Today at Kingsford

Virginia Creeper

I had plans to post about fungi today. Not going to happen, but hopefully tomorrow. My sister was up to visit this weekend, which was really nice, I haven’t seen her in a couple months, since well before we moved out here. She left early afternoon, and I spent the rest of the afternoon watching one of the football games. When the game ended, Blackburnian suggested we boat over to the park to take Raven for a hike, so we bundled everyone up and headed out.

The outing didn’t go quite as planned; I was supposed to take the trail around and meet up with Blackburnian further down along the shore, but I hadn’t paid close attention to the map before we left, and the trail didn’t do what I was expecting it to. Since I didn’t know how far I’d have to go or how long it would take me to finally get over to the trail I was meeting Blackburnian on, and I didn’t want to get lost, I decided best would be to turn around and head back to the shore where we’d been dropped off. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to communicate this to Blackburnian, so he was waiting for us at the rendezvous point, and when we didn’t show, started hiking up and down the trail there assuming we got lost (hopefully, as that was best-case scenario). Eventually he did return to the boat and found Raven and I sitting out on the rocks, so it all worked out, but it was dark by the time we returned home. As Blackburnian said when he finally found us, that won’t happen again.

In addition to some more interesting fungi I found while we were wandering around trying to figure out how to navigate the trail system, I was also admiring the start of the fall colours. We’re still not quite at peak here, that’ll probably be next weekend, or possibly even the following. But there’s lots that’s starting to show vibrant colour changes. The most striking were the above Virginia Creeper, brilliant red against the aqua lichen and green moss growing on the rock, and the small swamp below, with the yellow ferns and red-orange maple set against the bright green of the pondweed on the water.

I’ve noticed both of these (Virginia Creeper and swamp-dwelling individuals) have been among the first to change colour. I’m not sure why the creeper changes colour first, but I think the water cools the roots of the trees in the swamp sooner than those of upland trees, stimulating the earlier colour change (similarly, trees that are at the edge of the forest, or that poke out through the canopy are exposed to cooling winds and are more likely to change before their sheltered neighbours).

Ferns and maples


A walk in the woods


We had an unexpected guest yesterday, so I ended up not getting a chance to post about the walk in the park. I’d actually just got back from a return trip yesterday, where Raven and I walked another part of it, to find we had a visitor. The last couple of days have been so nice, warm enough for short sleeves but not so warm you’re dying. It just seemed a shame not to take advantage of that. Today was cool and rainy, so I’m glad I went out again when I did.


Round trip, we probably walked just over two kilometers (1.2 miles). On a straight and level road that wouldn’t be all that far, but the terrain in the park is far from straight and level. Little mini valleys cut through the granite to create ridges and plateaus. The plateaus are no problem to hike, but the ridges and valleys give you a bit of a workout. Raven outdid both Blackburnian and I; she was still charging onwards even at the end of the hike. She absolutely loved the outing. We let her off-leash in her harness, but she never strayed far from us, no further than her extendable leash would have let her go anyway. And this way, no wraps around trees!


We had no map, no compass, no GPS, and no particular destination in mind. We hiked out towards a promising-looking ridge, and upon cresting that, set our sights on the next. We headed approximately east, but followed the landforms and the suggestion of interesting sights beyond the next valley. There are no trails in this section of the park; in fact, given the size of the park, it’s relatively trail-poor. There’s only one trail that’s somewhat easy for us to reach from our lake, and it’s through a campground at the far north end, some 3 km (1.9 miles) away by boat. Not long after moving in, we had stopped by the park office to pick up some maps and get information on the area. We spoke to one of the staff, who indicated that walk-in access to the park is free, and you’re welcome to just dock your boat on the shore and hike in. So we felt no reservations about doing so.


So we boated directly across the lake, and docked the boat on a narrow gravel beach where the land sloped gently upwards into the park. It’s been a long time since I explored an area without being confined to a trail, or knowing what’s coming next. Everything was new, interesting, and different. There are an interesting array of habitats within the park. From the shore it looks like fairly uniform mixed forest. In fact, when you start hiking in, it turns out to be primarily deciduous, at least the sections we walked through. There were a number of more open areas that resembled oak savannah, though I don’t know if they had quite the combination of characteristics to qualify as such.


