with approximately 120 species residing in Toronto alone.  According to eBird.org, 34 species have already been spotted in High Park since January 1st 2017. In other words, High Park is alive with bird activity at this time of year.  Cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, woodpeckers, and robins can be spotted year round and High Park is a great place to spot them in winter.

 So with all these species staying and battling the winter elements, the question we often ask is-how do they stay warm? 

Like humans, birds also shiver to generate heat to stay warm.  In addition to this instinctive heating ability, birds produce 25-30 percent more feathers in winter than they have in the summer.  This happens when they molt in fall, allowing a new set of feathers to grow which are thicker and more numerous, and further insulates the birds.  Some winter birds will also waterproof their outer feather layers with body oils so the inside feathers stay dry.  Birds will also fluff their plumage to provide more airspace between their feathers, just like a puffy winter jacket.

Colder weather birds like the Black-Capped Chickadee have the ability to put their bodies into a state of pseudo-hypothermia called torpor.  The heartbeat of the bird slows and the body temperature drops.  The bird will go into a subconscious state and is able to conserve energy to endure extreme cold temperatures.

Just as humans find warmth in huddling together during cold weather, birds will also stay close together to generate heat from each other’s bodies.  When food is plentiful in the fall, birds will feast during this time to build their fat reserves in order to stay warm.  We as a species tend to eat more in winter too as our bodies need the extra energy to keep warm. 

In their natural surroundings, the deciduous tree branches will offer little warmth during winter but conifers are important for keeping birds dry and out of strong winter winds.  In addition to providing warmth and shelter from the winds, they are also a great food source in the form of seeds from cones. 

On your next winter walk in High Park, try spotting some winter birds like the Blue Jay or Northern Cardinal and think of the magnificent survival instincts the birds are using to keep warm.  Whether fluffing their plumage or huddling together, it’s hard not to be impressed with their battle with adversity during the winter months.

Sources:

City of Toronto: https://www1.toronto.ca/City%20Of%20Toronto/City%20Planning/Environment/Files/pdf/B/Biodiversity_Birds_of_TO_dec9.pdf

Dandy Designs: http://www.dandydesigns.org/id20.html

eBird.org: http://ebird.org/ebird/hotspot/L11?m=1&yr=cur&changeDate=Set

Garden Walk Garden Talk: https://gardenwalkgardentalk.com/2013/02/19/how-do-birds-keep-warm-in-winter/

High Park Nature: http://www.highparknature.org/wiki/wiki.php?n=Birds.FrontPage

The Toronto Star: https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2016/01/02/dont-let-winter-put-the-chill-on-bird-watching-in-toronto.html

Bats: Why there is nothing to fear with our furry friends

By Guest Blogger Gar Concannon

Big Brown Bat

Photo by Ann Froschauer/USFWS

Right about this time of year, we should all be feeling a little bit of the Halloween spirit.  The daylight is fading more and more each day and the cold starting to creep up on us.   The moon of late has been particularly striking, illuminating the streets in a phosphorescent glow that make evening walks quite pleasant and eerie all at once.  When we think of Halloween, we think of witches, ghouls, werewolves (especially with the moon lately), and of course vampires and bats. Stories of bats being tangled in hair and sucking blood are wildly inaccurate; though that’s not to say it hasn’t happened!

I have become quite intrigued by these creatures over the last few years, ever since I had a run in with one in my home back in Ireland.  Bats are a protected species in Ireland and if they nest in your eaves, you just have to leave them be until nesting season is over, which is typically around this time of year.  A furry little bat made its way into my bedroom after the attic was left open during some construction (after my later research with Bat Conservation Ireland, it was thought to be a Common Pipistrelle).  I found the bat hanging upside down on the cord of our blinds.  In my initial panic and terror, I turned on the light and our furry friend started to screech and flap around the room.  After I turned the lights out, it finally went back to the blind cord in the classic bat pose and went back to sleep as if nothing happened.  With gloves on, I managed to gently cup the bat in my hands* and released it back outside into the night air. It was an equally intriguing and terrifying experience.

High Park is a fantastic place to witness bats in their natural habitats. They are usually very difficult to see or hear without bat monitors (more on that later). During the warm summer evenings when insects are aplenty for feasting on, their activity will be more prominent and sightings will be heightened during the duskier parts of the evening into the night. A total of three species were confirmed in High Park this past summer, the big brown, eastern red and hoary bat, as part of the Toronto Urban Bat Project.

