A jewel of a park built on landfill

Returning from a bike ride on a warm and sunny Sunday in September, I braked to a sudden stop and looked down. A small green spotted frog sat enjoying the radiating warmth of the asphalt path. I turned my front wheel to shield it from oncoming cyclists until it hopped to the safety of the deep grass of the Leslie Street Spit nature area.

This little frog is just one example of the fauna and flora awaiting the intrepid park explorer at Tommy Thomson Park, also known as the Leslie Street Spit. PHOTO: Martina Rowley
This little frog is just one example of the fauna and flora awaiting the intrepid park explorer at Tommy Thomson Park, also known as the Leslie Street Spit.
PHOTO: Martina Rowley

The Leslie Street Spit is a marvel along our city’s waterfront. A haven for hundreds of animal and bird species as well as humans, this park is far removed from urban traffic and concrete structures, yet concrete is its very foundation.

Birth of the Peninsula

In the late 1950s, the Toronto Harbour Commissioners – now the Toronto Port Authority – began constructing a peninsula off Unwin Road as protective barrier for a planned harbour expansion. Shipping never did increase but construction continued. Millions of cubic metres of concrete from construction sites, earth fill, and sand dredged from the outer harbour were disposed of, and created a new green space.

Many plant seeds blew in and took hold, and since the mid-90s the Toronto Region Conservation Authority has planted many additional species to improve plant coverage and diversity. Birds and animals started arriving, nesting, and breeding, and now return year after year. Today, the Spit – officially known as Tommy Thompson Park – has paved and gravel paths allowing access through naturalised meadow areas, ponds and marshes, and leads to a lighthouse on the southwesterly tip.

Heavy concrete rubble and armouring along the eastern shoreline protect the peninsula from erosion and keep the 5 km-long, 500 hectares of new land in place. The only small buildings are a staff booth and information centre, an outdoor environmental classroom, and a bird research station.

The role of the TRCA

About half of the land and interior bodies of water are owned and managed by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, which implements a master plan and annual operating program. The areas still under construction are owned by the Ministry of Natural Resources and leased to the Toronto Port Authority.

“We manage the park with the view to let natural succession be the driving force, but since it’s bricks and rubble, it needs a helping hand,” TRCA project manager Karen McDonald says.

Funding from Waterfront Toronto allowed for the addition of many more indigenous plant species between 2006 and 2012, including eastern cottonwood, trembling aspen, and coniferous trees. Herbaceous plants (bulrush and arrowhead) created and enhanced wetlands, and nectar-producing plants targeted butterflies.

“Butterflies are an ‘umbrella group,’ so if you have a habitat that butterflies like, you will get other insects and animals too,” explains McDonald.

TRCA staffing for the Spit is minimal: One person covers public engagement during weekend opening hours, and during spring and autumn bird migrations volunteers help monitor bird activities. Staff and volunteers conduct annual bird counts of the main species to track population changes and signs of stress or threats to nesting areas, and undertake water sampling, monitor and study pond vegetation and fish population, marsh birds, amphibians, and more. Bird boxes for tree swallows and other birds as well as nesting reef rafts for Caspian terns have also been installed.

A crew of four manages the colonial water birds from March to June, adding to a total 5,000 hours dedicated to monitoring in 2014. Upcoming projects for the Spit are the creation of another wetland, and interpretative signage.

Nature-Lover’s Paradise

Every year, over 100,000 visitors enjoy the park on weekends and holidays. These hours are a safety measure, while dump trucks continue with infilling on weekdays. The Spit is a significant urban wilderness with wildflower meadows, cottonwood forests, coastal marshes, cobble beaches, and sand dunes. All kinds of wildlife flourish here and it is one of the best nature and bird-watching areas in the GTA.

A staggering 316 bird species have been counted! In addition to 55 breeding species, it is a vital stopover and resting place during spring and autumn migration and you can see songbirds, raptors, waterfowl, and shorebirds. Over 50 species of butterflies flutter by, with thousands of monarchs decorating the low shrubs in late August and early September. Amongst the 400 resident plants there are even some rare ones, like prickly pear cactus, ladies’ tresses, and bog twayblade.

The Friends of the Spit group watches and counts birds and conducts their own annual butterfly count, including monitoring the monarch migration. The group is also part of the park advisory group.

In 2000, the park was named a Globally Significant Important Bird Area by BirdLife International for its significant numbers of birds nesting in large groups or colonies, called colonial birds. These include gulls (ring-billed, herring, and great black-backed), terns (Caspian and common), great egrets, black-crowned night herons, and the ubiquitous double-crested cormorants.

Recreational activities permitted are cycling, inline skating, jogging, hiking, and fishing. The mostly paved loop is around 10 km in length. Pets and motorised vehicles are not allowed in the park, in order to protect the myriad wildlife.

The Cormorant Colony

Local residents and regular visitors are probably familiar with the sight of black cormorants. They sun-bathe on the rocky inlets offshore, fly just above the surface in the hundreds to fish in what looks like strings of dark pearls, and swoosh overhead to get to their nests. If you spend any time on the Spit or the surrounding waterways, you will know the cacophony of chatter and pungent smells emanating from their colony on the inner harbour.

Cormorants began nesting there in 1990, becoming the largest colony on the Great Lakes, with 12,000 nesting pairs last year. They mostly nest in trees but also on the ground, and the impact on the park flora from their guano is clearly visible. The conservation authority does not support culling them, rather aiming to achieve a balance between this thriving colony and other park values.

Not to be outdone, the ring-billed gull colonies are one of the largest gull breeding grounds in the world!

Mammals and other Species

For those less interested in feathered creatures, there is a good chance of seeing mammals or reptiles like red fox, rabbits, coyotes, beaver, mink, muskrat, turtles, frogs, toads, and garter snakes. Cyclists: always watch where you point your wheels! If you’re lucky and patient you may also spot the less common opossums, bats, skunks, or hares.

Whatever you go to see on the Spit, its natural beauty and escapism won’t disappoint – you wouldn’t even know you are in a big city. The sights, sounds, and fragrances of the park and surrounding Lake Ontario are a true marvel in our fast-paced urban surrounding.

The park is open year-round and winter operating hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from November to March. Admission and parking are free.

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