There were also a few low, wet areas that were obviously flooded at certain times of year, but not currently. Fallen logs, soft and decaying, were covered with moss and ferns. The area had a very lush, green appearance because of the ferny understory. For some reason, most of the areas we walked through had a sparse understory. It wasn’t that the understory was absent, just that it was thin. There were small saplings and a few little shrubs, patchy wildflowers and vines, but generally it was pretty easy walking. I know deer inhabit the park, so it may be that they keep the understory thinned out. Or, it may be something to do with the soil, or some other factor.


Our “final destination” (meaning, the point where we decided it was getting on, and we were getting tired, and we should start heading back) turned out to be a large, old swampy wetland. It looked like it may once have been a river, but had been dammed by a beaver and flooded, killing the resident trees. This would have happened quite a while ago, as most of the trees were long dead and fallen. Also, the water level wasn’t maintained, and while it appeared the water was probably high enough to form a continuous lake in the spring, by this time in the fall it had dropped substantially, such that the ground was mostly moist with just small patches of water remaining.


Raven, eager to continue on, bounced down and into the wet area to check it out. She paused when it was apparent we weren’t following. She was very good about not getting carried away, and coming back to us when called, with the exception of one spot where her nose found something deliciously intriguing buried in the soil, and she required some coaxing to be drawn away from it (even then, it didn’t come down to us going and picking her up, which I was worried about having to do during the hike – either to take her away from something, or to carry her back when she got tired).


You comin’, slowpokes?


During the hike we came across lots of things that grabbed my interest. I didn’t spend a lot of time paused to examine anything, but did snap photos of the stuff that really caught my eye. One was this frog. I’ve encountered a number of different species of frog here, the most numerous at our house being Leopard Frogs. In the forest, during the hike, the most common were Wood Frogs, I must have seen at least half a dozen of them. But as we came down to the edge of the water, in the muddy wet bits, Blackburnian spotted this guy. I spent a lot of time debating its identification. The tight, squareish nature of the spots on its back and sides made me think Pickerel Frog (a species I admittedly have never seen), while the fact that there were three rows of spots on the back wasn’t a feature of this species. Apparently the definitive feature is bright yellow to the underside of the legs of a Pickerel Frog, but I didn’t think to pick it up. I’m thinking now it might just be a very dark, strongly-marked Leopard, but it may remain a mystery.


I loved these ferns, which were abundant thoughout the park. The circlet of leaflets recalled to me a crown, and I thought perhaps it would be named something reflecting that, but the species is Northern Maidenhair, Adiantum pedatum. I don’t recall seeing them at my parents’, or in that region of Ontario, but it’s very widespread, occurring from coast to coast, and from as far north as Alaska and Labrador down to southern California and Georgia.


Most of what I was paying attention to, though, was fungus, which will be the subject of the next post. As we turned for home, the sun’s rays started slanting low and golden, illuminating the trees with rich light. A forest that is cool and shady during the day, when the sun is shining straight down on the canopy, becomes aglow as the sun sinks toward the horizon.


Our house, at the end of the day, as viewed from the park; the only reason I knew I was looking toward our house was because of the barely discernible pale line created by the trunk of the big aspen at the shore. There’s so much more to explore, but it will have to wait for another day. Home beckons, with cold drinks and a place to put your feet up.

Solitude in the heart of the city


This morning I got up early, leaving Blackburnian still asleep in bed, and slipped out the door with my camera and sketchbook to go to one of my favourite spots in the city. Unlike the Rouge, this area is just a short drive, perhaps ten minutes along in-town roads, located in a section of the Don River valley. I discovered it a couple of years ago, when I was hired by the city to do a report for them on one of their properties. This was the area I chose to use as a control site during my study. I chose it initially because it was un-groomed, natural and wild, and over the course of the next several months I really fell in love with the location.

It’s accessed from a small park and playground, through a short, narrow mini-ravine that runs between two rows of houses. The trails are used almost exclusively by the local residents for jogging and dog-walking. I encountered very few people on the trails during my surveys. This morning, in the hour and a half I’m there, I meet no one. This is one of the things I love about the place; it’s quiet, peaceful, relatively undisturbed, and you can almost forget you’re in the heart of the city.


Halfway down the entry trail I notice these snowballs. The sides of the mini-ravine here are steep, and evidently something, perhaps a fallen twig or bit of bark, began sliding down the side of the slope, gathering snow about it as it went. It’s not the typical snowball you see when snow rolls down a hill, and I have to assume that the object slid rather than rolled, and spun as it did so to create these neat doughnut shapes.