During the winter months, the big brown bats of High Park will hibernate close to the park to stay near their summer foraging grounds.  During the winter, these bats reduce their body temperature to around 3ºC to 6ºC in order to minimize energy costs, given the lack of food during this period. They can emerge from hibernation in winter for water or for urination. Conversely, the eastern red is thought to be migratory, though it is unclear where they overwinter in the south.  Hoary bats are also migratory and known to travel thousands of kilometers to South America for the winter.  Migratory bats spend most of their time in open areas such as forests found near lakes and open clearings.  You can identify migratory bats by their longer wings.  The extra wing length provides extra lift during flight.

Although bat activity in High Park is quiet now as the bats are migrating or finding suitable hibernation spaces, you can still take a walk in the park to see their seasonal roosting and foraging grounds.  They can be found roosting in tree hollows, beneath loose bark or in the crevices of rocks.   If you would like to know more about bat life within High Park, consider borrowing a bat monitor from the High Park Nature Centre! By borrowing a bat monitor and gathering data in your neighborhood, you’ll be contributing to the scientific discovery of bat activity in your community.

So, to face my fears head-on I too will be heading to High Park to be close to these creatures in their natural habitat.  I encourage you to do the same – dispel the myths about these wonderful creatures and head over to High Park to borrow a monitor. You might not see or hear any bats at this time of year but I can’t rule out the witches or werewolves!  Have a happy and safe Halloween.

*It is worth noting that in the unlikely event you are within reach of a bat, the handling of bats is not advised in Ontario or anywhere in Canada due to a rabies threat.  Please call your local wildlife shelter for professional guidance if you find bats in your home.  Rabies is a serious disease and although not present in Ireland and not present in every bat in Canada, it is always best to exercise caution when in doubt.

Click here to learn about the Nature Centre’s bat monitor lending library: https://www.highparknaturecentre.com/bat-monitor-lending-library/

Sources:

http://batwatch.ca/content/bat-species-central-canada

https://www.highparknaturecentre.com/urban-bat-project/

https://www.highparknaturecentre.com/urban-bat-project/high-park-urban-bat-project-long-term-monitoring-2014-2015-report/

Seeing is Bee-lieving

By Guest Blogger Gar Concannon

High Park Nature Centre Audio Bee Booth. Photo by Diana Teal.

The long-term prognosis of bee populations has been a hot topic of discussion lately within the environmental community. Half of the bumblebee species in eastern North America are in decline. This trend holds true in southern Ontario, where seven of the 14 bumblebee species found in surveys from 1971 – 1973 were found to be either absent or in decline when surveyed 30 years later. In 2012 a recovery program for the previously common rusty patch bumblebee was introduced in Ontario. Locating populations of this increasingly rare species is a priority for its recovery, as well as hands-on intervention and conservation management. The Honeybee is mainly declining due to diseases and mites, such as the Varroa mite.

Bees are vital to our survival due to their intensive work as pollinators. The good news is that there is much work being done to ensure the bee population is maintained. Toronto has one of the most diverse pollinator populations in Canada, and High Park is helping visitors learn more about these fascinating creatures by creating nesting grounds for wild, solitary bees and wasps.

If you happen to be walking past the High Park Nature Centre’s outdoor classroom, you may have noticed the audio bee booth. On a recent trip, I stumbled upon it and was keen to learn more about it. The beautifully designed wooden cabinet that houses the bees and wasps is an alluring feature and a welcome addition to the park.

The bee booth was designed by Sarah Peebles with assistance by Mary-Ann Alberga for pyrography, Rob Cruickshank for the electronics, and John Kuisma who provided his woodwork skills. The bee booth is part of ‘Resonating Bodies’ which is directed by Sarah Peebles and is a series of integrated media installations, community outreach projects and educational initiatives which focus on biodiversity of pollinators indigenous to the natural and urban ecosystems of Canada.

So what exactly is a bee booth?

