We spend a day hanging out with a niche community of birders at Tommy Thompson Park.
It’s a Saturday morning in late April, which means Paul Prior is in Tommy Thompson Park with a pair of binoculars and a packed lunch ready to witness the spectacle of early bird migration.
Every spring, millions of birds congregate in Toronto to take break on their harrowing journey north. Some of them have crossed over Lake Ontario, en route from as far away as Argentina, while others come from places as close as Pennsylvania. Here, they will rest and refuel before many of them head to the boreal forest to nest and eventually make their return trip in the fall.
I met up with Prior, a field biologist with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and a birding hobbyist, at the entrance of Tommy Thompson Park around 10:30 a.m.—late by birder standards. Prior is part of a niche community of birders that takes the sport of spotting and identifying birds very seriously all year round. But as birds flock to urban green spaces this time of year, droves of people come out to watch. Hours before I arrived at the park, a group of 77 birders had already set out along the five-kilometre peninsula that juts into Lake Ontario to glimpse migrating birds during their layover.
Shortly into our walk, Prior gets a text from a fellow birder who rightly assumes he’s in the park. “There’s an interesting sounding bird nearby,” she writes. “Do you hear that?” Prior concentrates for a moment, and sure enough he detects a chunky “chu chu chuchuchu” call coming from a marshy area near us. “The northern waterthrush,” he declares, delighted. “That’s the first one I’ve heard this year.” We survey the area, peering through the bare trees with our binoculars. There’s no sign of the waterthrush, other than his song, but we do spot a lively little yellow-rumped warbler in the distance. “Let’s bring him in closer,” says Prior, who starts chirping and whistling, mimicking various bird calls. To my amazement, the warbler instantly follows the call, flitting over to explore the commotion.
Tommy Thompson Park—where TRCA operates a bird research centre dedicated to monitoring migration—is Prior’s birding locale of choice. BirdLife International declared the park a Globally Significant Important Bird Area because of the number and variety of species that nest there or pass through during spring and fall migration. To date, 319 bird species have been recorded in the park, at least 69 of which breed there.
Tommy Thompson is just one of several Toronto bird hot spots, many of them along the water, that attracts an array of uncommon and familiar birds this time of year. While these areas offer refuge and resources to birds, the city can also be hazardous to those that either pass through or call Toronto home.
The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has identified 21 bird species in the GTA that are endangered or at-risk of becoming endangered. The chimney swift is one threatened species whose population has declined by 90 per cent in the last 50 years. “This is a bird that lacks the ability to perch like almost all other birds in the world,” explains Karen McDonald, a manager with the TRCA. “It can only cling to vertical faces.” Originally the bird clung to the insides of hollowed out trees, but as we cleared away forests, the bird discovered that chimneys could function as a substitute habitat. “They were able to use them for roosting and breeding for decades,” says McDonald. But as homeowners began closing off their chimneys or converting them to stainless steel (which chimney swifts can’t cling to), the bird started rapidly disappearing from urban areas, including Toronto. “Combine that habitat loss with the increase in use of pesticides and climate change,” McDonald adds, “and you have a recipe for disaster.”
Indeed, climate change, and unseasonable weather patterns in particular, can severely interfere with food availability for birds. “Many of these birds are following their food source,” McDonald points out. Right now, for example, seed eaters are arriving in Toronto to take advantage of the pollen and seeds from the buds opening up. Soon, insect eaters will arrive as bugs that have aquatic life cycle stages pupate into adults and start flying. “They’re waiting to time their migration with lots of insect availability,” says McDonald. “But when we get an early, warm spring, like last year, by the time the swallows and other flycatchers arrive in May, the hatch is over.
A greater immediate threat to birds than climate change, however, are glass-windowed tower buildings that pervade the urban landscape. Window strikes account for close to a million birds deaths in the city each year. Another major threat is domestic animals, primarily cats. The good news is that many of those fatalities can be avoided. Keeping cats indoors and dogs on leash is an easy one. Preventing window strikes requires more political will to enforce building owners install visual markers for birds like sunshades and UV glass.
Meanwhile, the TRCA remains a champion for both breeding and migratory birds. Research at Tommy Thompson Park and other monitoring efforts, like the work Prior does on breeding birds, create a picture of the short and long-term trends around species’ habitats and populations, which in turn can inform smart policy and development. But their work is also about inspiring a sense of compassion with these creatures we share our urban space with. “The TRCA’s mission statement has to do with the living city—where nature and humans can live in concert so that both are able to thrive,” says Prior. It’s a laudable goal, and one Prior admits is hard to fully achieve. “But through the living city vision, we can make sure we have as little impact as possible on those natural denizens.”
The TRCA is hosting its annual Spring Bird Festival on Saturday, May 13. People of all ages and birding abilities are invited to come out and learn about the phenomenon of migration and the importance of conservation. Learn more here.