Trail with city as backdrop

The entry trail meets up with the main network, and I turn to follow it to the north. It runs along the base of another set of homes. I think how magnificent the view from their back porches must be, and then I think they must command a real premium on house price for such a location. Indeed, most ravine-backing homes are way out of my price range in the city, usually starting at $500-600k for the small run-down places, and going up to well over a million for the really nice ones. Toronto is a wealthy city. It has to be, in order for so many people to live here, with property prices being what they are. In the neighbourhood where we rent you’re lucky to find anything in good shape for less than $300k. I couldn’t afford to buy here on my own. Even Blackburnian and I together would be hard-pressed to find something we could afford jointly. Who are these people, making all this money?

I turn west down a small side trail, and am afforded my only real view of the city as a backdrop to the park, with a few tall apartment buildings towering over the treetops, at the far side of the Don. A short distance down the trail and the city melts back into the trees, hidden from view, and forgotten, for the moment.

Don River valley

The side trail comes out at a bluff, overlooking a bend in the Don where a gravel bed has been exposed. During my surveys I always scanned the gravel for Killdeer or Spotted Sandpipers, but never saw either, despite it looking like a good spot for them. I did once see a Black-crowned Night Heron fishing from one of the low-hanging trees, but the bend, for all its nice scenery, was always disappointingly empty.

I pause, and look out over the river. The sun is peeking above the trees and casting a warm glow on the bare canopy of the forest across the way. It hasn’t yet reached the river, or even where I’m standing. I briefly consider stopping here, but decide I’d like to sit someplace in the sun, and move on.


The trail goes down a small incline (decline?) and where it levels out it passes through a small grove of spruce. Their lower branches have been pruned from them years ago to make room for trail users to pass through, which gives them an unusually domesticated look, for someplace far from the nearest backyard. In this natural tunnel I recall frequently encountering chickadees, kinglets, and Yellow-rumped Warblers during my spring surveys. There is no one here at the moment.

Northern Cardinal

In other areas, though, the trees are full of song. The cardinals have woken with the dawn, and perch in the upper branches of the poplars, illuminated by the warm orange rays of the rising sun. There are at least a dozen of them, I estimate, throughout the area. They all belt out their declaration of possession of their claimed bits of woodland. “Cheer! Cheer! Whit-whit-whit-whit! … Birdy, birdy, birdy-birdy-birdy-birdy!”

The other birds join in. I hear a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches arguing back and forth at each other over the ownership of a particular patch of cedars, and briefly glimpse a short chase as they dash through a small clearing. A pair of male Downy Woodpeckers has at it over the attentions of a female, who seems rather blasé about the whole episode. House Finches fly over the site in groups of two or three, and I hear the odd male singing. Chickadees move through a patch of hawthorn, calling to one another, and a trio of crows perches atop the maples and caw loudly. The birds seem to be as happy about the sunny morning and approach of spring as I am.

Don River

I come out from the spruce grove along side the river, at a lower area along its banks. The river takes another turn here and is lost from sight, winding its way through the city toward Lake Ontario. It is beautiful here, natural and undisturbed, but along its length it will run through less pristine areas, ultimately coming out through an industrial zone at its mouth before exiting into the lake. A freeway runs north and south through a large part of the valley system, but is far enough away here that I don’t notice it. A rail bed also runs along the valley, and a train thunders by while I’m there. It’s just beyond the ridge, and I can’t see it, but I can certainly hear it. I’ve seen salmon in these parts of the river before, and it seems at odds with the surrounding city, particularly considering the state of the mouth of the river. Nature forges onward.


I decide to take a trail branch that I’ve never been down. On this section of the trail I had always been in the middle of my survey and was unable to follow the side branches. They were often muddy, too, compared to the main trail. However, a few people have been down here recently, and the snow is packed enough to walk along comfortably. I come through another small grove of spruce and the trail widens into a small open area. The sun is streaming in here, and the spruce protect me from the wind. The clearing feels cozy, and I decide this is the spot. I find a log to settle on, and pull out my sketchbook.

I am not ordinarily a field-sketcher. Usually I’m too busy watching birds or taking photos to settle down somewhere and sketch. I admire those who do, though. Debby at Drawing The Motmot is a fabulous field-sketcher. I absolutely love her rainforest studies, which are done in pen while sitting in the field, over as many as three days.

