Sunday, June 21, 2020

Downtown Toronto to Long Branch

Some days on the trail are very quiet, whereas others have so much packed into them it is almost overwhelming. We didn't cover much distance today, but it feels like so many things happened that it could fill a book.

When we left Ajax and headed to the GO train at 7:30 am it was already oppressively hot. Almost right away we were waylaid by the loud, vigorous, and incredibly complex song of a Northern Mockingbird. It was sitting on a utility pole in the middle of the GO train parking lot, as if to illustrate the point that interesting birds really can be found everywhere!

We had all our stuff with us, and pulling the cart through the GO station made us appreciate how important accessible transit is. The Ajax GO station and Union Station both have ramps and elevators that seem to work well, and it was interesting to navigate these familiar places from a different perspective.


We stopped for a quick breakfast at Starbucks in Union Station, enjoying the novelty of being able to purchase egg and spinach wraps instead of cooking oatmeal. We felt spoiled. There were only about six other people in the station with us, which is unusually empty, even for a Sunday morning.


As we headed out down the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail we passed the Toronto Music Garden. This beautiful garden was designed by the world renown cellist Yo Yo Ma and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy to reflect the movements of Bach's Suite No. 1 in G Major for unaccompanied cello, BWV 1007. The garden was in full bloom, and featured a music pavilion and maypole, as well as an undulating river scape with curves and bends, a forest grove of wandering trails, a swirling path through a wildflower meadow, a conifer grove in the shape of an arc, and more. Each distinct section mirrored a movement in the piece of music.


We walked through an area of fashionable, well-landscaped, high density condos and townhouses, and then into Little Norway Park, another shady, green oasis. The name of the park commemorates the exiled Royal Norwegian Air Force training base that occupied the site during WWII. There was a carved wooden totem pole in the park as well, which was created by a group of Toronto-born artists living in Vancouver, from a 700 year old piece of red cedar. It was placed in the park in 1981, and served as a beautiful reminder that today is Indigenous Peoples Day.

As we continued down the harbourfront, we realized that the westbound lanes of Lakeshore Boulevard had been closed off to vehicles and opened for cyclists. This turned out to be a huge treat for us, because not only were we spared the noise and fumes that we would have experienced walking along a busy road, but the hundreds of cyclists that were out weren't confined to the two-lane trail. The closure of some of the major roads in Toronto is part of the Active TO initiative, which aims to encourage people to get outside while providing them with enough space to physically distance. What a great idea!

As we continued past the BMO Stadium, which is home to the Toronto FC Soccer club and Ontario Place we were amazed by the shear number of people out cycling and jogging in the heat. One small girl, who looked like she might have been about 7 or 8 years old, stuck in our minds, because she was jogging like an athlete. She was way out ahead of the rest of her family, and had the determination, focus, and stamina to suggest she might one day appear in the Olympics.


We slowly progressed past the prestigious Boulevard Club, which offers its wealthy members access to tennis, badminton, yachting, wine clubs and more. It was located right on the waterfront, and we picked up a pathway right along the water just east it. We could feel a slightly cool breeze coming off the water which felt divine.

As we walked along a stretch of boardwalk between a shady park on one side and a sandy beach on the other, we passed a group of young military officers out training with large packs of their own. They smiled and waved as they passed us, and one young man called 'Nice packs!'

It was a scorching morning, but Toronto's harbourfront was alive. People were out sunbathing on the small strips of beach along the shore, and families were out playing in the sand. Almost every shade tree had someone under it reading, snoozing, picnicking, or simply enjoying the morning. Sailboats, jet skis, and powerboats dotted the huge blue expanse of Lake Ontario. Hundreds of cyclists and joggers flowed past in a steady and coordinated stream.

As we looked back at the skyline of downtown Toronto, still dominated by the famous CN Tower, we came to a Great Trail Pavilion. It was situated at the end of a small park, and was a familiar reminder of the pavilions we've been seeing across the country.


As we approached the futuristic cluster of tall, twisted, glass condo towers near the Humber Bay Shores we decided it was time for a break. Sean ducked into the BB Cafe and emerged a few minutes later with fresh fruit juice and two bird nest shaped baklavas. They were delicious!


Around noon we reached Humber Bay Park. This is a beautiful greenspace in Toronto's west end that juts out into the lake and offers several kilometers of hiking and biking trails, a beach, an off-leash dog park, and some fantastic birding. There are a variety of different habitats in the park, which increases the diversify of birds, and it is a great place to see waterfowl in the winter.

At the entrance to the park we passed a beautiful butterfly garden. It had informational signage about butterflies, several sculptures of birds, and many pollinator plants intended to support butterflies. Inside each of the bird sculptures was a House Finch nest!


