Backyard Birding

For the last few years, I’ve secretly felt like it’s a good sign or omen when the cardinals come to visit.

I first noticed the male in the wintertime a few years ago. He always seemed to arrive on a significant day. He was in my front yard tree the day I was leaving on a trip, there on my brother’s birthday in December, and there – a bright red heart in the middle of the skeletal branches of the tree on Valentine’s Day.

Now the male and female couple visit our back yard almost every day. Together and individually, depending on the day. I always know when they are here, even if I am inside the house: they announce themselves loudly and chirp a lively conversation in their distinct voices. 

I am astonished at the birds who visit my back yard now that I put out nuts and seeds for them. 

The first to arrive were the gang I call ‘My Peeps.’ the little chickadees and house sparrows. As I watched them, I was delighted to see them feeding each other and to notice how often they wipe their beak. Whew knew that little birds wipe their beaks so often?!?

Joining them was a pretty little house finch who arrived next. It was a lovely surprise to see her red head and neck among the Peeps. 

I think the next to arrive were the starlings.

Most recently, a mourning dove has joined the party and added its distinct voice to the conversations. She usually shows up later in the day – late afternoon or early evening.

Occasional visitors include a family of Yellow-bellied sapsuckers tap tap tapping on the tree or side of the cedar shed.

One blue jay was an occasional visitor and has now become a more frequent guest. Just this week for the first time there were two blue jays on my porch railing and in the tree. What a joy!

I see little goldfinches in parks all over Toronto and once in my backyard tree. But they are so fast and skittish that I haven’t (yet!) been able to photograph one.

The robins who visit my yard have, interestingly, not been interested in the nuts and seeds -perhaps they are more carnivorous, preferring worms and insects? But it is so much fun to watch them and others splash up a storm in the birdbath in the yard. I’ll admit that I was not a big fan of the look of the concrete birdbath, but this summer I’ve seen so many birds frolicking in the water that I absolutely love it now! 

My friend Suzanne and so many other people in the city have been birdwatching for years, and are super knowledgeable about who everyone is. I can’t yet identify most of my backyard guests by sight or by call, but I look forward to getting to know them – and their distinct personalities and voices. 

Hashbrown’s Squash Garden

Hashbrown has a wonderful Squash Garden! Hashbrown is the education groundhog at the Toronto Wildlife Centre. (See my earlier post about her here.)

Eric, one of the staff people at the TWC, does a great job and is super creative in her enclosure, enrichment, and care. He gave me a tour of the garden when I arrived for my shift this week. The garden is awesome – and it came about organically, so to speak.

Hashbrown is fed squash as part of her diet, among other fruits and vegetables. She has her own large room at the TWC, and it has tunnels under a thick layer of mulch and greenery. There are toys and a kennel for her above the mulch ground.

Eric has been cleaning and improving her room for months. He dumps her dirty mulch at a certain spot in the grounds — and it started sprouting!

Apparently from Hashbrown was passing the seeds in her seed-filled poop. The mulch was being dumped into a site with plenty of fertilizer, sunshine, rain, and wind protection. It started routing and growing! Recently Eric asked Lauren, another staff person, to make a sign, and together they created this adorable garden marker.

It is now growing big healthy squash!

Camping at the Toronto Zoo

Lion at the Toronto Zoo. Photo by Heather Kelly.

Waking up to lion roars and hyena chuffs – I’m guessing that’s who the sounds came from – is pretty amazing. Camping overnight at The Toronto Zoo is a supercool experience.

The Zoo just started offering camping this summer, since they currently can’t offer their regular overnight program in their tents with group activities, due to covid-19. I love the idea of camping at the Zoo, but I don’t have kids and I would never have done the regular program. I am glad they adapted and ended up creating a program that is much more accessible and appealing (to me).

Hyena at the Toronto Zoo. Photo by Heather Kelly.