According to Sarah Peebles, the audio bee booth is an “observable nesting ground for wild, solitary bees and wasps”. It is broken up into individual apartments for the many species of solitary bees and wasps native to Ontario. It’s a chance for us to study bees up close and to listen to them while they work. You can watch and listen to the solitary bees and wasps nesting inside the cabinet via the side doors. When utilizing the Bee Booth, try to be still as solitaries are shy. They don’t sting and are not aggressive, though they are curious creatures. One thing to note is that it is not a beehive. It has no honey bees, honey, colonies, beeswax or honeycombs inside it.

Sarah explained further that “the bees and wasps that inhabit the booth are nesting solitaries who are single mothers and make their nests usually in old beetle bores of dead wood or in pithy stem such as raspberry bramble. The audio bee booth mimics their environments like a dead or dying tree to naturally attract local bees and wasps. It allows us to spy on their nesting activities and view their relationship with the surrounding garden and habitat. The bee booth allows you entry to a world that is normally inaccessible”.

 So you have found the audio bee booth and you want to know, ‘how do I use it?’

You need to bring your own headphones. Connect your headphones to the jack, then press “start” and adjust the volume for comfortable listening. Open one of the side doors and listen while observing up close using a magnifying lens or reading glasses. There is a magnifying glass provided within the booth. When using the bee booth, you need to ensure that you are not exposing the bees to direct sunlight, as they need darkness to grow. If it’s particularly sunny, it would be a good idea to bring an umbrella with you to shade the inhabitants while the doors are open. Please remember to close and latch the doors snugly when finished.  It is worth remembering that you may not hear much activity and this all depends on the species that are present and their activity. Sounds can be subtle which makes for a great interactive experience and one that changes each time you listen.

 How do you find it?

The location is in the High Park Nature Centre’s outdoor classroom, found behind the historic Forest School building near the Bloor Street entrance of High Park. The bee booth is free to use and is open 24/7. 

Sources:

www.beecitycanada.org

www.bumblebeeconservation.org

www.ontarionature.org 

Sarah Peebles: https://resonatingbodies.wordpress.com 

Link: Audio Bee Booths, Cabinets, Habitat Sculptures

Late Nesters

By Guest Blogger Sophie Zheng

late nester

As the flurry of back-to-school commercials have no doubt advertised, school moves ever closer in the coming days. As many know, with the beginning of school comes the beginning of autumn. Despite this, if one were to walk through High Park on a sunny day, it is almost easy to forget that fall approaches.

With every step, the late nesters of the year make their appearances. The wide variety of animals that nest in summer have caused the park to be filled with baby squirrels and birds this time of year. Whether it’s American Goldfinches, red squirrels, or even mosquitoes, they can all be found long after the last green leaf is gone.

While many consider mosquitoes to be pests, and thus will not appreciate the news that they will likely continue breeding in the coming weeks, they are a vital part of the ecosystem in High Park. Thus, the fact that temperatures will likely remain above 16 degrees Celsius until the end of September means more food for the mosquito’s various predators. Don’t be surprised if there appear to be more birds in flight than usual – they are one of the mosquito’s primary predators.

Mosquitoes aren’t the only ones who will be found long into September this year. Although their fur may sometimes appear more grey than red, red squirrels are always distinguishable by the colour of their tails; a unique ginger that ensures any passersby will be able to tell them apart from their grey and black cousins. Females typically produce two litters of one to seven kittens annually, with one born in spring, and the other in late summer or early fall. Taking a walk through the park, and paying special attention to the coniferous trees, might allow one to catch a glimpse of a tiny flicker of red among the branches.

Their relative, the Eastern Grey Squirrel, typically produce young anytime from June to August. Eastern Grey Squirrels are found close to deciduous trees, and so are much more likely to be seen in High Park. Since the later litter is born well into August and it takes the baby squirrels over two months to wean, you can observe young squirrels venturing out of the nest during the last vestiges of summer, and just in time for autumn.

Among the late nesters, American Goldfinches perhaps top the list. As their young feed on seeds, rather than the typical insect-based fare of other birds, these finches can afford to lay eggs in late summer. This means that, even in September, the brilliant yellow-black colours of the American Goldfinch will grace the skies.

These three species are not the only ones who nest late in the year. There are countless others, both mammalian and aviary. Spring may be known for the new life it brings, but that doesn’t mean that summer and autumn don’t also carry this gift. Though less acknowledged, if one were to walk through High Park on a sunny day, one might notice that a colour change is not the only new things the trees have to offer.