During our short walk around Humber Bay Park West we spotted the bright red flash of several Northern Cardinals in the tall shrubs, as well as Gray Catbirds, American Robins, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a Baltimore Oriole, and several Yellow Warblers. In the marshy areas we spotted Mallards, Canada Geese, many Red-winged Blackbirds, a Blue Jay, and small flocks of American Goldfinches. Common Grackles, European Starlings, Rock Doves, Mourning Doves, and a Brown-headed Cowbird were in the grassy and scrubby areas. Double-crested Cormorants swam in the lake, and Ring-billed Gulls soared overhead. The air was also full of Tree Swallows. A particular highlight was spotting a small flock of Red-necked Grebes in the sheltered coves around the park.


As we emerged from the park we randomly met up with Siobhan, who had heard our presentation for the Bruce Trail Conservancy, and has been following our hike. She just happened to be out for a cycle, and very kindly offered us water and directions to the Birds and Beans Cafe, where we were hoping to purchase a cold drink. It was a wonderful chance meeting, and so nice to hear her friendly voice.


After our stint of birding in Humber Bay Park we were ready for another break, and decided to check out the Birds and Beans Cafe near Mimico. This turned out to be a great little place. The outside of the building was decorated with 3D art featuring birds, and the cafe sold bird-friendly coffee and all kinds of homemade treats. One of the ways to help birds is to buy bird-friendly products like shade grown, fair trade, organic coffee. Not only is it good for birds, it is delicious too.

While we were enjoying our treats in the shade of a tree, we met up with Marna and her husband. They had been trying to meet up with us earlier, and had made a very generous offer of help. It was wonderful to have a chance to chat with them, and we really appreciated the effort they made in coming down to find us.

As we left Mimico, the trail alternated between weaving through quiet, residential neighborhoods and small parks along the water. The bike trail was still very busy, as were all the beaches, so we felt like we were part of something larger than ourselves. As the afternoon progressed and the heat and humidity continued to rise, our pace slowed down and we sought out shade trees more frequently.  Along the route we were impressed by the art along the bike barriers. 

When we reached Colonel Samuel Smith Park we were in for a huge treat! We were met by Kelly-Sue, who is an active member of the Toronto birding scene, a singer, songwriter, and author of the upcoming children's book 'Banana Bird.' She volunteers at the park and shared tons of local knowledge about the impressive habitat restoration projects in the park and the birds making use of them.

Peter accompanied us on our personalized tour of the park, which began with a visit to a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher's nest. The adults were feeding babies in a super-cute cup nest made of lichen. This was our first view of a gnatcatcher's nest and it was very exciting!


Next on the tour was a Cooper's hawk nest. An adult was perched beside the nest, deep inside the canopy of a dense maple, and you could just see the fluffy white heads of the nestlings sticking up above the nest rim. There was a surprising amount of white-wash on the surrounding branches.

During our visit to the park we also got to visit the swallow field, which was a natural meadow with a huge number of swallow boxes installed. Apparently many different types of Swallows have been spotted here, and we had some great views of Tree Swallows in action.


Sam Smith Park is also known as a spot to observe migrating shorebirds during the month of May, especially Whimbrels. We walked out to Whimbrel Point, and although this isn't a good time of year to see those beautiful birds in this area, we did get a great view of Toronto. We also got to watch some kite surfers in action.

Another highlight in the park was seeing the Grebe nesting platforms that had been installed. These platforms had wire hoops around the edges to discourage gulls and other predators, and this strategy must work because there were baby Red-necked Grebes! As we watched, an adult brought a fish to feed the hungry young, dropping but off in a fast and smooth transfer!

We saw around 20 bird species while in the park, but one last highlight was getting a really good view of a female Belted Kingfisher. She was sitting on an exposed branch, her wings splayed open to dry and her beak open to help cool off. Unusually, she sat still for quite some time, allowing her photo to be taken.


While in the park we met quite a few other birders as well. It was a wonderful afternoon of great company, shared stories, and good advice. We were very grateful for the tour, and for everyone who came out to meet us.

After saying goodbye and continuing our trek west we again wove through neighborhoods and parks along the lakeshore. It was a pleasant walk, but we realized pretty quickly that it was simply too hot to continue. When we got to Long Branch we got on a GO train and headed for our temporary 'home' near Clarkson. We will begin walking again tomorrow where we left off today, and we plan to slack-pack, since it is supposed to be a whopping 38°C tomorrow.


As we got to the motel we had one final surprise to end the day. A family of American Kestrels was hanging out in a small tree in a field beside the highway. Our day began and ended with beautiful birds in unexpected urban locations. Nature really is everywhere, all you have to do is look!

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