Could you spot a Smooth Greensnake? Profiling some of the city's lesser-known critters.
Torontonians encounter wildlife every day. Pigeons and gulls, chipmunks and squirrels, skunks and raccoons, deer and now even coyotes are common sights for downtowners and suburbanites alike. But the city is home to hundreds more creatures—ones you may have spotted but can’t name, ones you’ve heard of but didn’t know were here, and many you probably don’t even realize exist.
“[The GTA’s] rich river valleys provide corridors linking wildlife habitats and recent habitat restoration programmes, especially wetland creation projects, have made the city a wonderful wildlife refuge,” says Bob Johnson, curator of amphibians and reptiles at the Toronto Zoo.
The Rouge Park, the Leslie Street Spit, and the Don Valley are excellent lookouts for wildlife, as are the smaller wooded areas, parks, and ponds scattered throughout Toronto. You might even catch a glimpse of some rather fancy fauna perched on skyscraper ledges and alongside the highway. Here, for use in just such an occasion, is a guide to some of this city’s least known, most surprising wildlife.
Description: Shiny and bright green, with a yellow- or cream-coloured belly, the Smooth Greensnake can be between 30.5 and 51 centimetres long. It is, according to Johnson, “perhaps one of most beautiful bright-grassy-green snakes in all of Canada.”
Where to find them: Smooth Greensnakes can be found in forest clearings, meadows, the edges of wetlands—places with lots of grass and other greenery, where they can blend into their surroundings and feed on soft-bodied invertebrates. They like cover, so watch out for them under rocks or logs. In the winter months, these guys hibernate underground in large groups with other species of snake.
Description: The GTA is home to Atlantic and Pacific (particularly Chinook) salmon. The Atlantic grows to be 71 to 76 centimetres long and weighs between 3.6 and 5.4 kilograms. It has a light underbelly, and a silvery head and back covered in dark cross-shaped speckles. The young Atlantic Salmon also has dark vertical stripes and red spots on its back. The Chinook can grow to over a metre long. The record weight for a Lake Ontario Chinook Salmon is over 21 kilograms.
Where to find them: Yeah, yeah, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—but also Lake Ontario and its tributary rivers. Salmon are hatched in freshwater, travel back to the ocean at two to three years old, and then return to lakes and rivers to spawn. There’s a serious push to grow and protect the salmon population in the GTA, after years of habitat destruction essentially drove them from the region. Today salmon can be seen swimming up the Don, the Credit, and the Humber to spawn.
Description: The Double-Crested Cormorants is jet-black, with a sharp yellow-orange beak and long, S-shaped neck. At about 90 centimetres long, it’s a bit like a bigger, sleeker duck.
Where to find them: Cormorants were almost wiped out in the Great Lakes region in the 20th century, thanks to the prevalence of toxins like DDT in their habitats. But they’re back in huge numbers in the Great Lakes Region now. ’Round these parts, the go-to destination for cormorant-watching is Tommy Thompson Park on the Leslie Street Spit. There were 11,990 nesting pairs of Double-Cresteds at the park in 2013. They can usually be found perched in trees by the water, and have nesting colonies on Tommy Thompson’s peninsulas. Cormorants are beautiful birds, but not the most popular. They are known to strip the tree branches where they perch, and their excrement is so potent it upsets the chemical balance of the soil beneath them, rendering it barren.
Northern Saw-Whet Owls
Description: Possibly the cuddliest creature on this list, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl is, at most, about 20 centimetres tall, and weighs just 70 to 100 grams. It has a dusty-brown head streaked with lighter feathers, a broad, light-coloured face with big yellow eyes, brown wings with white spots, and a streaky, almost striped brown-and-white belly.
Where to find them: Although the arrival of Snowy Owls in Toronto has been getting all the press lately, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl has long been a beloved and much-studied inhabitant of the city. Saw-Whets are being sighted everywhere from the trees of Tommy Thompson Park to built-up areas such as Yonge and Eglinton. And if you do happen upon one of these tiny owls, you just may be able to get right up close. Their natural defence mechanism is to freeze in place and try not to get noticed, which has resulted in some impressive birdwatcher vs. bird stare-offs.
Description: A fully grown Red-tailed Hawk can be between 45 to 63 centimetres tall, with a wingspan over a metre long. The stately bird’s back is either brown or grey, while its belly is cream-coloured, with a dark, speckly band across it. And, of course, its tail feathers are reddish or “cinnamon” (that’s red-brown in ornithologist-speak).
Where to find them: These birds of prey can be found all across North America. You’ll often see them circling high above big open spaces in Toronto—look up (carefully!) the next time you’re driving down the Don Valley Parkway. But you can also catch Red-tailed Hawks nesting in surprisingly urban places around the city—like a Seneca College residence building or a residential street in Little Italy.
Description: The Wood Frog will be one of a variety of earthtones—its belly is white, sometimes with dark speckles, and it has dark raccoonish marks under its eyes.
Where to find them: Wood Frogs are big fans of damp woodlands and wetlands. They can often be found hiding in or under logs or rocks. In winter, they’ll hunker down in fallen leaves while 60 to 70 per cent of the water in their bodies freezes, making them “hard as a hockey puck,” Johnson says.
Midland Painted Turtle
Description: You’ve seen one if you’ve ever been to a wetland in or near the city. The Midland Painted Turtle has a dark upper shell with red or orange marks, tan under-shells, and red and yellow marks on its neck and head. It can grow to be between 12 and 14 centimetres long.
Where to find them: These shellbound fellas can be found sunning themselves on logs and rocks in just about any waterway in the city—from the twists and turns of the Don River to the sedate pools at Riverdale Farm. And watch out for them if you’re driving alongside wetlands. Midland Painted Turtles often crawl up onto highway shoulders to build their nests, and car traffic has become a serious threat to pregnant females.
Eastern Red-backed Salamander
Description: The Eastern Red-backed Salamander does not necessarily have red on its back. Its dark-grey or black body carries a stripe of yellow, pink, brown-orange, grey, or, yes, red on the back. Its belly is covered in light mottling. The Red-backed doesn’t have lungs: it absorbs oxygen and water through its skin.
Where to find it: These guys like cool, damp spots in wooded areas, with plenty of logs, leaves, and other detritus lying about. Red-backs like to stay cool—on hot summer days, they’re likely to head underground to stay out of the heat.
This post originally did not mention the Pacific salmon, which it does mention now. We regret the error.
This post originally stated that Pacific salmon are endangered in the region, when in fact they are not. We regret the error.