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article image12th Annual International Migratory Bird Day at Toronto Zoo Special

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     May 17, 2011 in Environment
After a long winter, spring is finally here, and migratory birds are coming back to Toronto. We went looking for them during a birding tour at Toronto Zoo on the 12th Annual International Migratory Bird Day.
The Zoo of Toronto is located in the Rouge Valley, the largest natural area of the area. Much of the 287 hectares of the Zoo are "unused" in the sense that they are not accessible to the public. However, they are very much used in the sense that these parts are left wild and untouched, an area where nature can be itself.
Saturday was the 12th Annual International Migratory Bird Day, and Elaine Christens and her team at Toronto Zoo had prepared to make this an interesting and entertaining day for us all. One part of it was a "birding tour" along the abandoned track of what was once a state-of-the-art monorail train used for touring the entire zoo. The advantage of this track is that it is quite elevated at places, which makes it sometimes easier to see the birds where they are most at home: in the treetops.
The bad thing about this day is that it reminded me of my of country origin, Belgium: the day was gray, gloomy and rainy. The good thing about this day is that many birds chose to hang around for the day rather than continue their migration. Indeed, that's how it turned out. We saw an impressive number of different birds.
I had been eager to try out the new Canon 60D DSLR on this tour, while keeping my load to a minimum, and I had therefore not brought a pair of binoculars. Note to beginning birders: this turned out to be a bad decision, and I was unable to see quite a few birds. Although the lens attached to the camera had a maximum zoom of 11x and the binoculars only 8x, the magnification you see when looking through them is far more spectacular with the binoculars. This is why true birders lug binoculars, not cameras. Of course, had I done that, I wouldn't have been able to show you anything at all. Now I can show you at least something.
Because of the cloudy and rainy weather, it was uncommonly dark during the walk. As a result, the pictures are a lot grainier than I would have liked, but they do give at least some type of an idea of how it was, namely a pleasant, relaxing walk through a remarkable bit of nature.
The highlight for me personally was the sighting of a scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea). I knew them from my field guide, The ROM field guide to birds of Ontario, but these birds looked so red that I couldn't help but having a sneaking suspicion that something was wrong with the colour printing. I was wrong. This bird looks every bit as red as the guide shows. It is a spectacular sight. The picture I made doesn't do it justice, not even remotely, this is a marvellous bird.
We also saw a few rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus), baltimore orioles (Icterus galbula), several vireo species, including red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceus), more warbler species than my poor little memory is able to recall, including the Canada warbler (Wilsonia canadensis), gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis), eastern kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus), a few indigo buntings (Passerina cyanea), spectacularly blue birds which I unfortunately missed.
Scarlet tanager - Piranga olivacea
Scarlet tanager - Piranga olivacea
Although our guide wasn't very impressed and even had a sad look on his face when I announced to him that I had seen a blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata), it certainly made me very happy since I was able to make the best picture I've ever been able to make of one. He was probably thinking that he had gone so far out of his way to show us so many warblers, how then could I possibly be excited by the common blue jay? I think it shows that the unsophisticated birder can be happy with far less than the sophisticated one, but then, the blue jay is a spectacular bird as far as I am concerned.
Our guide can rest assured, however. I was thoroughly impressed with his knowledge of warblers. It takes me forever and a day to identify a bird on the basis of a picture, with my ROM Field Guide and the entire Internet at my disposal, and even then, I am often less than certain. The way he was able to accurately determine the species and gender of so many birds leaves me speechless.
I had a wonderful time, and -once again- I was amazed with the diversity of Toronto's nature. This is just not what I imagined Toronto would be when I arrived here.
People of Toronto often go North to escape the city. Of course, nothing can really replace the beauty, the rest and the ruggedness of bear country. However, they have to pay a high price to get just a few hours of this. In these days of diminishing purchasing power and increasing fuel prices, many people in Toronto could save themselves a lot of aggravation, time and money by simply staying home and taking the Red Rocket to one of Toronto's numerous parks.
Barred owl - Strix varia
Barred owl - Strix varia
Days like the International Migratory Bird Day and the events that organisations like Toronto Zoo organise around them can teach us and remind us of the sheer beauty of nature in Toronto itself. While I would certainly not presume to discourage anyone from going some place far, I am convinced that not enough people in Toronto realise what they have got here. And by staying here, and admiring our very own glorious nature in the city, we also help the environment, not just our own pocketbooks.
As a last thought: what would give you more pleasure: working every weekend in the garden of a cottage you can only visit a few months a year, or helping out with a local group to restore part of Toronto's very own natural environment and having the possibility to enjoy it every single day of the year?
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