While I have the skill to execute those sorts of drawings, I am sure, I also know I don’t have the practice, or the patience, right now. There’s too much to do, to look at, and I haven’t disciplined myself to sit still long enough to study the landscape and develop the eye necessary to render such detail so accurately. I content myself to sitting for perhaps 20 minutes, soaking up the warm sun, and casually sketching the trail in front of me. Perhaps I’ll make an effort this year to pause more often and sketch a little more.

Sketch of Sauriol trail

Walker’s Woods in winter

Pine plantation

I am not, and never will be, a city girl. I’m here currently mostly because of circumstances, rather than choice. I grew up in the countryside, and find myself going a little stir-crazy if I’m stuck in the city too long, or if several of the city’s inconveniences pile on me at once. The problem with being in the city is that in order to get anywhere to go for a hike in a natural setting to relax and calm your mind generally requires a bit of an undertaking. It becomes a concerted effort, instead of a quick pop outside to hike through the woods at your backdoor, as it was as a kid, and any outing usually kills half your day, rather than being a short hour-long hike. As a result, I don’t get out nearly as much as I might like.

Today we decided to visit a TRCA property northeast of Toronto. It’s called Walker Woods, and it, along with the neighbouring Glen Major Forest, are sites in consideration for possible future expansion projects of the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station (a project of TRCA). The outing had the dual purpose of getting outdoors, and having a first look at the general area to assess the landscape.

Deep snow on hiking trail

The snow was deep, and we kept to the trails, which had been flattened by many cross-country skiers. The footing was still slippery, though, as the snow wasn’t hard-packed and your toe would dig into it as you walked, a little like walking on a sandy beach. After walking a little distance we decided to loop back along a trail branch that would take us back to the road and try driving some sideroads to look for open-field birds or, if we were lucky, perhaps a flock of berry-eating Pine Grosbeaks or Bohemian Waxwings. We found neither, though I did think as we were starting to head home, along a busier street, that I caught a glimpse of a Northern Shrike perched atop a spindly little tree in a field.

Pine plantation

Much of the area we walked was these pine plantations. Likely planted either as windbreaks, back when this landscape was still mostly used for farming, or for commercial harvesting, they have very characteristic, obvious linear formations. These sorts of plantations look unnatural, because of the pattern of the trees and their uniform age, and I don’t even feel make great habitat because they lack the diversity of structure that encourages many species to inhabit the woods. There’s no understory. The only small plants growing there were small pine seedlings, and even these were few.

Old farm shelter

At one spot along the trail there’s an old shelter, which looks like it may have been used to house either farming equipment like tractors, or hay bales for storage. Given its placement in the woods, it seems like an odd place to keep either, but it’s possible it hasn’t been used in a while and the young forest had since grown up around it. Or, if it was used to house equipment, that could be brought in through the trees.

Old foundation

A bit further down the trail I spotted the remains of this foundation, slowly growing in with young saplings, possibly black cherry, and a couple of birches. Presumably this was the homestead that went with the old storage shed, but it could also have been another barn or outbuilding.

Fence and field

We walked back along the road to where we had parked the car. In several sections the fence was overgrown with vines and dried goldenrod. I didn’t take a close look at the vines, but I’m not sure that I’d be able to tell the difference between wild grape and Virginia Creeper without their leaves. I scanned these open fields and the fenceposts that lined them for any small white lumps that might reveal themselves to be Snowy Owls, but with no luck.

Beech saplings with dried leaves

In many spots along the trails there were young beech saplings, brightly coloured against the white snow and dark evergreen forest as they retain their dried leaves throughout the winter. The phenomenon is called marcescence, and applies in this case to leaves withering without falling off. There’s some debate about the reasons it happens, but it’s noted only to really happen on very young sapling beech or the lower, young branches of older trees. I read a good blog post about it recently, but I’ll be darned if I could find it now to link to it. (Edit: I just found it. It’s posted by Carolyn over at Roundtop Ruminations.)

Canada Geese flying north

On the drive home I noticed a number of flocks of geese heading north over the fields. I associate these sorts of large, multiple-flock movements with migration so… hopefully a sign that spring is on the way?

Canada Geese flying north

Hiking the Rouge

Rouge Valley

Today was Family Day here in Ontario, a newly-created holiday courtesy of our provincial premiere, who believed that the unbroken stretch between New Year’s Day and Easter was just too long for an employee to reasonably have to suffer through. This was the first year the new holiday has been in effect, and there’s still some kinks to be ironed out. Federal employees such as postal workers and some unionized groups were on the job today because the holiday hasn’t been negotiated into their contracts.

