Burn it with fire: saving the oak savannah of High Park


Do you have a favourite tree? I can’t say I do, but lately, I’ve been kind of fascinated by the oak trees in my neighbourhood. It’s a bit of a novelty for me, because in other places I’ve lived there were very few oaks. I’ve been enjoying observing them change through the seasons. They have tremendous beauty and presence.
I became even more interested in the local oak trees after a recent guided walking tour of High Park. The guide spoke about the history of the park and the tension between conserving it in its natural and wild state and developing it as an outdoor leisure space with things like playgrounds, baseball diamonds and the zoo. But the thing that stood out to me was the mention of the term black oak savannah. I hadn’t heard of it before but I wanted to know more.
So I did a little online research and learned that oak savannahs consist of areas of tall grasses and wildflowers and about 25 to 35 per cent tree cover. And one reason I hadn’t heard of it may be because it’s quite rare and endangered.

High Park’s black oak savannah makes up about one third of the park. But it’s at risk,  and conservationists are working to restore and preserve it.

Why is it in danger? One of the big reasons is lack of fire. The plant species you’ll find in the black oak savannah have evolved to not only tolerate, but thrive in an environment where lightning would periodically cause fires.  These fires  would actually renew and invigorate the plantlife. Over the past 100 years this natural fire cycle has been suppressed. This means that he native plants not growing and thriving as they should be and non-native species, which would normally be killed by fire,  have had the opportunity to invade and compete for resources.

So for more than a decade the City of Toronto has been burning parts of High Park in “prescribed burns.” Here’s an interesting description of prescribed burns in High Park that took place in 2012 (links to the website of LEAF the not-for profit group).

Although the city is working to restore the black oak savannah  there’s an additional complication: many of the mature oaks in High Park are approaching the end of their natural lives and these very old trees seem to be dying earlier than expected because of factors like drought and fungi.

It’s interesting to note that Ernest Hemingway tried to warn everyone about black oaks dying in High Park way back in 1923 in this article for the Toronto Daily Star.  Ninety years later, is it too late for High Park’s rare black oak savannah?





On the importance of walking –and the importance of being still

The nature walk or hike is probably the most obvious and one of the more common ways to experience nature. When I started seeking nature, I kind of thought there’d be a double benefit: The nature part and the exercise. But I’ve found that appreciating nature involves a fair amount of being still and quiet.

I can recall as a kid my parents would sometimes insist on taking a family outing to walk a trail at a nearby conservation area. I was never very impressed. There were trees, some ferns, a few birds, nothing particularly exciting or interesting. At that time I wanted to just get through as quickly as possible and be done with it.
Now that I’ve gained a new appreciation for nature I’ve learned that if you’re in too much of a hurry you miss a lot.

IMG_0798Here’s a photo of a cute little downy woodpecker I saw on a recent walk.  I had heard them nearby on a few occasions, but it wasn’t until I stopped and stood still for a few minutes that I spotted two or three of them. They have a sort of bouncy way of flying and they move along on tree branches with amazing speed, climbing sideways and upside-down on even very slender twigs. It was cool to watch.
Here’s a cool link to some more tips for viewing wildlife. The source is the Government of the Yukon.

When it seems like winter will never end

Since we seem to be having some kind of Game of Thrones-style winter that feels like it’s lasting for years, I thought I’d post some photos of a place you can go to escape. Allan Gardens Conservatory is a series of greenhouses full of plants and trees from around the world. There are different sections with different kinds of plants including palms, tropical plants and desert plants.

I’ve been there a couple of times. It’s peaceful and soothing. But at the same time I got the sense that there is so much happening there, and I’m not talking about human activities. Maybe it’s because there are so many different kinds of plants thriving in a relatively small space–that’s a lot of photosynthesis per cubic foot. The tropical areas are lush and green and humid and a rich earthy smell permeates the whole place. It’s vibrant.

There are often people painting or drawing and photographing there. To help get through the the last of the winter blahs here are some shots I took.

The city as a safe haven –and four cool facts (plus a video!) about honey bees

IMG_0681I recently attended a day-long workshop called Bee-keeping 101 presented by the Toronto Bee Keepers Co-operative. One of the aims of the cooperative is to give inexperienced individuals the opportunity to learn about bees, bee keeping and the production of honey.

There’s been a lot of buzz (sorry) in the media lately about bees dying off in large numbers.  I was curious to learn more about what’s causing honey bees to die off in large numbers and what’s being done about it.

It turns out that there are probably multiple factors involved in the decline of honey bee populations, including pesticides, diseases, changing weather patterns and changes to the way crops are grown: bees eat pollen and nectar; bees (like humans) do better when they have a varied diet; with large-scale agriculture, often the same crops are grown for miles and miles and the honey bees don’t have a variety of plants to forage on.

Because of pesticides and agricultural practices, the city can actually be a safer and healthier place for bees. Toronto, for instance, is now pesticide-free. The Bee Keeper’s Co-operative has bee hives at various locations in Toronto, including on top of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel.  In fact, urban bee keeping is becoming a trend, with cities like London, Paris and Tokyo all making room for hives.