Called “Wild Tails,” the overnight experience includes:

  • Individual campsite reserved for the night
  • Self-guided exploration of the Zoo, including after-hours and pre-public morning access to the African Savanna and Canadian Domain regions
  • Burger or hotdog dinner with drink, chips, and small frozen dessert
  • Light breakfast snack and coffee or tea in the morning

Campers are provided with a handbook by email before arrival (it is also on the Zoo’s website) and are expected to bring their own tent and camping equipment. Only tents are permitted, no trailers or RVs, since the campsite is delineated spaces in a small field.

We found it a little confusing when we arrived, as there is no signage at the arrival location with instructions or to indicate where to meet the staff person. But a staff person soon arrives and they have a well-structured system for informing guests and leading everyone through the Zoo and to the campsite location.

It is a bit of a chore to haul everything from the vehicle to the designated site, and then park the vehicle in another field area nearby. But the campsite location is well-situated in the Zoo, with washrooms and covered picnic/seating area nearby. There were two staff people based in the covered seating area to support the campers for most of the evening, and snacks and beverages were served from that area in the morning.

Wild Tails campsite at the Toronto Zoo. Photo by Heather Kelly.

After unloading our vehicle and setting up the tent, at around 5:30pm we went to walk around the Zoo and visit the animals. The Zoo was still open to the public at that time. We enjoyed the experience more after the Zoo was closed and there were only the other overnight campers – far fewer people on the paths.

Common Eland at the Toronto Zoo. Photo by Heather Kelly.

My husband Jeff was particularly enthralled by the rhino and the hippos.

I love all creatures (as you know from reading other posts on this blog) but I was especially thrilled to meet baby longlegs, a.k.a. Amani, the beautiful baby giraffe who was born there this springtime. I had been watching livestreams and online videos of her on the Zoo’s great YouTube and Facebook channels, and she is (of course) even more gorgeous in person.

Amani (baby longlegs) at the Toronto Zoo. Photo by Heather Kelly.
Giraffes at the Toronto Zoo. Photo by Heather Kelly.
Bison at dusk. Toronto Zoo. Photo by Heather Kelly.

It was also especially lovely to see and photograph the animals in the dusk and dawn light. The photos above were taken in the evening. Here are a few of the animals in the morning light:

Ostrich at Sunrise. Toronto Zoo. Photo by Heather Kelly.
Zebra in morning light at the Toronto Zoo. Photo by Heather Kelly.
Lions in the morning at the Toronto Zoo. Photo by Heather Kelly.

The Wild Tails camping program is primarily set up for families with children, but it also fun for adults who are happy to camp in a makeshift campsite in the middle of the zoo. Members get a discounted rate but you don’t have to be a member to book the camping experience.

Of course masks were worn and protocols were followed. All of the staff we spoke with were knowledgeable, helpful, and friendly, and helped to make it a really enjoyable experience.

Details are here:

Flight of the Monarch Day

Today is National Flight of the Monarch Day! Here is the official proclamation, (complete with whereas and therefore … who speaks or writes like that??):

WHEREAS: Monarch butterflies are one of the most iconic and cherished insects in North America. Their epic 5,000-kilometre migration from eastern Canada to the forests of central Mexico begins in late August each year. In 2013, the eastern population of monarch butterflies dropped by 95 per cent, the smallest recorded population since the mid-1990s. Since 2013, the population has rebounded, thanks in part to the collective efforts of thousands of individuals, groups and communities across Canada, but the monarch’s future remains in serious peril. Flight of the Monarchs Day is an opportunity to celebrate the growing movement to protect monarch butterflies and the astonishing phenomenon of their migration as their epic journey southward begins.

THEREFORE, I do hereby proclaim August 22, 2020 as Flight of the Monarch Day.

In Wild City, Doug Bennet & Tim Tiner write: “Monarchs employ the same strategy as migrating hawks, spiralling upwards on warm columns of rising air, called thermals,climbing up to 1500 metres (5,000 feet), then gliding in the wind until they hook on to another thermal. By early November, often hundreds of millions of the orange wind-riders from all over eastern North America converge on about a dozen volcanic mountains in central Mexico’s Sierra Madres. Yet none of has ever made the trip before.”