Rouge Valley

Blackburnian had the day off today, however, and I’m basically self-employed at the moment and take whatever days I want off, so we decided this afternoon to take advantage of the mild temperatures and head out to the Rouge Valley, out in the east near the Toronto Zoo. Back when I was in university I had a job for a couple summers inventorying the birds of the Rouge Park. It was very informal, I basically spent the summer hiking around as I pleased, trying to cover everywhere but not following any sort of rigorous protocol. It was a fabulous job, and I have a very fond spot for the Rouge because of my time spent there getting to know it and its birds. Despite this, I’ve rarely been back since then, and I’d never been there in winter.

Rouge Valley

The top photo is an image of the valley, taken from the top of a high bluff overlooking the Rouge River. Blackburnian’s standing at the top of the cliff, to give you a sense of scale. This isn’t a little bluff that you’re going to shimmy down to the water. The Rouge Valley contains two primary rivers, the Rouge and the Little Rouge, which joins it. This is the Little Rouge. Doesn’t look so little here, but the Rouge is a bit wider and deeper. Most of the river is upland forest, but there’s the odd patch of wetland here and there.

Civilization in the distance

The Rouge is a gorgeous, mature woodland through most of the Park’s valleys, and it can be easy to lose yourself among the extensive habitat. However, reminders of the city next door are hard to ignore. On the horizon are apartment buildings and rooftops. The trails run 1.6 km along either side of the river, between two roads. Road noise from the city carries the short distance into the park. People come out here to walk their dogs, and many of the dog owners don’t pick up after their pets.

Signs of people

Or themselves.

Rouge Valley

But the scenery is beautiful. The trails cover a number of different habitats, starting in scrubby meadow at the edge of the woods, passing through a powerline corridor, and then entering into mature upland forest. It’s a mixed deciduous-coniferous forest, with the evergreen component mostly hemlock. The trees here are no western Red Cedars, but put in perspective are pretty impressive themselves.

Hermit Thrush

We didn’t see many birds. Of course, winter birding is like that, very hit-or-miss and sparse even when there’s hits. This guy was the indisputable highlight of the outing. A Hermit Thrush, very out of place in the Toronto snow. Seeing a Hermit in the Toronto area isn’t unusual, per se, but it’s certainly very uncommon. This is the first one I’ve seen around here in the winter. Virtually all Hermits leave the province for the winter, though they don’t go far and may winter in the northeastern states.

Hermit Thrush with Black Cherry berry

This guy had found himself a stash of Black Cherry berries. I didn’t even notice the cherries until I saw him pop one. I watched him eat three or four before a movement I made, possibly shifting my weight or adjusting the camera, startled him and he flew off to a nearby hemlock.

Black cherry fruit

Frozen berries such as these are a large component in many overwintering birds’ diets. Two species of northern birds (Pine Grosbeak and Bohemian Waxwing) will feed pretty much exclusively on frozen berries such as crabapple, chokecherry, buckthorn, hawthorn, etc. There seemed to be a fair bit of Black Cherry in the forest, which should give the Hermit Thrush lots to eat.

Flock of robins

The first group of birds we came across were these robins, perhaps 20 of them. Nearly all robins leave the Toronto area in the winter, too, although in recent years increasingly more will stick around through the winter and feed on frozen berries in the woods as well as urban gardens. Another great reason to plant berry-bearing bushes!

Pished off Black-capped Chickadees

We found a few groups of chickadees foraging in cedar stands along the floodplain of the river. Blackburnian pished at all of them, but these were the only group to respond strongly. They were seriously pished off! You can even see the right one yelling, “dee-dee-dee-dee-dee!” Chickadees drop the “chick-a” from their call when they’re responding to perceived threats or dangers. Some research has suggested the number of “dee”s is correlated with the seriousness of the threat, with more meaning a greater danger.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

This Red-breasted Nuthatch pished in with one of the flocks of chickadees. It was the fourth and final species of the outing. I was thinking as we were leaving that it wasn’t a great diversity or abundance of birds, and would’ve made for a very lacklustre Christmas Bird Count. I loved the haziness of the periphery of this image created by peeking through a gap in the foliage.

We walked nearly 4 km on very uneven, slippery trails (not groomed trails, so they were simply packed down by many feet, and every step you were trying not to slide). It’s the furthest I’ve walked since the fall, I’m pretty sure, and the addition of the trail condition means we’ll probably be feeling achey legs tomorrow! Ah, but it was good to get out.