• cranberry marsh header
    Birds,  Nature Trips,  Toronto

    Morning at Cranberry Marsh

    Another suggestion by Sara comes up trumps. We have been to Cranberry Marsh a few times, but invariably we tend to only pass through as an after-thought following a visit to Lynde Shores which is right next door. A bad night of sleep meant a later than usual start, and considering how popular this place is with photographers, it was unsurprising that when we arrived at 7:30am, there were more lenses and cameras in attendance than there were birds.

    The water in the marsh remains quite low and so there were large numbers of Great Blue Herons and, despite their imperilled status in Ontario, a few Great Egrets were taking advantage of the meals on offer.

    Great Blue Heron
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    There is a sandbar running along the south of the marsh that separates it from Lake Ontario, and it is this that you walk along to view the marsh. Preening on this sandbar was a Mute Swan and two Trumpeter Swans. Mute Swans are an introduced species, but Trumpeter Swans are native to Canada. They were expatriated (made extinct in Ontario), but were reintroduced in the 1980s and many of them have yellow tags on their wings so that they can be identified by researchers from distance – without disturbing them. Amongst the researchers, many of the swans have been given first names which you can sometimes find with a little online sleuthing. The two we saw today were siblings tagged T61 and T62 and they are named “Pepper” and “Caramel”.

    We weaved in and out of probably a couple-of-dozen wide-lensed photographers along the sandbar and found a quiet spot, resigned to it probably being a bad location since nobody else was around. Suddenly Sara spotted a Wilson’s Snipe with its amusingly long bill. New Lifer, number 191!

    Wilson’s Snipe

    Way off in the distance, a raptor flew along the western edge of the marsh. Too far for a photo worthy of posting here, but it had a white band across the top of the tail, which marks it out as a Northern Harrier. Another bird that initially looked like a raptor flew a similar path. It was a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron. The juveniles have brown and off-white pattening that somewhat resembles that of a raptor. Well, kind of. From a distance. Through haze. When you’re poor sighted. Those are my excuses.

    Dotted around amongst the Lilypads were a few Lesser Yellowlegs that we’ve seen a few times on our travels to different marsh habitats in the last few weeks. These ones are used to posing for photos and getting close to them was not too much of a problem.

    Lesser Yellowlegs

    Regular readers will recall that I had heard reports of Virginia Rails being spotted here, but that we hadn’t enjoyed any success spotting them ourselves. We were about to leave the site when there was a commotion amongst some photographers. I was able to create a little space for myself and take a few shots of an adult Virginia Rail, with a couple of offspring in tow. I got a couple of good shots before giving the bird some space and enjoying watching the bird for a few moments. A couple of other photographers continued to blast away. I’m not sure where they find the time to go through a machine-gunned memory card full of photos of the same bird!

    Virginia Rail
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    We were to have one last good sighting on our way out of the marsh. There were a few Red-winged Blackbirds congregating, with a couple of Cowbirds begging for food around them. Another bird close by initially looked similar, but upon inspection, it had a more appealing speckling to its breast and a neater light coloured eye-line. Another new lifer. Two in one trip and we’d only travelled just down the road! Bird number 192 is a Northern Waterthrush.

    Northern Waterthrush

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  • tommy thompson park header
    Birds,  butterflies,  Nature Trips,  Toronto

    Tommy Thompson Park

    My wife suggested we visit The Leslie Street Spit, a.k.a Tommy Thompson Park, which is highly productive with migrating warblers during the spring as it is the first green piece of land that birds will come across after an exhausting flight across Lake Ontario. During the summer it can sometimes throw up some less common wading bird sightings in some of the “cells” or marsh areas.

    As usual for this park, Red-winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows were frequently seen. American Goldfinch are also common here, but I would say they were a little more abundant thanks to the presence of thistle seeds. The park is also a great place for Tree Swallows and Barn Swallows. The latter have many nests built on a couple of the concrete buildings within the park. We saw Yellow Warblers and maybe 15 or 20 Eastern Kingbirds.

    Eastern Kingbird

    A little way past the eastern most harbour, there is a marshy bay that hosts a man-made floating “island” that is home to Common Terns. On this island, we could make out some eggs, and even more exciting, two fluffy little Tern chicks.

