Spit in the Lake (II)

April 6, 2008

Leslie Street Spit

Yesterday I wrote about viewing 15 species of anseriformes in Tommy Thompson Park. I also saw three charadriiformes, a piciforme, a gruiforme, a pelecaniforme, a falconiforme, and nine passeriformes, plus an Eastern Cottontail and a fat raccoon. Not bad for a garbage dump.

The Leslie Street Spit is an accumulation at the foot of Leslie Street, Toronto, of debris from demolished buildings. It was begun in the late 1950s and was originally intended as a breakwater for the harbour. While the need for the breakwater diminished, the rubble pile kept on growing, and with the dirt that came from new basement diggings, little by little the spit seeded itself. Grass and cottonwood trees and other sheltering or tasty plants started to grow. In the 70s a grassroots (!) lobby group called Friends of the Spit arose, which has battled to promote it as a wildlife refuge, and thwart plans for golf courses and carnival activities, ever since. Sometime in the 90s (I think) Tommy Thompson park was inaugurated.

During the week, dump trucks still rumble through with their loads, but on the weekends the 5-km spit is open to the public. People come to cycle, blade, jog, stroll, birdwatch. The Toronto Field Naturalists hold monthly nature walks. And the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station allows people to see what they’re up to.

Thanks to some information from Themarvelousinnature, I was able to find the research station yesterday morning. It’s a tiny wooden cabin with a friendly verandah, one door, and windows on three sides. Inside, a desk stretches from one wall to the other. Completing the decor are a couple of chairs and a locker bedecked with photos of birds the station has banded.

When I showed up at 11, the volunteers were returning from making their rounds of the mist nets. Although they’d been at it since 6 am, on this day they had found fewer than half a dozen birds. I was lucky, then, to see them returning with one indignant male cardinal. I was invited into the building to see them inspect the squawking mite, who raised his crest as high as possible in an effort to prove that he was actually a crocodile, and they’d better not mess with him!

Dan, who was holding him, gently fanned out one wing, explaining that a lot of birds can be aged by the extent of moulting. He went on to say that this method doesn’t work on some birds, such as cardinals, who moult all their feathers. Then I was shown the band already on this fellow’s leg. It was the second time their nets had caught him; no wonder he was grouchy! They flipped through their binder for his band number, and found that the first time they’d caught him was in the autumn of 2006. A bird at least two years old, then. Giving the cardinal a last fond stroke on its ruffled crown, Dan pulled the plug from some clear plastic piping, maybe eight inches in diameter, which described a U shape from the desk top to the outside. He reached into the pipe, released the bird, and away it flew.