As part of the City of Toronto Biodiversity Series of booklets, the city published Butterflies of Toronto – A Guide to Their Remarkable World. The following are excerpts from the guide:

“Monarchs in southern Ontario have two or more generations each year, with the adults living about 30 days. However, late summer adults emerge in a state of suspended reproductive development known as “reproductive diapause.” These are the true migrants that can live up to nine months, reaching the wintering sites in Mexico, maturing over the winter months and beginning the northward journey to the southern U.S. in mid- to late February.”

“Female Monarchs generally lay a single egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf, probably laying 300 to 400 eggs over the course of their lifetime. It is simply remarkable that Monarch caterpillars can feed on milkweed plants. Milkweed has evolved certain traits to protect it from becoming insect food. It has a bed of prickly hairs on its leaves that a caterpillar must remove before it can puncture the plant. If the caterpillar isn’t careful, the milky latex that oozes from the puncture can entrap and kill it. Finally, cardiac glycosides within the leaf are toxic to most insects, but Monarch caterpillars are able to redeploy the plant’s toxins for use in their own defense, retaining them in their body tissues even throughout the pupal and adult stages.”

You can read the complete Butterflies of Toronto guide here.

Day Trip to Haute Goat

Today we went on a day trip to Haute Goat, a lovely visitor-friendly farm just outside of Port Hope, Ontario. We needed a little holiday and to get out of town without a big commitment or discomfort – and this day trip was perfect!

Haute Goat is a farm that produces goat milk, goat cheese, etc., and it is a visitor experience. It is owned and run by a couple originally from Toronto. Debbie, who I spoke with on the phone as I was booking our “goat shmurgle” and our lunch with alpacas, worked in the film industry in Toronto for years before moving out of the city.

When we arrived, there was a welcome station set up where they asked us questions about health and travel, as part of their covid-19 protocols. Everyone wore masks. Past the ranch-style wooden gate, there is a building on the right side that is the café. We went in to choose what we were going to have for lunch and place the order for later. We then walked around the property a little bit, went to the barn and enclosed yard where there were goats of all sizes and colours. Baby goats, big goats, black, brown, and cream coloured goats.

When it came time for our “goat shmurgle,” we met outside of the café, and went with a small group of other guests back to the goat’s playground just outside the barn. When the large gate was opened, there was a stampede of goats! They sure knew where they were going! They trotted in a herd past the visitors, up the little hill, past the café, past the alpacas, directly into the meadow. Yummy yummy greens for goats in there. We just followed them.

In the meadow, we were able to pet the goats, and pick up the babies. After some grazing (for the goats) and playing with goats (for the humans), we moved on to another meadow. I was able to carry little Calamity (sister to little Rukus) – we carried the babies so everyone could keep up!

Feta the goat. Photo by Heather Kelly.

We all then walked with the goats to an enclosed area just outside of the playground, and were able to sit on benches with the goats and feed them cedar. Wow, they looooove the cedar!! It was hilarious and a little chaotic! The goats hopped up on the benches, and sometimes on the people. After all, Haute Goat also offers goat yoga, and these goats are trained to hop on people’s back if it is in a table-like position. So much fun!

When the goat experience came to an end and the goats were to be returned to their yard, we went up to have lunch with the alpacas. We checked in and waited at the café, and when our lunches were ready, we walked into the alpaca paddock and had lunch at the picnic table.

A couple of staff people brought alpaca treats, which brought the alpacas to the table- an in our face! We couldn’t eat our food right away with the alpacas clamouring for their pellet treats, but that was an amazing experience. Once we did get to our lunch, the food was simple but totally delicious.

I had never been that close to an alpaca or a goat before today. What a joy! It was only after we got home that we realized that we could have harvested a big basket of vegetables from the farm for $10 and brought them home with us. I’m sure they would have been delicious, but I don’t feel like we missed out on anything. I am excited to go back again in the springtime when there are new baby goats to cuddle!


A female Common Whitetail Dragonfly. Photo by Heather Kelly.