    Common Terns

    Out on the Lilypads were four Spotted Sandpipers and then something happened to put a smile on Sara’s face. Regular readers will remember that she had been eager to see a Black-crowned Night Heron. We saw something fly past of an unusual shape. Sure enough, it was Sara’s target bird. I had seen them standing before, but this was also my first time seeing one in flight.

    Black-crowned Night Heron

    Behind us was a copse of trees between two parts of the trail, and a Warbling Vireo….. well…. warbled… for much of the time we spent looking out over the marsh. As we left, the bird kindly presented itself for a photo.

    Warbling Vireo

    There are three “cells” along the peninsula, man-made wetland areas. In my experience, Cell One tends to be most active. Today we saw a bird being “bombed” by other smaller birds as it came in to land on a tree stump in the wetland. It was a Green Heron. I have only previously seen these north of the city.

    Green Heron

    There were quite a few Monarch Butterflies around, a few Cabbage Whites, a couple of Clouded Sulphur and I saw what I believe to be a Least Skipper, but we didn’t see much more in terms of moths/butterflies – though we were at the park quite early before the heat.

    Least Skipper

    We again visited my in-laws after this little nature trip, as we sometimes help them out with groceries and stuff during this time of Covid-19. As previously mentioned, my father-in-law has begun putting out seed at the bird feeders. A perfect excuse for me to sneak in another photo from the backyard. Below is a Red-breasted Nuthatch, a characterful bird that’s fun to see visiting.

    Red-breasted Nuthatch

    Coming Up!

    Looking forward to visiting the Windsor area in the next couple of weeks. And hopefully Northern Ontario in the fall?

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  • colonel samuel smith park header
    Birds,  Nature Trips,  Toronto

    Colonel Samuel Smith Park

    The weather prediction for Saturday June 27th was a little uncertain with thunderstorms and showers expected with various degrees of certainty, so Sara and I decided we would visit somewhere not too far away and eventually settled on Colonel Samuel Smith Park in the Etobicoke area in the west of Toronto. We have been here before, usually in the busier spring migration period, but thought we would give it a try during this relatively barren summer period.

    As we skewered our way through Toronto on the 401, we headed straight into poor weather. Fortunately, the worst of the rain cleared as we began walking from the car, but the park was still shrouded in fog from the evaporating rain. It gave a slightly eerie, isolated feeling as we looked out over the water.

    Sara is keen to see a Black-Crowned Night Heron, so we headed to a viewing platform at a marsh, but we had no luck beyond a few mallards and blackbirds. The park forms the shape of a bay for Lake Ontario, and looking out through the fog we saw lots of Red-Necked Grebes swimming, diving, and making their amusing calls to one another.

    Red-necked Grebe

    Throughout the park we saw many swallows including Bank Swallows and Tree Swallows, the latter with their white bellies and iridescent blue backs, making use of the man-made nesting boxes. We watched a juvenile delicately balancing on the top of a cat-tail while simultaneously being fed by its almost-hovering parent.

    Tree Swallows

    We also saw Yellow Warblers, Robins, Song Sparrows and Starlings. We heard both Warbling and Red-Eyed Vireos, but they are so hard to spot with so much tree cover. Double-crested Cormorants by the tens of dozens flew over the lake as you would expect (there is a huge colony of them near the Toronto Islands).

    Later we returned to the marsh viewing platform and saw a Belted Kingfisher in a tree searching for fish. Across the bank was another birding couple taking a look and, shortly, we bumped into them and had a short chat as we circled the water. Like me, they were originally from The UK. They were originally from Warwickshire and I am from just up the road in Worcestershire. We spoke of the scarcity of birds this year and shared the location of a few wanted species. We talked about how some Common Loons had been spotted east of Toronto, much further south than usual, and how repeated reports of sightings seemed to suggest that they were heading west along the shore, “instead of North” they laughed. We parted ways and continued along one of the gravel pathways when I heard a sound behind us. Turning, I saw a Striped Skunk sprint across into the safety of long grass.

    Striped Skunk

    The sun started to push through the clouds and the mist began to lift which increased some of the song activity from birds, particularly the American Goldfinch and Yellow Warblers. We also noticed a couple of Midland Painted Turtles sun lounging on a log.

