A Great Lakes Adventure: Bird Banding in Toronto's "Accidental Wilderness"

Photo courtesy of the TRCA
Yellow Warbler. Photo courtesy of TRCA

Over a five-year span, bird number 2210-5811 turned up in the mist nets of the Tommy Thompson Park bird research station 21 times. He was a well-traveled yellow warbler, wintering in South America and summering on this three-mile-long spit of land that juts into Lake Ontario and offers stunning views of the Toronto skyline. And, each spring, he would build a nest in the exact same dogwood bush. Lucky for the warbler, that bush grew within the protective border of this remarkable 1200-arce urban wilderness area.

The bird’s predictable migration pattern underscores the need for places like Tommy Thompson Park, Karen McDonald, a project manager of restoration and environmental monitoring for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), recently told a group of visiting journalists. What was once a landfill, she said, is now an important stopover for neotropical migrants and a significant nesting area for ring-billed gulls and night herons, among others.

The group of journalists hailed from all over the U.S. and Canada and had arrived in Toronto to participate in a nine-day expedition. The trip was organized by the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources, a non-profit founded by Frank Allen, former environment editor at the Wall Street Journal, who felt reporters stuck in the newsroom couldn’t adequately unravel the complexities of the environment beat.  As an IJNR project assistant, I was on the trip to make sure everything ran smoothly. As a freelance writer, I waded right into dozens of amazing story ideas.


Tommy Thompson Park was once the Leslie Street Spit, named for the road that led dump truck after dump truck to deposit their loads onto the shore of Lake Ontario after the Toronto Harbour Commission (now the Port Authority) decided to build a peninsula for future port construction in the 1950’s. While silt and sand and concrete rubble piled up on the spit, no port-related buildings ever materialized. And decade after decade, the city struggled with what to do with its creation.


Nature, however, had no such hold up.

By the time the TRCA was asked to turn the spit into a park in 1973, cattails, dogwood bushes and birch trees had begun to colonize the lpeninsula. It had become an “accidental wilderness.”

Birds were especially receptive to the new landscape. Ralph Toninger, a senior project manager with the TRCA, remembers several years ago when park crews put the finishing touches on an island designed to attract nesting water birds in one of the containment basins. “We finished building the island on a Thursday,” Toninger says, “and by the next Monday had 100 pairs of [common] terns on the island.”

 Courtesy of TRCA

Tern raft and Toronto skyline. Photo courtesy of TRCA

Today the park is a crucial stopover for songbirds as they head to Canada’s boreal forests and to Arctic ducks as they fly further north to the tundra. It is also an important nesting area. Six percent of the world’s nesting ring-billed gulls lay their eggs in Tommy Thompson Park . Thirty percent of the nesting night herons do, too. The park also boasts peregrine falcons and snowy owls, and even mammals such as coyotes and beavers. 

The research station has banded birds and undertaken both nesting and migratory surveys here since 2003. From April 1 to June 9th each year, volunteers wake well before sunrise to get out and look for birds. The data they collect is helping Toronto grow in a more avian-friendly manner.  A developer hoping to site a condo near sensitive bird habitat would now face opposition from both the public and city planners says Toninger. “Consciousness of birds has been brought to the forefront of planning.”

McDonald agrees. She says you need only look at the dogwood bush of bird 2210-5811 to see why the research station is so important. “What happens,” she asks, “if even a small area gets turned into a parking lot?”

First Post in a Series:

From April 23rd to May 1st, the IJNR circumnavigated Lake Ontario’s nearly 12,000 square miles and got up-close and personal with some of the Great Lakes’ most pressing environmental issues. Join me as I explore some of the highlights from the trip.


Coming soon: Water levels, an international committee and muskrats.


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