Foxes and beavers and owls, oh my! Turtles and muskrats and deer, oh my! Mink and coyotes and rabbits, oh my!
It may not be the yellow brick road, but the trail system that winds it way through the 250 acres that make up Etobicoke’s Humber Arboretum has plenty in store for those looking to check out some surprising urban wildlife in the middle of the city.
“We’re located at a really neat sort of intersection between the urban ecosystem and the natural world here,” said Alexandra Link, director of the Humber Arboretum. “We’re at the eastern end of the Carolinian eco-region – the most biodiverse region in Canada.”
To get a sense of the diversity that exists in Etobicoke’s backyard, Link said the area is home to six species of owls (the barred, great horned, eastern screech, long-eared, northern saw-whet, and snowy owl), four different species of turtles (the snapping and painted turtle among them), a veritable herd of white-tailed deer, as well as beaver, muskrat, frogs, groundhog and rabbits.
“And that’s just off the top of my head,” she said, noting that there’s also been some fox and coyote sightings in the Arboretum recently.
Jimmy Vincent, co-ordinator of the Humber Arboretum’s Centre for Urban Ecology, has been a nature interpreter at the arboretum for eight years – and in that time he said he’s had a number of “really cool” encounters with wildlife most people wouldn’t think possible in the city.
From a game of hide and seek between a hawk and a squirrel, to a breakfast buffet with a herd of deer, to the hatching of a litter of baby snapping turtles along the banks of the Humber River, Vincent has seen it all.
“Me personally, I’ve had lots of really cool encounters with coyotes, fox, beaver, deer, owls, mink – you name it, I’ve probably come across it in the last eight years I’ve been here,” he said with a laugh.
“One morning three years ago I came into the centre and I stood inside the building and I could count 28 deer standing around the garden area – and that was only the ones I could see. I guarantee there were another 10 out there at least,” he added, noting that the snow was especially deep that winter, so the deer were drawn to the arboretum’s collection of prized shrubbery. “We joke that that year we must have been like the Mandarin for the deer, because they came up and were, like, ‘Oooh, Italian Cyprus,’ or ‘maybe I’ll have some Japanese Yew.’”
While coyote sightings this time of year become more prevalent – with many reports instilling fear in prospective hikers – Vincent said the only encounters he’s had with coyotes in the arboretum have been peaceful ones. He attributes that to the vast expanse of happy hunting grounds coyotes enjoy here in the Humber Valley.
“The nice thing about the Humber Valley is that because of its size, and because of the tremendous amount of green space within Etobicoke...and its beautiful ravine systems, the coyotes and the fox are actually quite healthy,” he said. “And when you have healthy coyotes, you have happy residents...they much prefer their regular meals of rabbit and squirrel and all that other wonderful stuff.”
Most of Vincent’s favourite sightings, though, have come when he’s been with a group of kids during one of the arboretum’s many camps and school programs.
“When I’m talking to kids, it’s all about getting them to realize that the great thing about nature is that there’s always something cool to see, but you have to able to open your eyes and take in things you might not otherwise see,” he said.
“I’m also a big supporter of you can’t protect what you don’t know. We want all these kids to be environmentally friendly and concerned about the environment, but if they’re not outside seeing what they’re protecting and seeing how amazing the natural world is, then how are they going to be that committed to doing that?”