    Midland Painted Turtle

    The park began to get a little busier and real-life was knocking on the door (groceries to be done!), so we made our way back to the car after our short jaunt.

    Coming Up

    A trip to Lynde Shores with a workmate and I’ll be heading further afield for somewhere on Canada Day. If anyone has any great suggestions that have good nature and, crucially, won’t be overrun with people, I am all ears! And if anyone who knows me personally that lives within the Southern Ontario region that is reading this and would be down for an outing, don’t be shy.

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  • toronto parks june 2020 header
    Birds,  butterflies,  Nature Trips,  Toronto

    Toronto Area Trips June 2020

    I’ve been out and about most evenings for the past few weeks and haven’t always kept up with posting about it – so thought I would do a catch-up on some various sightings and trips.

    Hawk Attacks!

    I’ve been fortunate enough to watch a Red-tailed Hawk catch a squirrel on a couple of separate occasions in the last two weeks. If you are of a squeamish disposition, you might wish to squint past the photos and continue on to the next section!

    I’ve complained before about the scarcity of birding action during the summer months in Toronto, and while visiting Rosetta McClain Gardens one evening, this was the case again. However, just as my wife and I were about to leave, we spied a Red-tailed Hawk in a nearby tree and decided to stay and watch. It was obvious that the hawk was keeping a close eye on the various squirrels. The squirrels are relatively tame and perhaps a little unassuming in this park, often receiving handouts from humans.

    Red-tailed Hawk

    A Red-tailed Hawk can be identified by the rufous colour of its tail and by the way the speckled feathers on the breast centre into a belt across the middle, the affectionately named “belly belt”.

    Shortly after this shot, the hawk flew out of sight. We followed in the direction it flew, but moments later it came straight back again carrying a squirrel in its talons. It was shortly followed by a group of four-or-five girls in their late teens screaming and dumb-struck by witnessing the carnage. “We were just feeding that squirrel!”, they cried.

    Red-tailed Hawk with American Grey Squirrel (melanistic)
    Cranberry Marsh

    I’ve made a couple of trips to this marsh just inland from Lake Ontario. At the very least you can get to see a few ducks and swans, including some newborns. There are Virginia Rails here, too. You can hear them calling from all over the place, but they tend to stick amongst the reeds and I haven’t seen any recently.

    There has been a Common Gallinule on the marsh for a while, which is attracting some attention with birders and photographers. It was far away, so here is a small blurry photo of the moorhen/coot type bird.

    Common Gallinule

    There were Wood Duck ducklings in attendance, several Mute Swans and their cygnets, a plethora of Canada Geese and their goslings, and while we investigated, we saw small mammal prints in the mud that Sara thought were those of a Red Fox. At another point in the marsh, we watched a Great Blue Heron fly through, persued and harassed by territorial Red-winged Blackbirds.

    Red-winged Blackbirds “bombing” Great Blue Heron

    We hung around until dusk, where the sun began setting across the marsh, casting an orange hue over the water.

    Sunset over Cranberry Marsh
    Rouge National Urban Park

    I did a loop along The Orchard Trail, back down The Vista Trail twice in the last little while – once with my wife Sara, and once with my friend Gabriel and enjoyed a few nice sightings of butterflies, moths, and birds. I enjoyed seeing a small number of White Admiral butterflies around the wooded areas.

    White Admiral

    The stretch of The Vista Trail running between the visitor centre and the look-out tower is usually good for birding and I was able to see Yellow Warblers, Song Sparrows, lots of Tree Swallows, and a couple of other treats. I heard a call that I suspected was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. After some looking around, a male bird peaked out of a tree.

    Rose-breasted Grosbeak

    Over the years of visiting this park, I have occasionally been greeted by a pair of Eastern Bluebirds and I was pleased to see them both times I visited recently.

    Eastern Bluebird pair

    The male Bluebird has the bolder colours on the left, with the female following him. Other non-bird species seen on these two visits include a lot of butterflies: A Crescent, a type of Comma whose wings were a little too worn to identify, Hobomok Skipper, Silver-Spotted Skipper, Red Admiral, Dreamy Duskywing, and a Little Wood Satyr butterfly. Turtles breed and are researched at Rouge and I saw Midland Painted Turtles and a Red-eared Slider and her young. This is an invasive species, usually the result of a released pet, that can out-compete native species.

