Winter Diet for the Animals of High Park

By Guest Blogger Gar Concannon

Red Fox

Photo by Peggy Cadigan

The recent snow melt and increase in temperatures of late have transformed High Park into an early spring landscape for all to enjoy.  As you are walking through the park exploring the paths and trails, it’s hard to imagine that animals have stayed in High Park all winter long, surviving through the cold temperatures and snowy conditions. Keep an eye out for signs of winter wildlife on your next journey through High Park.  

We know there are plenty of animals that stick around and call High Park their home during the winter, but what are they eating to survive the cold temperatures?  One of my personal favourite sounds on spring walks in High Park is the chirp of chipmunks as they forage for seeds left over from the previous summer months – a sound that may be heard sooner than anticipated!

I often wondered what happens to these little mammals during the bitter winter months and what are they eating to survive?

The Eastern Chipmunk hibernates during the winter months, but does not build up layers of fat. In the summer months, chipmunks will begin to collect and store large quantities of seeds. By October, each chipmunk has accumulated enough seeds to enable it to survive the winter months.  With the onset of winter in November, chipmunks will then disappear into their subterranean burrow.  Chipmunks are important in the dispersal of seeds because of their habit of storing them underground. Any seeds that are not consumed stand a better chance of germinating than those remaining on the soil surface. In this way, chipmunks assist in the spread of shrubs, trees, and other plants.  

They have been known to pop up from hibernation on milder days during March, occasionally burrowing through a meter of snow to do so.

Another animal that always fascinated me was the fox.  In Ireland where I grew up, these shy creatures were plentiful and would often be spotted at dawn when there was less chance of bumping into a human!  These animals are beautiful to observe in their natural habitats if you ever get a chance to do so.  High Park is no stranger to Red Fox activity and winter is a great time to see them with the sparse landscape making sightings more common.  The fox is well acclimatized to dealing with cold winter months.  The fox will wrap its long bushy tail around itself to keep their face and feet warm.

During winter, food is not as plentiful for foxes. They primarily eat meat during the winter months such as meadow voles, mice and squirrels.  When High Park is covered in snow, foxes rely on their senses to hunt for food.  A fox’s hearing is one of its strongest senses when it comes to winter food.  It is said that a fox can hear a watch ticking from 120 feet away!  This incredible advantage is important in tough winter landscapes.  

Foxes can locate rodents and other small animals underground by sound.  This is important when there can be up to a meter of snow between the fox and its prey.  If a fox’s hearing allows it to locate a small animal below ground, the fox stalks it and pounces from as far as 16 feet away, using its tail to steer while in mid-air.  The agility and speed (a fox can run up to nearly 50km per hour!) are significant advantages to surviving winter in High Park.  Keep an eye out for fox tracks in the snow in winter.  To distinguish a fox track from a dogs you can study the pattern.  Dog track marks will be random, whereas a fox track tends to have more purpose and direction as they hunt.

Although High Park might appear to be empty at this time of year, the park is in fact teeming with wildlife and activity.  As humans brave the winter elements, so too do our animal friends. They just have to work a little bit harder than us for their meals!

If you’re looking for a family adventure this winter, why not take advantage of one of the many guided Family Nature Walks in High Park. For more information on specific dates, please follow this link:



Coniferous Tree ID: Scots Pine

By Guest Blogger Laura De Vuono

Bruce Martin

Scots Pine by Bruce Martin

Unlike deciduous trees whose defining characteristics make them easier to identify, many coniferous trees can look very similar. If you take a closer look at their bark, needles, and seeds, however, it’s clear that every pine, fir, and cedar has a personality and history of its own; you just need to get to know them. One such conifer is the Scots Pine.

The mature Scots Pine, also known as the Scots Fir or Scotch Pine, can be identified by its long, narrow, often twisted trunk that is usually bare of needles until its broad, flat or rounded crown. Young Scots Pines have the more typical pyramidal pine shape. Its bark near the crown is a distinctive flaky orange-brown, and it can be differentiated from other pine species by its two needle bundles. The needles of the Scots Pine are rigid and often twisted together, unlike other Pines with straight or more flexible needles.

Franz Eugen Köhler

Illustration of Scots Pine by Franz Eugen Köhler

Although abundant in High Park and other parts of Toronto and Ontario, the Scots Pine (if you haven’t already guessed by its name) is not native to Canada; it is a Northern European tree, and the national tree of Scotland. It is the most widely distributed pine species in the world, and because of this, it varies widely in shape and appearance. The Scots Pine is used and loved by many creatures of High Park, such as the Eastern Grey Squirrel as well as many species of birds. Scots Pine seeds are a favourite snack of the elusive Red Squirrel; if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of one of these little rodents sitting amongst the needles or searching for pinecones along the branches of a High Park Scots Pine.

Because of its incredible resiliency since its introduction to Canada, this mighty Pine has begun to flourish in places where native trees cannot, and has even been known to dominate some sensitive ecosystems, pushing native species out. Because of its invasive nature, some efforts have been taken to control the growth of this beautiful conifer in some parts of the province. But worry not, the Scots Pine will not be eradicated any time soon—this hardy pine will not give up that easily!

Next time you’re in High Park, see if you can identify the spirited Scots Pine amongst the other conifers—look out for twisted needles in bunches of two, orange-brown bark, and a long, narrow trunk with a wide, parasol-shaped crown.


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:

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:

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

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!


High Park Nature Centre:

High Park Nature Centre:

Toronto: City of Toronto:

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:


Canadian Wildlife Federation:

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

Photo Sources:

Wikimedia Commons:

Wikimedia Commons: 



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, 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.


City of Toronto:

Dandy Designs:

Garden Walk Garden Talk:

High Park Nature:

The Toronto Star:

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:


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. 


Sarah Peebles: 

Link: Audio Bee Booths, Cabinets, Habitat Sculptures