Here are four more cool facts  (and a video) about bees:

  • Honey bees are not native to North America. They were brought from Europe because of the high cost of shipping sugar.
  • The worker honey bees that collect nectar and pollen for the hive are all female.
  • The worker bees have a foraging range of about 6 kilometres, so when you see honey varieties like buckwheat honey or clover honey, the producer knows what kinds of flower nectar the honey is made from based on the types of flowering plants growing within range of the hives.
  • The queen bee is the only female that mates and lays eggs for the hive.  She typically goes on only one mating flight where she mates with several drones (male bees). When she goes back to the hive she can lay eggs for years just from that one flight!

Below is a super cool clip about the mating flight of the queen bee from a documentary about honey bees called More than honey. I haven’t see the whole movie but this clip kind of blew my mind because the up-close, slow-motion footage of the queen bee and the drones in flight is amazing. There are also some more interesting facts about bees mating (Spoiler alert: The drones that mate with the queen die after they do their duty.)

What does the hawk say?

hawkcThe first time I noticed a red-tailed hawk outside my window it was a BIG DEAL. But now, because i’m paying more attention to the sky and trying to be observant, I’ve seen these guys a lot lately. It turns out they’re not actually that rare. You can often see them if you’re on the highway (not if you’re the one driving though!).

They’re pretty awesome to watch. They have an impressive wingspan and they soar beautifully.

I read a bit about hawks on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All about Birds Website, a very good resource I’ve been using whenever I want to find out more about a bird I’ve seen.

I won’t repeat all the cool and interesting things I learned about hawks on the site, except one: the part about the sound the hawk makes. According to the site, the red-tailed hawk makes a screeching keeee-ah noise. This is literally the stereotypical bird-of-prey noise, because many movie sound-effects use this beautiful screech for any and all birds of prey featured on screen, including eagles.

Here’s a link to the page where you can hear several different sounds the hawk makes.

Why connect with nature?

Last summer I spent a few days at an eco-lodge near Algonquin Park. I saw loons and blue herons and more stars than I have seen in a long time. I went on a day-long canoe excursion on beautiful pristine lakes where there were no other people around for miles. It was a refreshing and renewing getaway.

Since my getaway up north, I’ve made a conscious effort to connect more with nature. Why? Two reasons:

1. Science — I can’t quantify the benefits of my getaway. But it turns out the sense of well-being I felt is probably not just some idiosyncracy of mine or a coincidence. Scientists have recently been studying the effects of nature on well-being and found that  people who spend more time in nature enjoy increased immunity and energy levels, as well as decreased stress and decreased risk of heart attack and diabetes. This cool infographic (right) sums it up pretty well. It was created for the David Suzuki Foundation’s 30×30 Challenge, which asked Canadians to spend just 30 minutes outside for 30 days in May of 2013. Click to view the infographic on the 30X30 Challenge blog  for more interesting facts and links to scientific studies.

2. It’s easy and free I think an important message of the 30X30 Challenge was that you don’t have to go outside of the range of cellphones and WiFi to experience nature, you just have to go outside.  Also, this challenge acknowledged that it’s not easy to get outside for 30 minutes at a stretch every day. But I think that connecting with nature can be as simple as shifting your attention.  For example, sometimes I don’t have time to go for a whole walk outside. But while I’m waiting for the bus, I can observe trees, clouds, even pigeons (seriously, pigeons are funny, the way their little heads always bob when they walk!) and that to me is a legitimate, though perhaps not ideal way of experiencing nature. Again, I can’t measure the benefits of this particular strategy. But it’s been enriching for me to shift my focus away from my phone screen and outwards. I’ll be posting about some of the cool things I’ve seen lately by doing this.


Blogging about nature? It’s only natural


This blog is about one person’s quest to connect with nature while living and working in the city. My name is Steph and this whole seeking nature thing is fairly new to me. I’ve always lived in cities or suburbs. I’m not a biologist or ecologist and until recently, my main thoughts about nature were limited to a passing interest in the weather report and an increasing sense of doom about climate change.

So why have I suddenly taken an interest in nature? I think I’ve been drawn to it lately as part of my search for  balance. Nature seems to me to be an antidote for the increasingly hectic pace of life. Scientific studies have shown that nature is therapeutic and can enhance our physical and mental well-being (I’ll be writing more about this in a future post).

Why am I blogging about it? Two reasons:

1. Taking nature appreciation to the next level — Yes, nature is beautiful, but when you dig deeper and learn more about plants and animals, how they’ve adapted to the environment and the ways they interact with each other, nature becomes not only beautiful but awe-inspiring. By blogging about nature, I’m learning more and appreciating more.

2. Sharing with others –I’ve been led to believe the internet is a pretty powerful tool for connecting with other people who share similar interests. Hopefully other people who are interested in discovering nearby nature will find some information of use here and can share their knowledge as well, like some kind of symbiotic relationship.