    Thompson Memorial Park

    One last trip to write about was a quick walk through Thompson Memorial Park with Sara one evening, a manicured park with a small wood that connects to “The Great Trail” (a cross-Canada trail) and features a ravine. We saw a couple of Eastern Wood Pewees and a whole lot of Ebony Jewelwings – a type of damselfly commonly seen in summer alongside rivers and creeks. We also saw a Northern Flicker in a distant tree and a Baltimore Oriole. My favourite sighting was a Nessus Sphinx moth, a slightly odd-looking thing that resembles a bee from behind, with two yellow stripes across its abdomen. They’re on the small side and fast-moving, but here is what I got.

    Nessus Sphinx Moth (top/rear)
    Nessus Sphinx Moth (side)
    Coming Up!

    I’m looking at a morning out to Colonel Samuel Smith Park in the West end of Toronto, I plan on returning to Lynde Shores and Cranberry Marsh again with a friend from work who said “I wish I could go there with someone that knows what they are talking about” (hopefully she doesn’t regret saying that!) and I’m looking into where to go on Canada Day away from the city if anyone has any suggestions?

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  • Birds,  Nature Trips,  Toronto

    Toronto Ravine Walks

    In the last few days I have visited some ravine parks in Toronto. The city has a few creeks that join into rivers like The Humber and The Don and many parks and green spaces can be found near these waterways. “Habitat edges”, such as the edge of a wood or meadow, are great places to spot wildlife and these creeks and rivers often have trails running through these kinds of enviroments.

    Morningside Park

    I visited this park and walked alongside Highland Creek several times through the week, including one evening with my friend Gabriel. He and I used to work together in retail and experienced the kind of camaraderie reserved for only those who have either fought in the trenches of a World War or served a number of Christmases in a shopping mall.

    The manicured parts of the park get busy with people picnicking and barbecuing, but there is usually some creature or other lurking not too far away from the human chaos, such as this groundhog I saw eating the plants surrounding its den. Their eyesight is generally poor, relying on their hearing and sense of smell, which allowed me to get close enough for a good shot. When they become aware of a potential threat, like most rodents, they will stand upon their hind legs to survey the area.

    Groundhog

    I saw a few different moths in a grassy area off the beaten path that I sometimes check. I did this on one of the days I visited without Gabriel who was wearing shorts. I don’t advise traipsing into grassland in parks if your skin is uncovered due to the danger of ticks – particularly some of the more exotic ones migrating north due to climate change. I saw a Grayish Fanfoot, a Duskywing (probably Juvenal’s) and a moth that is fairly common but I quite like – a Little Wood Satyr.

    Little Wood Satyr

    2020 appears to be a bumper year for the Tiger Swallowtails found in Ontario. I saw a lot of Canadian Tiger Swallowtails in Algonquin and see Eastern Tiger Swallowtails almost everyday, even just walking through residential streets in Toronto. These two species are very hard to differentiate and the slight visual differences are complicated by the fact that they can hybridise. Location can be a clue, but there is much debate about these butterflies!

    What about you? Are you in Ontario and have noticed more Tiger Swallowtails this year? I’m wondering if I am, or if I am just more aware of them! Let me know in the comments.

    Eastern (?) Tiger Swallowtail on Dame’s Rocket flower

    Gabriel and I were walking and talking catching up on work and life after not getting together for almost three months due to Covid-19. I heard a bird song that I didn’t immediately recognise, so I made Gabriel stop for a moment while I listened! Until now I have only seen a handful of Indigo Buntings and I was pleased to spot this one and get a shot of it hunting for caterpillars.

    Indigo Bunting

    I saw a few other bits and pieces either on my trip alone or with Gabriel: a juvenile male White-tailed Deer just starting to grow his antlers, a Red-bellied Woodpecker which is one of my favourite birds, a Painted Lady butterfly, a Birch Angle moth, and a heavily pregnant raccoon who offered a cute pose between a couple of tree trunks (as seen at the top of this page). On our way out of the park, I commented to Gabe, as I do to anyone that will listen to me – “Most people just pass nature by without noticing it, but it is all around us if you care to look”. As I said it, I spied an American Robin sitting on its nest. If you look to the left of the nest, you can see a chicks head sticking out.