Sources:

http://www.ofnc.ca/birding/bbanestdates.html

http://www.birdsandblooms.com/birding/attracting-birds/bird-nesting/bird-nesting-101-guide-late-nesters/

http://www.furmanagers.com/#!red-squirrel/c1z7q

http://toronto.wbu.com/content/show/115317

http://eol.org/pages/347685/details

https://www.megacatch.com/mosquito-faqs/mosquito-facts/

https://www.theweathernetwork.com/ca/monthly/ontario/Toronto

http://www.orkin.com/other/mosquitoes/mosquito-predators/

[for image]: http://www.germmagazine.com/the-nest/ (photographer unknown)

Bat Research Update – Summer 2016

The bat researchers from the University of Toronto are back! Dr. Krista Patriquin and PhD student Cylita Guy are chasing the bats of High Park for a second summer – this time accompanied by three research assistants (Clara McNamee, Joshua Hinds, and Emilia Comsa) and two volunteers (Madeline Peters and Emily Beaton). This bat team studies the big brown bat, one of several bat species found in High Park. The goal of their research is to understand how bats use space in cities. Krista, Cylita, and the rest of the team want to know where bats feed at night, where they sleep (or roost) during the day, and if large city parks (like High Park) are good habitat for bats.

To figure out the answers to these questions the team have to catch bats! To catch bats Krista, Cylita and the rest of the team set up special nets (called mist nets) in areas where bats are feeding at night. They collect information on the size and health of each bat they capture. They also attach small radio-tags that emit a unique frequency (just like a radio station) to the backs of some individuals. Using a large antenna they follow (or track) these individuals at night to find out where they are feeding and during the day to find out where they are roosting. In addition, the team also set up special traps to sample insects in the park to help them understand what is available for bats to eat. Together, this information will help the team to understand how big brown bats are using space in urban landscapes.  

The bat researchers have been out almost every single night since the beginning of June. You may have encountered them setting up their mist nets, stringing an insect trap, or getting their antenna ready to radio-track. So far they’ve caught lots of big brown bats (over 100!) in addition to several eastern red bats and hoary bats, two other species that live in High Park. Their work is far from over though. The entire bat team will be in the park until the end of August. After that, Krista and Cylita will continue to sample throughout the fall, as the bats prepare for their winter hibernation.

Krista and Cylita are thrilled with the way the project has progressed and are looking forward to catching lots more bats this summer. So, if you’re taking a stroll through High Park and notice people setting up nets around dusk, don’t be afraid to stop by and say hello! Krista, Cylita, and the rest of the bat catching team love to answer questions about their project. And of course – if you think you have bats living somewhere on your property, don’t hesitate to contact the team. They might like to study your bats! 

Big Brown Bat Biting Glove The bat team studies the big brown bat, one of the most common species in High Park.


Eastern Red Bat_2 High Park is home to several other species of bats, including the eastern red bat (above) and hoary bat (not shown). The team have caught both of these species this summer.


Eastern Red in Net_3 To catch bats, researchers use special nets known as mist nets (top). When bats get caught, like this eastern red bat (bottom), Krista and Cylita have to untangle them.


Polyphemus Moth_1 Bats aren’t the only things that come out at night! The bat researchers also encounter other nocturnal wildlife including raccoons (top) and moths like the polyphemus moth (bottom).


Eastern Whipoorwil in Hand_3 Sometimes Krista, Cylita and the bat team also catch other nocturnal animals in their mist nets – like this Eastern whip-poor-will!


Josh Admiring Insect Trap

Here is one of the traps the team sets up to sample insects in High Park (research assistant Josh is admiring his handiwork). These traps are known as impaction traps.


Radio Tower at Dusk_1 The bat researchers put radio-tags on some of the bats they capture (top). They then use a large antenna (bottom) to listen for the signals these tags emit to figure out where bats feed at night and sleep during the day.


The team collects a lot of different information from the individuals they capture including a small skin sample from the wing of each bat (don’t worry they can still fly fine and the holes heal quickly). These skin samples will be used to figure out who is related to who in this population.


Big Brown Juvinille Finger Gap Close_2 At the beginning of June the team managed to catch quite a few pregnant bats (top). At this point in the year though most babies have been born. The team IDs these juvenile bats by looking for a small gap in between their finger bones (bottom). This gap means these baby bats aren’t quite done growing yet!