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“The robins are feeding babies, Mami!”

Ray reported this to me a few days ago. He has been keeping tabs on the American Robins we saw building their nest at his school while “swifting” a few weeks ago. He and Lucas also watch the Starling and House Sparrow parents feeding their babies at the feeder outside our living room window.

“The babies are just as big as the adults, but fluffier.” Ray observes, “But they don’t fly very well.”

Nature was coming to us, so there was really no need to squeeze a hike into an already overscheduled June. But I am a keener – sometimes too much of a keener – I couldn’t resist a hike entitled “Wild Homes” in Rouge Park.

I forgot about the mosquitoes. Ten minutes into the hike Lucas started to whine and fidget in the carrier on my back. That was when I felt the first bite. Isaac ran back to the car to get long-sleeved hoodies.

Forest Animals And Their Homes

“Where are all the animals?” asked Ray “How will we find their homes?”

“We need to look for clues,” explained our guide.

Soon we were using our observation skills to find snails, caterpillars, damselflies, and birds. Birds like woodpeckers that carve holes into dead trees where they can build their nests and raise their young.

Rouge Park

Can you find the Woodpecker hole? PHOTO: DEBBIE BUEHLER

Lucas charmed everyone by using my binoculars – backwards – to look up into the trees for squirrel nests (dreys). But nests were hard to see because the trees were fully leaved (foliated). So our guide described how squirrels build more than one nest, in case one is ruined by a predator or gets infested by parasites, or perhaps to have different spaces for different tasks (much like we have a bedroom and a kitchen).

Invasive Species – Nature’s Bullies

Deep in a cedar grove, Lucas marveled at the feathery ferns that covered the ground. They were native ferns – native in the sense that this plant species has lived in this ecosystem for thousands of years. These ferns can live sustainably with the other organisms in the forest because they have evolved together.

Native ferns in a cedar grove.  PHOTO: DEBBIE BUEHLER

Native ferns in a cedar grove. PHOTO: DEBBIE BUEHLER

Then our guide pointed to shiny leaved vine that was coming up between the ferns.

“Does anyone know this plant?” She asked.

“It looks different from the ferns.” Ray remarked.

“Yes” the guide continued, “It looks like the ones we saw carpeting the forest floor near the start of Cedar Trail and we’ll see much more in the meadows.”

That’s the problem.

ROUGE PARK

Dog-Strangling Vine. PHOTO: ISAAC CASTILLO

The plant was dog strangling vine (DSV for short). Despite the name DSV does not strangle dogs, but it is monstrous in other ways. It chokes the life out of other plants when it wraps around them, stealing light and space. If you try to control it by pulling up a stem, three more will grow in its place (like the mythological hydra). Worse, its roots produce chemicals that poison the soil so that other plants cannot grow.

Invasive species like DSV are normally weedy plants – survivors that they grow well under challenging conditions – this trait is important in regenerating ecosystems, but it becomes a problem when weedy plants are introduced into areas where they do not occur naturally. With no natural enemies, these plants become bullies. They take over, and because they have not evolved within the ecosystem, they usually give very little back. Consider the relationship between monarch butterflies, milkweed and DSV. Monarch caterpillars are picky eaters, and they have evolved to eat only native milkweed plants. DSV is related to the native milkweeds, but that is not good enough for the caterpillars. When monarchs lay their eggs on DSV plants, the caterpillars die because they don’t have the food they need.

Knowing When To Stop And Let Nature Come To You

DSV is a problem because nothing in its new habitat has evolved ways to stop it. This brings me back to my keener disposition, the mosquitoes and the hoodies.

The kids were overheating in their hoodies and the bugs were still biting any exposed skin. It was time to abort the mission. But I wanted to keep going! Luckily, Isaac and I have lived together long enough for him to know ways to stop me. Our guides been superb at managing a diverse group of hikers, but I had to let them know that the youngest members needed to go.

My frustration lifted as we left the group and walked back along the trail. It was as if nature wanted to prove to me that it is okay to let go – to let nature come to you. Within minutes Ray was pointing at the ground. There amid the grass was a baby chipmunk!

Rouge Park

Young chipmunk hiding in the grass. PHOTO: ISAAC CASTILLO

Chipmunks live in burrows underground and this youngster must have wandered onto the path. Without touching it with our hands, we moved it to the side so it would not be stepped on.

Only a few metres later, a Hairy Woodpecker landed not more than a few meters ahead of us to give a demonstration of how to make the woodpecker holes we’d seen earlier. Overhead, a Northern Cardinal serenaded us as we wandered back through the forest.

* * s*

“What was your favorite part of the hike?”

When I asked the kids this question about our last hike in Rouge Park, Ray melted my heart with his answer.

This time he said, “I liked being the first to see the shiny blue damselfly Mami.”

I recalled the image of the Ebony Jewelwing, iridescent in the sun. I hope that image comes to Ray’s mind again, as he grows up and recalls the adventures we had in our Wild City.

Rouge Park

Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly. PHOTO: STEPHEN R. MIRICK

 

Deborah Buehler is an ecologist, an editor and a writer in Toronto.

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