    American Robin

    Deerlick Creek

    On Wednesday I walked through the ravine in the Parkwoods area of East Toronto with my friend Jennifer. She and I also worked for the same retail organisation. She was my manager for about five years before we became peers when I fledged, flew the nest, and became the manager of my own store. She taught me well!

    We walked through the wooded ravine and parkland a couple of times over a couple of weeks – similar to Gabriel, I hadn’t seen Jennifer in a while. What can I say? Once we both get talking, we don’t easily stop, so it takes us a while to cover all of our essential topics!

    Not a great deal was seen – it was particularly hot with a storm set to arrive that evening (so I’ve lumped this walk in with the one above). I’ve seen quite a few Chipping Sparrows this year. They are another migratory bird that breeds in Ontario during the warmer months. One hopped out onto a branch to show off its red mohawk.

    Chipping Sparrow

    Jennifer suggested we sit in a clearing for a while and perhaps some creature or another might present itself to us… but it was just so hot and humid that even the squirrels were flaked out unable to take it anymore.

    Eastern Grey Squirrel

    Coming Up….

    In the next few days I plan to explore some of the lakeshore east of Toronto, including Lynde Shores Conservation Area which recently re-opened.

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  • morningside park and birkdale ravine
    Birds,  Nature Trips,  Toronto

    Morningside Park and Birkdale Ravine

    I’ve been trying to make use of the extra hours of daylight as we move towards summer and have spent a couple of evenings at local parks. First up, on Monday, I had intended to hang around the feeder area at Morningside Park, but it appears to have been taken down. I’m not sure if this is Covid-19 related (people congregating or perhaps people breaking into the park when it was closed during the peak). I walked westwards through the park following the path of Highland Creek. The manicured areas of the park were busy, so I hastened onwards.

    Shortly before the metal bridge that crosses the creek, I saw a White-tailed Deer eating reeds that grew at the water’s edge.

    White-tailed Deer

    Several years ago I had seen a muskrat around here. A young guy was fervently gesticulating towards it, shouting “Beaver! beaver!”. I haven’t seen it since and didn’t see it today. I continued along the footpath and heard a bird call I wasn’t familiar with quite high in the tree line and began searching for movement, eventually spotting a Scarlet Tanager that had been performing its “chick burr” sound. I haven’t spotted too many of these, despite the vibrant colour, and this probably represents the best photograph I have captured of this bird.

    Scarlet Tanager

    I walked some distance further before turning back as the light faded. Without wanting to give away specific locations, at one point I saw a Red Fox timidly withdraw into cover. It happened a little quickly so unfortunately I only captured a couple of blurry shots.

    Red Fox

    I saw a few more deer, including one settling in for the night and lying in the grass. Other birds were Yellow Warblers, Cedar Waxwings, the usual suspects (Robin, Red-winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows), a type of Swallow too far away to identify down to species and a Belted Kingfisher that I often see (or hear!) at this park. On this occasion, I spotted him on a branch with a large fish in its bill.

    Belted Kingfisher

    As I was leaving the park, some kind of insect (a beetle) jumped onto my car windshield. I took a few photos with the hope of identifying it later. With some help, I found out that it was a type of Flower-longhorn Beetle that doesn’t have a common name, but the taxonomic name is Gaurotes cyanipennis.

    Gaurotes cyanipennis

    Birkdale Ravine

    There is a short footpath just over 1km in length that runs from Ellesmere Road west of Brimley Rd along the west branch of Highland Creek before joining Thompson Memorial Park. I decided I’d visit on Tuesday and left a little later, taking the wife after she’d finished work. I wasn’t expecting much, it isn’t one of Toronto’s most impressive ravines.

    I mostly saw common birds on this quick outing, plus an Eastern Cottontail (rabbit) and an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail that would not co-operate by landing for a photograph. There was some type of Flycatcher of Pewee high, high up in the top of a tree… much too distant to get any kind of better ID. As I say, I wasn’t expecting too much, but near the end of the trail high up in a Willow tree I saw a slightly larger bird hopping about. It was tough to get a good look at it, but I was gradually discounting suspects… Mockingbird? Nope… There’s no way it is a Northern Shrike at this time of year…. is it, could it be…? I suspected it might be one of the two species of cuckoo. I checked a couple of electronic bird guides on my phone and confirmed it was a Black-billed Cuckoo. This is a new bird for me on the old life-list!

