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.


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!

A New Friend

Our first time meeting …

And later that same evening s/he got even more bold…

S/he returned again the next day…

And the next!

Little bird friend. Photo by Heather Kelly.

Now I look forward to our daily visits!

Ann Brokelman’s Toronto Wildlife Photography Safaris

Photograph by Ann Brokelman. “The Kiss”. February 3, 2020

Ann Brokelman spends every day out in Toronto’s parks and wilder areas, with her camera and a coffee. Since retiring from the City of Toronto’s Arts & Culture division 4 years ago, she has enjoyed countless hours watching and photographing Toronto animals, from buck to beaver (that is just today!), coyotes, fox, birds, and every other local creature you can think of.

A “Wildlife Photography Safari with Ann Brokelman” was one of the silent auction items at the Toronto Wildlife Centre’s Wild Ball last November, donated to raise funds for the TWC. When I commented to other Wild Ball volunteers that night about how awesome the photography safari would be, I heard from them that Ann is a wonderful photographer and might also be a TWC volunteer. It turns out that she is both.

Ann has been a wildlife photographer for more than 13 years. She also helps with Toronto Wildlife Centre animal rescues, and she has been part of hundreds of releases when an animal has healed or grown enough to be returned to the wild. She photographs many of the releases for the TWC.

Ann Brokelman releasing an owl back into the wilderness

Her Wildlife Photography Safaris were created when Ann was looking for a way to donate to the Toronto Wildlife Centre. She thought, “I know where the animals are in Toronto, so why don’t I take people with me.”

On her first safari, three years ago with a woman who works as a neurologist, they saw 67 different species in one day. They were out from 8am until 6pm. Ann says, “we were on a roll… baby hawks, baby swans, baby ducks, baby deer …  we just kept going because it was one of those things – this is the only chance!”

It was a friend of mine’s birthday last week. I had been thinking for weeks about what would be a super special gift for her. My friend is a birder and co-founded the Toronto chapter of a bird watching group, and a gardener, and photographer with a new camera she is getting to know. I thought of the photography safari auction item at the Wild Ball, and contacted the TWC’s event manager, Elena. She contacted Ann. It turned out that yes, Ann does offer Wildlife Photography Safaris year-round, to anyone who would like to go on one. A portion of her fee goes to Ann to cover costs and the rest goes directly to the Toronto Wildlife Centre as a donation. The perfect gift for my friend.

To prep for each full-day or half-day outing, Ann asks people which animals they are most interested in seeing. She says, there are some animals she can pretty much guarantee could be seen every day. Others, of course, are seasonal.

Guests on Ann’s safaris have the opportunity to use her camera. (A Canon 7D Mk with a 400mm prime lens.) The lens is crucial for getting clear colour-rich photos of animals and birds from a distance. Also, “you can see behaviour so much better by taking a short 30 second clip,” she says of the chance to video record using her equipment. If the person prefers to use their own equipment rather than her camera, Ann will take a few memory photos of the day.

One of the safaris she guided last year was with a fellow who was thrilled with the wildlife images he got, including Red Tailed Hawk babies. Ann tells me, “These babies were about 3 weeks old and they were dancing! So I suggested that he video record them. The adult came in with food and he captured all that on video.” This safari guest was a photographer with his own equipment that he used most of the day, but he used Ann’s long-distance lens and the video capabilities of her camera to be able to get the shots that were so special to him.

A Wildlife Photography Safari full day is around 6 or 7 hours, including driving to locations, walking, and enjoying the outdoors. Ann likes to help people understand the animals they see and why they are seeing it – all of the things that make it interesting.

She shows her guests things like how to stand to get great photos, how to use her camera, and “I can give people background of what has happened and what will happen next with the animal.” She says, “I try to teach the person about what we are seeing, what’s going on, what to expect, why the animals are here, what they are doing, what’s going on with them this time of year.”

“More than just taking pictures, it’s what’s going on in nature and in the world.” – Ann Brokelman

“Right now there are Snowy Owls all over the place – there are 8 that I know. In May, the little birds are coming through, and there are 5 locations I go to. When photographing birds, what I am looking for is colouring. I want to see what colour the beak is, I want to see what colour the feathers are, what colour is the fur and is it healthy, what colour is their tail, are all of the tail feathers there… all of those things are important to know when you are taking photos. There are also techniques for how to get the animal’s eye in the light so you get the glint – that is what makes the photos come alive.”

She brings a monopod or tripod, as well as her two all-time favourite books: Behavior Of North American Mammals by Mark Elbroch and Kirk Reinhart (which she found in Muskoka, and I intend to find online) and The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior by David Allen Sibley, which she received as a gift from a friend. “I really love to study and read about animals. I carry these books with me and if I see something unusual, one of these two books will usually explain what is happening.”

After the day of photographing wildlife, Ann adjusts the best of the photos in Photoshop and provides all of the images from the day as large Jpgs on a USB key for the safari guest to keep.   

Ann waiting for a heron to move…

When I spoke with Ann on the phone at 5:30pm, she had just arrived home after being out since 12:30pm. She said, “Today I picked up a coffee pulled up into a park with my camera, my coffee, and my purse. I went for a walk and saw nothing. Then on my way back to my car I saw a buck! I got photos of two bucks together with a young buck. And a strange thing happened. One of the bucks put its head between female’s legs and picked her right up off the ground. I thought, what is going on? Rutting season is in November. And what is he doing with horns still… they should be gone this time of year. I will investigate… this is unusual behaviour for this time of year.”

At that same park this afternoon, a woman asked Ann if she had seen the beavers. Ann had replied that she hadn’t seen the beavers for quite a while. So Ann went over to where the beavers are, watched as one cleared the bark off a branch, finished and tossed it away, and got another branch to work on. Ann got some wonderful photos of the mom and the baby beaver above the water. A particularly special treat, since it is the first week of February, and a thick layer of ice is usually covering the water.

Photograph by Ann Brokelman. Beaver. February 3, 2020

“I live and breathe nature,” she says. “Even at my house we have cameras and night vision cams all over the place. It is especially great to see the animals’ behaviour. There is a fox who pees in the exact same place every night.”

“Today I spent a lot of time videotaping and took a lot of photos… I can just watch the animals as well – I don’t need to take images. When I take someone else out with me, I don’t shoot – I focus on their experience.”

“I could tell you the story of every photo I have ever taken – where I was, when it was, who I was with. A beautiful shot and a beautiful moment become a memory.

I am a memory photographer.”

Photographer and Toronto Wildlife Photography Safari guide Ann Brokelman volunteers for Coyote Watch Canada, Shade of Hope, Toronto Wildlife Centre, and The Owl Foundation. She also writes “On the Wild Side” articles for Beach Metro News.

She can be found online at:

Ann Brokelman Photography in the Wild

Nature Photos By Ann Brokelman


Ann Brokelman’s On the Wild Side articles in Beach Metro News are here

A gorgeous story featuring Ann Brokelman’s images in the Niagara Escarpment News is here