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Birdwatching in (and out of) Toronto

One of the many thing I like about going to Canada is the chance to see birds I wouldn't see at home. A glance outside can be rewarded not by Blue Tits and Blackbirds but by Cardinals, House Finches and American Robins. Those last ones, by the way, are different from Robins back home in that they are in fact thrushes which are so named on account of their red breasts. Similar, but different.

I was in Toronto very recently, and one day while I was there I went for a walk through parks and along a stream that winds its way between the back gardens of Toronto's western suburbs - just to see what I could see (much like going for a walk in a London park). Bird life was pleasingly abundant - mainly in the form of those American Robins. Also spotted were Black-capped Chickadees, Common Grackles, House Sparrows (the same as the ones back home, this species having been introduced to North America in the nineteenth century), Yellow-rumped Warblers and the unmistakeable Cardinals.

On a lake in one of the parks, I spotted Mallards and smaller black-and-white diving ducks that I initially took to be Tufted Ducks although they were in fact Ring-necked Ducks (although not unheard-of in North America, Tufted Ducks are very rare over here, unlike Mallards which were introduced from Europe and are very common) - similar, but different. Beside the lake were more American Robins, some Red-winged Blackbirds and some small thrushes with red-ish tails (idenitified as Hermit Thrushes which, like the Ring-necked Ducks, were a 'first' for me). There were also some thrush-like birds which I couldn't for the life of me identify, until I re-checked my field guide and realised that they were female Red-winged Blackbirds.

A few days later, I went to High Park where I've had some good sightings on previous trips. In the wooded ravine on the western side, I quickly notched up not one but two species of woodpecker - the Hairy Woodpecker and its smaller Downy cousin. There were more American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, Hermit Thrushes and House Sparrows (which are really common in Toronto - more so than in London, I reckon), as well as White-throated Sparrows and bright yellow American Goldfinches.

On Grenadier Pond (so-called, apparently, because a group of British Grenadiers from the garrison at Fort York fell through thin ice while crossing the pond to fight the Americans in the War of 1812) I saw several types of ducks, including the Mallards and Shovelers that we get in Britain as well as the colourful Wood Duck; a Great Egret was spotted waiting silently for fish, while a Double-Breasted Cormorant flew overhead.

Not far from the café, I spotted a third species of woodpecker although this one wasn't black and white - it had brown and black wings, a beige tummy with black spots and a black 'bib'. It acted a lot like the Green Woodpecker, on checking the field guide I noted that I had seen my first Northern Flicker. Overhead I saw a Red-tailed Hawk.

As I walked on the park's eastern side I was accosted by a jogger who, presumably because I was carrying binoculars, deduced that I was a birdwatcher. "There's a pair of blah-blah-blah over there, by that yellow tree", he said, indicating a tree some fifty yards away. "I saw them there the other day." I thanked him and walked over to where he'd indicated, realising as I did so that I had no idea what bird he had mentioned. The tree in question had a hole some thirty feet up, which I suppose may have been a woodpecker nest, but I didn't see anything there.

After seeing a few Tree Swallows catching flies over a pond in the park's south-eastern corner, I left the park and headed for the shoreline of Lake Ontario, where I was rewarded by two more species of duck, neither of which I'd seen before; the Long-tailed Duck and the impressive-looking Bufflehead.

The most impressive sighting of the trip, though, didn't occur in Toronto and nor did it concern a bird I'd never seen before. By the shores of Lake Simcoe, we spotted an Osprey hunting for fish. Now I've seen an Osprey before - over twenty years ago, when we visited the RSPB reserve at Loch Garten on a family holiday in Scotland. But that was different - Loch Garten, after all, exists as a reserve because of the Ospreys and when people go there they're disappointed if they don't see them. While staying with family friends in Orillia, I did get to see plenty of bird activity on the garden bird-feeder (plus a Northern Flicker in said garden, along with plenty of American Robins) but we hadn't expected to see an Osprey. Yet there we were, treated to the sight of one hovering over the lake, gradually dropping down ("looks like he's seen something...") and then splashing into the lake, to emerge carrying a large fish.

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