    Black-billed Cuckoo

    I need to go through my list, but I am at approximately 170 birds on my life-list. I’d like to join the “200 club” but to do so, you kinda have to get to know your shorebirds!

    On the way back we played around trying to identify a few trees (my wife had my little National Geographic tree pocket guide with her). I’m getting gradually better at this, but am still pretty much a beginner. Hence how we stood around a pine tree for a good 10 minutes before deciding it was simply a White Pine. There was a small caterpillar on the tree. A little too underdeveloped to be able to ID it except to say that it was likely some kind of Tiger Moth. All the ravines around here are full to bursting with Forget-me-Nots and Dame’s Rocket at the moment.

    Dame’s Rocket

  • east point park and edwards gardens
    Birds,  butterflies,  Nature Trips,  Toronto

    East Point Park & Edwards Gardens

    Over the course of the weekend, I took a couple of nearby trips to Toronto parks here in the east-end. I am looking forward to getting up to Algonquin to hang-out with an Instagram-friend of mine named Malcolm who works at the park. It wasn’t to be this weekend, as the weather north of Toronto was poor. Next weekend is pencilled in and I’m excited to see what the park might throw at me, especially in the hands of an expert. No pressure on Malcolm!

    On Saturday, Sara and I went to Edwards Gardens. It is still early for butterflies but it is always interesting to check out the flora that they have growing there. It doesn’t count towards my life-list since they are cultivated and not wild plants, but it is still enjoyable to see. There is a tree that grows near the edge of the parking lot called a Cucumber Tree. The first time I saw it, I noticed the strange pink fruit growing on it and it began my beginner interest in plants – as if birds and butterflies weren’t enough to be getting on with. We continued from Edwards Gardens along Wilket Creek Park, but it was quite busy and the cyclists in particular were not respectful of social distancing.

    Spanish Bluebells

    Some of the wildflowers growing near Wilket Creek were Carpet Bugle and Spanish Bluebells. They are similar to English Bluebells that are an icon of the shade dappled woodlands of my home country, but the Spanish variety is a little hardier and I imagine it does better in the Southern Ontario climate. I also saw bright stalks of Crimson Clover.

    In a marsh, we saw the obligatory Red-winged Blackbirds, including a couple of nests amongst the Cattails. In the shallow water were several frogs. Mostly Northern Leopards, but a couple of pretty large Green Frogs. We turned back not much further along the trail as rain began to threaten.

    Great Crested Flycatcher

    A little out of nowhere, just as we were reentering Edwards Gardens, I saw a bird I didn’t immediately recognise in the top of a tree. It turned out to be a new “lifer” for me, a Great Crested Flycatcher. As the name suggests, it has a slight mohawk. It is not too difficult to identify, compared to some other flycatchers: Yellow-bellied, Least, Alder, Willow, and Acadian are notoriously difficult and usually their song has to be heard to differentiate the species.

    Before leaving Edwards Gardens, a Northern Cardinal posted nicely amongst some blossom.

    Northern Cardinal
    East Point Park

    On Sunday we drove to East Point Park. Like most places I have visited since the initial Covid-19 isolation ended, it was much busier than usual. Again, most people were drawn to the lake front or The Martin Goodman Trail rather than the trails through the park itself. I didn’t see any particularly exotic birds. Lots of Barn Swallows were catching the midges that were out in-force. Plenty of American Goldfinches and Yellow Warblers could be heard.

    I was hoping to see some butterflies here, as there are some meadow areas and lots of woodland edges. Later in the year there are butterfly friendly plants including milkweed. I did get a couple of new butterflies for my “life list”, although it is not a very big list right now. I saw small blue butterflies which I assumed were Lucia Azures that I had already seen last week at Presqu’ile, but on closer inspection, they were Silvery Blues. The dorsal (top) of the Silvery Blue wings are much nicer, but I was only able to get the ventral (bottom) pattern.

    I also saw a moth that I suspect is a Clover Looper Moth and, most pleasing of all, was a great Black Swallowtail (pictured at the end). I may see if I can hit some more Toronto parks depending on my work week and then I should be off to Algonquin on the weekend. Stay tuned!

    Black Swallowtail