When I worked with the Canadian Aboriginal Festival and Pow-wow in Toronto many years ago, I was very fortunate to work with an Indigenous woman named Ilona Stanley. Ilona told me that dragonflies symbolize that all things are possible, and she gave me a beautiful birchbark biting in the shape of a dragonfly. The birchbark is framed in silver, on a tan leather cord to go around the neck.

I think of Ilona every time I see a dragonfly. She appears in a poem and small book art piece I made, which you can check out here if you’re so inclined.

Ilona was Ojibwe from Waywayseecappo First Nations in Manitoba, and one of the last remaining birchbark biting artists in the world. She was selling her art in the marketplace at the Festival the year that I met her. Sadly, Ilona passed away not long later, in 2007. Her birchbark bitings and other art works are in private and public collections worldwide.

I’ve since read online that dragonfly symbols often signify swiftness, as well as transformation, the constant process of change, and rebuilding after hardship. I read somewhere that “To wear the dragonfly symbol is to encourage forward movement.” I particularly like this concept right now, as we are 5 months into the pandemic, and at a turning point as we prepare for life this autumn.

Dragonflies have been on earth for more than 300 million years.

There are more than 5,000 species of dragonflies in the world, and approximately 150 different dragonflies in Ontario. The one I photographed on the East Don Trail / Moccasin Trail Park in Toronto looks to me a female Common Whitetail. (I used Ontario Nature Magazine’s online resource to look it up.)

Thanks to their two sets of wings, dragonflies are phenomenal at flying. They can fly straight up, down, backwards, upside down, and hover – and they can go more than 50 km/hour!

If they can’t fly, they’ll starve because they only eat prey they catch with their feet while they are flying. Smithsonian Magazine has written that the flight of the dragonfly is so special that it has inspired engineers who dream of making robots that fly like dragonflies.

According to Wild City by Doug Bennet and Tim Tyner, most dragonflies names come from how it lays its eggs. There are skimmers who skim waters surface dropping their eggs to sink to the bottom to hatch. Darners slice open stems of water plants just below the surface and lay their eggs inside the plant. “Spiketail dragonflies swiftly dunk into the shallows to inject one egg at a time into the bottom, while in weedy waters, basket-tails drop just one big pay load of eggs, which are string together, and become strewn over submerged vegetation.”

Females can lay from 500 to more than 3,000 eggs. Dragonfly larvae eat whatever they can find in the water, including mosquitoes, fish, tadpoles, and larvae of other insects. Smithsonian Magazine says that, “at the end of its larval stage, the dragonfly crawls out of the water, then its exoskeleton cracks open and releases the insect’s abdomen, which had been packed in like a telescope. Its four wings come out, and they dry and harden over the next several hours to days.”

Yeah, it basically cracks open its own body and unfolds its new self out. How amazing is that.

Sprayed by a Skunk!

Well, it stung. And it felt like a right of passage.

Yesterday afternoon I was sprayed right in the eyes by a baby skunk.

And it wasn’t as bad as you’d think. From the way people talk about it, it seems like you can never wash the smell off and you’ll go around smelling like skunk for days or weeks.

It really stung, like any foreign substance in the eyes, and I couldn’t see for a minute or two. I wiped my eyes with a clean towel right away and felt fine within a couple of minutes. A bit like having had chlorine in the eyes from swimming. I used a proper (sanitized) eye wash in the bathroom, and then washed my face with warm water and soap.

Bathing in tomato juice is a myth (though bathing in it or anything else might reduce the smell a bit). More often it is recommended to wash with a mixture of peroxide, baking soda, and liquid soap. For me in this case, liquid soap was sufficient. It washed off the spray and the smell.

Skunks can be incredibly accurate when shooting their spray. It streams out of two glands under the tail, on each side of the anus. They can spray fairly accurately by the time they are about 3 months old. The spray is an oily substance that contains sulphur compounds, which give it both sting and smell.

As I have written about skunks before here, skunks would really rather not spray if they can help it. These adorable little ones were doing a great job stomping to scare me away, and one or two would give off just little squirts of spray. They are just learning!

Score one for the cute little guys!